Stress and Children’s Behaviour

by John Hoffman

Why do kids behave badly? Because they don’t know any better? Because their parents don’t set limits? Because some kids are born with a bit of devil in them?

I’ve got another reason for you. Stress.

I won’t claim that stress is always the cause of children’s misbehaviour. But it’s a bigger cause than many people think.  Think about your behaviour when you’re stressed out. If you’re anything like me you’re probably less patient, more cranky and you’re judgment isn’t as good.

Now apply that to a young child whose inner system for dealing with stress is not fully developed. It’s a recipe for “bad” behaviour and meltdowns. Mind you I don’t consider tantrums (meltdowns) to be “bad” behaviour. Tantrums are usually a stress response.

Dealing with stress burns up our energy – thinking energy, emotional energy, even physical energy. When children have to burn their energy coping with stress, they don’t have much energy left over to help them control their behaviour, deal with disappointments, wait their turn or even listen to Dad’s wise words of discipline.

Let me clarify what I mean by stress. We often think of stress as a response to a threat or very tough situation. Running away from an attacker. Getting fired from your job. Working hard to meet a tight deadline. Going through a divorce or the death of a loved one. Poverty.

Yes, those are all major stressors. But smaller, everyday experiences and situations can be stressful too, especially for kids. I’m talking about things like having to wait, being teased by your older brother, or having to go into a room full of people you don’t know. Two classic stressors for children are being tired and hungry. Matt Horseman*, a father of four, understands this . That’s why he and his wife always take food with them when they take their kids out. “We always pack granola bars when we go out as a family,” he says. “Sometimes one of the kids will be freaking out and if we can get a bit of food into them, they calm down a bit and they’re much better able to deal with whatever is bothering them.” Exactly. I saw this happen numerous times with my own kids when they were young.

Sometimes, Horseman’s oldest son, Jacob*, who has always been more emotionally reactive than his siblings, comes home from a sleepover just exhausted. If you have kids at the sleepover stage (perhaps “wakeover” is more accurate) you’ll know what Matt’s talking about. Anyway, when Jacob is that tired, well, he’s basically a mess. He’s cranky and snappy with his siblings and parents and all the teeny tiny stresses of normal family life become magnified. “If I can’t get Jacob to take a nap, I try to get him to take a break – like go up to his room and play with Lego for awhile,” says Horseman.

That’s not a punishment. That’s helping Jacob with his stress in two ways. It gets him away from all the little hassles that he’s not handling very well at the moment. Number two, playing quietly by himself gives Jacob some down time in an undemanding situation. That allows him to build his energy build back up so he can face the world again.  A key point here is that Jacob needs his dad’s (or mom’s) help with this. He hasn’t yet learned to recognize when he’s stressed out or low on energy and what he can do to reduce his stress and get his energy back. But with the kind of help his Dad is providing, he will learn eventually.

Like I said, stress is not the only cause of chidren’s misbehaviour. But, the next time you’re dealing with a “situation,” before you reach into your bag of discipline tricks try to tune into your child’s stress and help him or her deal with it.  If you deal with the stress first, your discipline will work better.

I’m not saying you should help your child avoid all possible stressors. No parent can do that. Besides, stress is part of life and kids need to experience some in order to learn how to manage it. Some kind of stress are actually good for us.

However, if you can get good at figuring out when your children are stressed and, then reducing the stress or helping them cope, you won’t have to do as much discipline. That’s because unstressed children have more energy to control themselves be patient, listen and do all the other positive things we’d like to see them too.

(*name changed to respect the privacy of his son)

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