Child Development 101: How to Help Infants and Toddlers Cope With Stress
September 15, 2014
|By Marian Williams, clinical psychologist and lead of the Early Childhood Mental Health Program at Children’s Hospital Los AngelesEighteen-month-old “Karla” was playing on the slide at the park in her neighborhood, her mother sitting on a nearby bench chatting with her friend. A loud screech was followed by a crash and the sound of car alarms going off. In a flash, Karla was swept into her mother’s arms and both were shaking as they saw people running and heard sirens coming toward the scene of a car crash in the street next to the park.”Hailey,” age 11 months, had just learned to say “da da” when her father had to leave town for three months to work on a job out of town. Hailey was very attached to her father, who was always the one to tuck her in for bed and make her favorite oatmeal with bananas for breakfast. She keeps looking for him, jumps up whenever she hears someone at the door, and she cries when it is time for bed.
How Stress Impacts Young Children and Babies
Infants and toddlers face stressful events in their everyday lives, just as adults do. Many people think that children younger than 3 years won’t be as impacted by stress because they “won’t remember” or don’t understand what is happening. However, we now know from research on brain development and toxic stress that even tiny babies are impacted by stress. Even if they can’t put words to their distress, they are impacted by feeling their heart racing, the sight of their mother’s tears, or scary sounds of community violence.
The good news is that while you may not always be able to shield your child from stressful events, your relationship with your child is the buffer that protects from their effects.
Help Your Child Overcome Their Stress
As a clinical psychologist and lead of the Early Childhood Mental Health Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, my team and I provide therapy to about 400 infants, toddlers and preschoolers and their families each year, many of whom have been impacted by traumatic or stressful events. Here are some strategies you can use to help buffer your young child from the toxic effects of stress: