Preschoolers: Help Them Adjust to the Big World
At this age, your child's active imagination is likely to trigger new kinds of stress. "Her magical thinking may transform a shadow into a scary monster or a curtain into a ghost," says Dr. Chansky. Though these fears may seem irrational to adults, they are very real to kids. Some signals that stress is a problem for your child: She begins to backslide in her potty training, regresses to babyish behavior like sucking her thumb, and acts up by breaking the rules. Preschoolers are also more likely than younger kids to complain of headaches and tummy aches.
To calm your child down, make it clear you take her worries seriously, and use her anxiety to teach her about the world. "If your child is afraid of storms, go to the window and explain how to count the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder," says Dr. Chansky. "That helps a child feel in control."
Also, minimize exposure to upsetting TV programs such as news shows. "Preschoolers are old enough to be frightened by scary scenes; plus, they think it's happening right outside their door," says Nancy Ryan-Wenger, PhD, professor of nursing at Ohio State University College of Nursing.
It's always important to talk to your child about what she's feeling, what worries her, and how you can help. "She may forget exactly what you tell her, but she'll get the message that you care and that's what's important," says Dr. Chansky. To ease transitions that you know are on the way -- starting preschool, your upcoming business trip -- you might count down the days on a calendar that you decorate with pictures showing what will happen.
The good news: At every age, giving your child support is a great stress antidote. "Meet your child's basic emotional needs and he'll reach school age with a good sense of himself and an ability to handle stress, which will make him resilient throughout life," says Dr. Essex. "Basically, being sensitive and responsive to your child's needs prevents much of the damaging effects of stress."