Some of the signs of stress in children are:
Decreased appetite or changes in eating habits
New or repetitive bedwetting
Upset stomach or gastrointestinal pain
Mood swings or acting out
New anxious habits such as thumb-sucking, nose-picking, or hair-twirling
Drastic changes in academic performance
Bullying or defying authority
It’s important to recognize the signs of toxic stress in children so it can be managed in a healthy and productive way, such as play therapy, spending quality time together as a family, or simply giving children the time and space they need to play in their own way.
Long-term stress, or toxic stress, can affect both behavior and physical health. When a situation is perceived as challenging or scary, the body responds with chemical reactions that affect heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. If these adjustments are temporary, they help us adapt or survive. However, if the stress response happens too frequently or lasts too long, it can lead to lifelong chronic disease. As children’s bodies and minds are still growing, high levels of stress early on have been linked to impaired behavioral, emotional, and physical development and well-being.
Play and play therapy help children cope with stress by giving them a safe outlet to experience and work through complicated, overwhelming emotions. Play can help children express feelings that they may not fully understand. This infographic provides 29 reasons why play is so important during times of crisis, stress, and change. During life-altering crises like the pandemic coronavirus, children and adults can find a sense of sanctuary and normalcy by playing, laughing, and staying active.
“Children at play are insulated from the alarming world around them. Play is a sanctuary of safety.” — Dr. Gordon Neufeld
“Play is children’s language. They act out pretend scenarios as a way to express concerns, ask questions, and, crucially, reshape a narrative. In a pretend scenario, children are driving the plot and can change the outcome of a scary situation or try out different solutions to a problem.” — Kate Cray
“Play is critical for stress relief, as it allows kids to create fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations.” — Melinda Wenner
“During times of crisis, play has a significant therapeutic role helping children recover a sense of normality and joy.” — International Play Association
“As children and adults get absorbed in the fun of playing, their spirits rise, their happy-meter goes up, and they experience an exhilaration that positively impacts both physical and emotional health.” — Chicago Children’s Museum
Sharing laughter and fun fosters empathy, trust, compassion, and intimacy with others. Taking time to reconnect with family and loved ones can make the world feel more safe even when times are uncertain.
Recent research supports that laughter is a powerful, easy way to boost mood and emotional well-being. It stimulates organs with oxygen and eases stress hormone levels.
“Playing gives children a taste of being in control, of having some agency in their everyday lives. Playing gives them space and time to reconcile themselves to — and make sense of — an uncertain world.” — Tim Gill and Penny Wilson
“Play is how we are made, how we develop and adjust to change.” — Stuart Brown, M.D.
For all ages, playing and having fun can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. This promotes an overall sense of well-being and peace.
Studies show that a decline in free play and pretend play correlates with a decline in empathy. Play helps children develop patience and understanding, connecting them with the humanity in others.
Play often involves movement. Being active can help boost the immune system! However, it is important to build up intensity because overdoing it can suppress immune function.
Completing puzzles and other brain-engaging games can help prevent memory problems and keep your mind occupied in a healthy way.
“Play is an important part of emotional development. It’s associated with emotional resilience, high self-confidence, and reduced anxiety and has been shown to relieve emotional distress around trauma.” — Kimmie Fink
Being active relieves tension, quiets restless thoughts, creates a sense of focus and achievement, and improves sleep.
“Nature is often overlooked as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life.” — Richard Louv
“Play is training for the unexpected.” — Marc Bekoff
“As children absorb scary and confusing news, many turn to play seeking understanding and respite.” — Kate Cray
Chronic stress is toxic, especially to developing brains. Outdoor play provides several remedies; being immersed in nature is scientifically proven to alleviate stress, and playtime encourages a healthy release of bottled-up emotions.
“It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” — Stuart Brown, M.D.
Play outside (safely and responsibly)! A study by Mind found that 95% of interview participants stated that their mood improved after spending time in nature.
“Playing has a significant therapeutic and rehabilitative role in helping children recover a sense of normality and joy after their experience of loss, dislocation, and trauma.” — International Play Association
“If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow.” — Alfie Kohn
“Your physical experience will always influence your emotional experience, and exercise is the magical elixir of life.” — Gretchen Rubin
“It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens up new possibilities.” — Stuart Brown
“A moving child is a learning child.” — Gill Gonnell and Cheryl McCarthy
“Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. Without it, life just doesn’t taste good.” — Lucia Capacchione
“To play is to lose yourself. To play is also to find yourself. To play is to connect, too. To play is to reach out. And to reach out is to reach for resilience. And to reach out for resilience is to find the strength of understanding that we’re all in this together.” — Scott G. Eberle Ph.D.
“All children need time and space for free play every day, now possibly more than ever.” — Helen Dodd and Tim Gill
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