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Feature

A stressed out child with a book.

If your child seems stressed, find time to give him or her your undivided attention.

Sending out an SOS

Reading your child's stress signals

By Deane Morrison

From M winter 2007

Stress in children concerns Megan Gunnar, a new Regents Professor and internationally recognized expert in the University's Institute of Child Development. Not all stress is bad for children, she reassures, but helping them navigate the tumultuous early years of life takes effort. It's worth it, though; children with strong parental support end up more curious and willing to take risks. Despite their individual personalities, all children find certain things threatening. Topping the list is separation from parents or the equivalent. A related source of stress is being in a bad situation, such as being bullied and having no one to help out. Another source common in preschool settings is the challenge of negotiating play with lots of other kids. To spot stress, look for signs of uncharacteristic crabbiness and irritability, changes in mood, withdrawal, or loss of interest in things that used to interest your child. Very young children can't express what's bothering them, but look around. "Are you and your spouse arguing? Are you stressed? Kids are exquisite readers of emotions," says Gunnar. If your child seems stressed, find time to give him or her your undivided attention and keep the lines of communication open all the time so you're able to talk easily at a time of crisis. Being aware of the causes of stress and your child's stress level "doesn't necessarily mean you do something," explains Gunnar. "Watch, listen, but don't [automatically] interrogate your child. It's a delicate balance."