Preschool Stress (Tips for helping your child cope)

Preschoolers are in the business of having fun.  They run, jump, draw, play, and approach life with a level of energy that their parents haven’t felt in years.  They smile and laugh a lot.  They find worms fascinating and laugh at jokes that we can’t quite decipher.  Their days are filled with learning, love, and laughter.  Most of the time.

We don’t typically evaluate our preschoolers in terms of their stress level, but stress is a very real part of the life of the preschooler.  People love to say things like, “kids are resilient”.  To some degree, this is accurate.  They can cope with everyday stressors such as learning to write, playground squabbles, sibling rivalry, etc. with little intervention, but the larger stressors can cause behavioral changes and exhaustion.  Due to the up and down nature of a typical day in the life of a preschooler, it can be hard to know when significant stress is a factor.

It’s helpful to be aware of some of the typical signs and triggers of stress in preschoolers.

Signs of stress:

Clinging behavior

Poor sleep/restlessness

Resisting playtime

Child appears less outgoing

Child appears withdrawn

Fewer smiles

Regressed behavior (potty training pitfalls, baby talk, etc)

Hitting, biting, and other aggressive behavior (that is not typical)

Frequent crying


Triggers of stress:

Change in routine (summer is coming!)

New baby

New teacher

New babysitter

Separation from a loved one/caregiver

New bed/bedroom/home

Too many activities (kids get tired too!)


Loss of a pet

Gives up a favorite blanket/toy/pacifier

All kids manifest symptoms of stress in different ways.  Liam cries a lot and likes to stick close to home while Riley has trouble sleeping and clings to me every second of the day.  Two weeks into a 5-week trip for Sean, and we are just emerging from the haze of “stress” and returning to some version of normal.  It’s hard on kids.  Below are some tips to help you help your kids cope with stress:

1. Focus on family: This sounds like an easy one, I know, but it can be hard when families are under stress.  Kids feel emotional closeness when parents get down on their level and play, engage, and ask about their day. Make family play time an opportunity to ask your child how he is feeling and what you can do to help.  Play board games with older preschoolers and choose family art projects with younger ones.

2. Increase structure: Kids feel safe when they know what to expect and can plan ahead.  Structure your days so that they always know what to expect. Taking the guesswork out of their days means a few less worries.  Many kids also like to help with chores and respond well to responsibility charts and incentive charts. Liam and Riley love to earn magnets for helping with putting away their toys and clearing their plates without being asked.

3. Story time: Preschoolers love to read!  I often catch Riley reading to Liam when I’m in laundry mode and they just can’t wait one more minute.  Sitting together and reading stories provides emotional comfort to your kids while focusing on togetherness. Don’t worry yourself about reading books focused on stress and coping, just sit together and read.  Talk about the characters and what’s happening in the story.  Relate it to your own lives.  Have a nice, quiet family time.

4. Draw feelings faces: I recently joked to Sean that Riley has officially graduated from mommy’s therapy after she approached me with a drawing of a sad face and said, “this is how I feel when you pay too much attention to Liam”.  Helping kids to draw their feelings gives them a much-needed release for those feelings that have probably been brewing for quite some time. It gives them a positive way to cope with their stress, and provides an opportunity to discuss the triggers.  Do it regularly and you, too, might have the feelings pictures delivered directly to your hands!

Riley's feelings face

5. Color your feelings: Another great teaching tool when it comes to coping with stress is having kids color their feelings.  Have them pick colors to represent different feelings (sad, happy, mad, lonely, etc) and have them fill up the page with as much of each color as they feel that day. This provides another opportunity to discuss the causes of stress and how to add more “happy colors” to the day.

6. Relaxing exercise: We all know that regular exercise reduces stress.  Choose activities that you can do together while getting some exercise.  A treasure hunt through the park to find leaves, acorns, and pine cones can provide exercise and fun.  I can’t say enough good things about Playful Planet’s Storyland Yoga for kids.  Riley and I do this together and enjoy it each time.

7. Mixed up days: We love pajama parties in this house.  Sometimes putting on our favorite pj’s before heading out to play and making breakfast for dinner can add just enough silliness to our day to relieve some stress.  We’ve also tried “color days” (we recently wore yellow together) and “fancy days” (led by Riley, of course).  Letting your kids make these choices for you once in a while gives them some extra self-confidence and keeps everybody smiling.

8. Focus on sleep: A well-slept child (or adult) is a less stressed child (or adult).  Develop a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it. Make bath time a little longer, decrease nighttime TV, and read a few books.  Tell a relaxing story as your child drifts off to sleep.  Always leave the room on a positive.

Children experience stress for a variety of reasons.  A little extra TLC and a lot of empathy can go a long way toward helping your child cope with stress.  And keeping your own stress in check is the best way for you to remain calm and healthy when your children need you the most.

How do you help your child cope with stress?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)