Are You Stressing Out Your Preschooler? Ballet, Swimming, Karate – When Is it Too Much?

It was the mother’s dream for her little girl: the child must take ballet lessons. Add that to preschool. And swimming. And now Daughter, age four, is a very unhappy camper. She doesn’t want to go to preschool, and every morning cries as if her mother were trying to pitch her off the Queen Mary.

It sounds like Daughter’s stress level is more than she can comfortably handle right now. What puts some kids over the top while others seem just fine? We really can’t say, except to watch and listen for their behavioral cues.

What the daughter is doing, her reactions to her activity level, is completely honest. She isn’t being manipulative or immature. She is showing her mother how the stressors in her life (and these do not have to be negative stressors) are impacting her.

Stress creates hormones in the body. One is called cortisol. When the cortisol level is too high, a person’s arousal level is heightened and they can’t function normally. It impedes the ability to think, learn, have relationships, and regulate emotions. This is what science would be saying is going on with a child who is stressed beyond her ability to cope. At the extreme, children act out with aggression, or dissociation –especially girls; they punch out (she isn’t listening to you). They reach the point of fight-or-flight. (You can read about the effect of stress on children in the work of Dr. Bruce Perry.)

I’m the mom of four grown kids. They grew up physically active and developed various passions in life – including ballet. But at the age of 4, they were at home doing what a lot of parents today see as unimportant – and that is playing, getting dirty, making hide-outs and forts, having tea parties with their dolls and hanging out with mom.

According to Maria Montessori, Dr. Thomas Gordon, Joseph Chilton Pearce and other great thinkers on the subject, imaginative play is the foundation for creativity and abstract thought. When children are hurried into academics, organized activities, and schedules, it can short -circuit their daily need for the important work that is the domain of early childhood. Interruptions from the world of imaginative play can be extremely frustrating because it interferes with the child’s natural development. (Montessori, The Child in the Family)

I think that when parents listen to their children’s cues, it is not a sign of giving in to the child, or the child trying to manipulate the adults. When we follow our children’s cues, which in most cases will be loud and clear, we are establishing a bond of trust that will allow them to trust us completely. Our children will know that we are meeting their needs and be able to relax. Their natural talents, interests and abilities will then blossom and unfold in their own time.

Abiding by a child’s cues certainly does not mean that either parent or child is a failure. To the contrary, it means you, as a parent are honoring her particular developmental needs; and her, as a unique human being.

As an infant massage instructor, I teach moms to listen to and watch for their babies’ cues as an indication of their state of being. We ask permission before starting the massage. Even the most enthusiastic mom can’t do anything with a crying baby. Like symptoms of an illness – fever, runny nose, etc. – the child’s misbehavior and acting out is a sign of disequalibrium and lack of emotional well-being.

We have to believe in our children’s natural inclinations. They will tell us when they are ready for more, and if it is too much for them. What they want most is our acceptance for their feelings. Our empathy that tells them they are valued for who they are right now, not just for who we expect them to be.

Using eye contact, gentle touch, and focused attention (Dr. Ross Campbell, How to Really Love Your Child), I would let my little one know that I respect her wishes. As disappointed as I might be that her enthusiasm did not match my own for various activities, including preschool — at this very moment, anyway — I would let her decide the pace. What may not work one year may work beautifully the next.

All children develop the capacity to handle stress at different rates, and separation from parents can be very stressful for some. As children become preschoolers, their need for attachment can still be very strong.

It is embarrassing when a child has a meltdown at the preschool door. But isn’t it worse to have a child who feels she doesn’t have a voice?

Read Lauren Lindsey Porter’s article, “The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love,” at
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