How much stress could a 4-year-old possibly be under, you ask? Well, she may not be worrying about the mortgage, the mother-in-law visit, or how she’s going to get that presentation done before 7 a.m. without pulling an all-nighter. But if you are worrying about those things, she may feel it.

On top of that, learning to tie shoes, write letters correctly, and share favorite toys can translate into frustration and anxiety. While adults stress about grown-up things, it seems that children stress about kid things as well as the grown-up things, because they sense our strain. So although they’re little, they might well be more harried than you.

How can you help your pint-sized bundle? First, you need to snip through your child’s confusing web of emotional vagueness to see if he is indeed experiencing or having trouble coping with stress. According to Jacqueline Golding, Ph.D. and author of Healing Stories: Picture Books for the Big and Small Changes in a Child’s Life, here are some signs that your preschooler is stressed out:

Your child:

  • Shows increased irritability
  • Regresses to earlier developmental phases. (i.e., a potty-trained child may begin having accidents)
  • Frequently has nightmares or distressing dreams
  • Withdraws from other children or adults with whom he is usually comfortable
  • Displays more noticeable mood swings
  • Shows a persistent decrease in appetite, or conversely, craves fatty or sweet "comfort" foods
  • Complains of stomachaches when there is no medical explanation
  • Shows a lack of interest in activities once viewed as fun

Recognize a few of those symptoms in your child but unsure what to do about it? First and foremost, remind your child what it means to be a kid. Limit the amount of scheduled time in their day. Let them run around the yard and dig in the dirt. Play impromptu tag in the living room. Set up a last minute picnic. Sure, enrichment is good, but they don’t necessarily need swim lessons, soccer, and music class, all crammed into one week. Provide time for relaxed, unstructured play. Once you've got your free-and-easy down, here are a few other suggestions that may help to  reduce their angst:

  • Limit your child’s exposure to scary materials that may be beyond their developmentally appropriate capability to process. Even if your son appeared un-phased while watching the Abominable Snow Monster in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he could be silently worrying about it.
  • Encourage your child to express her thoughts and feelings when something stressful has happened. Let her know you will listen and can handle anything she may need to tell you. When she does unburden herself, try approaching the problem in a child-friendly way – ask her to draw pictures about it, engage in make-believe play, or read a relevant story with you that you can discuss.
  • Help your child develop his emotional vocabulary. Acknowledging his feelings helps him attach words to his emotions and make sense of his experiences. You may have to help him name his feelings. For example, “I can see that you are angry.”

One of the most important things you can do, says Golding, is “remember to look at children’s experiences from a child’s-eye point of view. Events that seem trivial to adults may have real meaning for children.”

Just as it is for adults, stress is worse for children when it’s bottled up inside. Teach your child to express his emotions and make sure he knows that it really is okay to do so, and he’ll have a valuable coping tool for future pressure-cooker situations. Because as much as you’d love to absorb any and all stress for your child, he will inevitably experience it. The better equipped he is to handle it, the more likely he will be able to move past the curve balls that life throws him.