Stress Busters

by Dana Smith Bader
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I first understood children could experience stress when my eldest daughter was just in second grade.  She was my first born, so her father and I, wanting the very best for our daughter, had enrolled her in a first-rate, academic-focused elementary school that not only got excellent results, but also had children sit for exams as early as first grade.  What did I know?  I thought I was doing the best for her by preparing her for later academic rigors of middle and secondary school.   Unfortunately, it was too much for her.  Every day on the way to school, she would complain of a stomach ache and insisted on stopping to go to the toilet.  Our only choice was an EPPCO on the way to school, and as I waited for her outside of the toilet stall, urging her to finish as quickly as possible so we would not be late for school, I worried about her health, wondering why she had a stomach ache every day.  When I took her to the doctor and insisted on a scan to rule out any horrible malady, I was relieved to learn that nothing physical was wrong with my daughter.  However, I was ashamed to hear that my daughter was probably having a stress reaction due to school pressure.

I had no idea that my daughter could have a stress reaction that could manifest itself in a physical ailment.  However, stress, which is a function of the demands placed on us and our ability to meet them, can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed – even kids.  In pre-schoolers, separation from parents can cause stress and anxiety.  As kids get older, academic and social pressures (especially from trying to fit in) create stress.  According to the American Psychological Association, about 20% of children report worrying a great deal.  Unfortunately, parents greatly underestimate their child’s emotions.  Only 3% of parents rate their child’s stress as extreme, and while 33% of kids experienced headaches in the month prior to study, just 13% of parents thought these headaches were stress-related.

To make matters worse, many kids are too busy to have time to play creatively or relax after school.  Kids who complain about all their activities or who refuse to go to them might be overscheduled.  Therefore, parents should maintain a balance of relaxation and activities for their children that enrich them but also give them time to unwind and destress.

Also, parents need to be aware that kids’ stress may be intensified by more than just what’s happening in their own lives.  Kids who hear their parents talking about troubles at work, worrying about a relative’s illness, or arguing about financial matters can pick up on their parents’ anxieties and start to worry.  Also, world news or major changes in a family situation like divorce can cause stress in children.  Moreover, some things that are not a big deal to adults can cause significant stress for kids. 

So how can we help our children deal with stress in a healthy manner?  Adults have their own tricks for managing stress, but kids have yet to develop the habits and discover the activities that can help reduce their worries.  To put their health and development on the right track, the following tips should help you help your kids to manage stress:

Reframe Stress.  Help your child shift from a “stress hurts” mindset to a “stress helps” mindset.  After all, some level of stress is beneficial and presents opportunities for growth and development.

Shift from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset.  Help your kids look at the situation from a growth mindset perspective.  Let them know that it can be fixed; the situation can be improved and changed.  They have the power and influence to change the situation.

Stop Catastrophic Thinking.  Ask your child what is the worst thing that can happen.  Sometimes letting them imagine the worst case scenario helps them to realize that things are not so bad; they are manageable.

Practice Problem-Solving.  Brainstorm solutions with your child and do more listening than talking.  Think through the positive and negative consequences of each proposed idea and then have your child choose the best solution to their problem.  Try it out and check back with them later to make sure the solution is working for them.

Try Some Stress Management Techniques.  Practice deep breathing, meditation, or stretching with your child.  You can even listen to music, have a long talk, or take a nap together.  Practicing mindfulness is also a good way to refocus and destress.

Kids are not immune to stress, and, as adults, we need to take their stress seriously and not dismiss their worries or concerns.  We need to listen to them, talk out solutions, and find ways for them to destress that are healthy and beneficial to their growth and development.  Most importantly, we need to make time for them and let them know we are always there for love, support, and encouragement.

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