By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of Mad: How to Deal with Your Anger and Get Respect
It seems like life gets faster and faster the older we get. We need to do more and more just to keep up. There’s always new technology to learn about, loads of schoolwork and homework to help kids with, as well as helping them deal with the pressure of grades, bullying, and even school violence.
As adults we have a hard enough time dealing with stress. We might think that kids have it easy, compared to the stressors we face. But nothing could be further from the truth. We know that for many kids, stress can get the best of them and leads them to find ways to cope, such as by not doing their schoolwork, overeating, burying themselves in TV or video games, or provoking siblings. Others resort to aggression, either to others or themselves. Understanding causes of stress in kids, identifying the warning signs, and providing positive and productive ways for them to cope can go a long way toward helping them function more effectively.
A certain amount of stress can get you going and motivate you to do things. Stress is simply our body’s reaction to a stressor. It’s how we prepare to meet a tough situation with focus, strength, stamina, and heightened alertness. Our nervous systems kick into overdrive, triggering the fight-or-flight response—our heart rate increases, we breathe faster, our blood pressure rises, our metabolism speeds up, our pupils dilate, and we start sweating. Now we’re ready to deal with a true emergency, like slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident or running away from a dangerous situation.
Most of the time, though, we’re not in real physical danger, so our nervous system returns to its normal state. In a more typical stressful situation, like when a child is about to take a test or is up at bat, his body still needs to feel enough stress to remain up to the task. But if his body is in true fight-or-flight mode—or if his stress response overreacts or fails to turn off—chances are he won’t be able to function at all.
Today’s children feel pressure from all areas—family, peers, school, even themselves. In many school districts, the need to take standardized tests adds to the stress of children. High-achieving parents may unwittingly add to their children’s stress level. For example, pushing your child into a sport she’s not interested in or enrolling her in too many activities can leave her feeling stressed and frustrated. Your child may also pick up on your anxieties, if, for instance, she overhears you talking about financial difficulties, work problems, or a relative’s illness. And ongoing or long-term events can result in a constant low-level stress. Your child may feel overwhelmed if she’s coping with your divorce, changing schools, or bullying. When the stress in our lives becomes greater than our individual coping capacity, we can become ill. It’s like a scale that needs to balance. When stress outweighs the coping capacity, people say things like “I’m getting stressed” or “I’m stressed out.”
If your child is suffering from stress overload—and is unable to cope properly both physically and emotionally—you may notice the following signs:
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Irritability and moodiness, including aggressive behavior
- Stomachaches, headaches, or chest pain
- Trouble concentrating or completing schoolwork
- Lying, bullying, or defying authority
- Eczema or asthma
- Sleep problems or nightmares
- Overeating or under-eating
- Smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs
- Sadness or depression
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help kids cope with stress.
- Be available to talk. Take some time out of your week for some one-on-one interaction with your child. Make this part of your routine so your child will know that he can count on you being there. Don’t miss out on an opportunity: even if it’s not the most convenient time for you, if your child opens up to you, drop what you’re doing if possible and listen. You may not get another chance.
- Encourage healthy escapes from the daily grind of school. Show your kids the benefits of taking the dog out for a jog, hiking a trail, or just going out for a walk. Physical activity is known to relieve stress. Creativity will also help relieve stress. Buy your child a journal or diary to write in, or encourage another creative hobby. Deep breathing is also a great way of relieving stress.
- Monitor lifestyle choices. Getting enough sleep is critical for kids and teens, yet most don’t get enough. Providing too much junk food and not enough nutritious food can be an added stress. Seafood such as salmon or omega-3 fatty acid supplements can be helpful to reduce irritability and improve mood.
- Notice your child’s feelings. If your child isn’t good at sharing her feelings, try casually observing. Say something like, “It seems like you’re still frustrated about the outcome of the game.” Rather than sounding accusatory, or asking too many questions, you’re letting your child know you’re interested in hearing more. Show your child that you understand and care by saying something like, “That must have been upsetting.” This can help your child feel more connected to you.
- Provide emotional support. Don’t criticize or belittle your child’s stressful feelings, even if they appear trivial. Remember that kids don’t have the perspective adults do. Some issues—especially those relating to relationships and body image—are extremely important to them. Saying, “You’ll get over it” or “You shouldn’t feel that way” won’t help.
- Provide realistic expectations. While we all want our children to get good grades, realize that if your child struggles with a subject like math or science, a lower grade may be a real achievement for him. Grades aren’t everything. Celebrate your child’s successes and let him know you’re proud of him. Don’t overreact to your child’s failures—help your child see them as opportunities for learning. Also let your child know that feeling stressed is normal.
- Model positive coping skills. If you practice good problem-solving and coping skills—like exercising, laughing, or taking a break to reduce your own stress level—your child will learn from you. Don’t hesitate to share your own experiences, both helpful and not helpful, on dealing with stress. It makes you more human.
- Laugh. Laughter can get rid of stress just as much as exercise and is another healthy escape. Make comic or humorous books available in your home. Allow get-togethers with friends. Rent movies with a comedy theme. You can also teach your kids how to laugh at themselves, using humor to take away the stress from normal human mistakes. Again, parenting by example is best here.
- Be generous with positive feedback. Build your child’s confidence and self-esteem by remembering to praise her when she does something good. Make this a habit by finding something your child did right—every day. Kids are in fact doing good things all the time; it’s just that we, as parents, sometimes need to take the time to notice them. With the basic foundation of confidence and self-esteem that you provide, your child will be better able to handle changes and stress.
- Teach perspective. This is an important part of relieving stress. Taking a situation and looking at it from different points of view and seeing how it relates in the whole scheme of life is a skill your child will need to learn. Kids are better able to reduce their stress load if they are able to let go of the little things. Try asking, “Is there another way you can think about this that might help you feel not-so-bad about it?” Or “Is this really worth getting upset over?”
- Don’t over-schedule. If your child is feeling overwhelmed, make sure he concentrates on the activities that really interest him. And let go of the others. By the teen years, your children should be making these choices, not you.
Develop assertiveness skills. This applies to communicating with others as well as with you. Teach your child to express her feelings politely but firmly. Have her practice saying, “I feel angry when you yell at me,” or “Please stop yelling.”
- Teach positivity. Show your child how to focus on the positive aspects of a situation. Have him try to list the benefits and opportunities created rather than the problems. Even the most unpleasant experiences can lead to positive growth and outcomes. Some kids may benefit from you recording yourself saying positive, relaxing, supportive things. Your child can play back the recording as needed for encouragement, even when you’re not there.
If these strategies don’t seem to help or your child’s behavior is causing significant impairment in academic or social functioning, consider getting professional help. If your child’s behavior changes dramatically or she is having trouble functioning at home or school, ask your doctor to refer you to a mental health specialist.
As difficult as it is to watch our children suffer through their everyday frustrations and stresses, we can’t solve all of their problems for them. Nor should we try. But we can teach them how to calmly manage their stress by focusing on coping skills and problem-solving techniques. Patience is key for both our children and ourselves. As we listen to their concerns, watch for stress overload and support them as they take on their own unique preteen and teen challenges.
What techniques or success stories can you share for helping kids cope with stress?
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. He has authored several books, including What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue; Siblings: You’re Stuck with Each Other, So Stick Together; and What to Do When You’re Scared & Worried. Visit his website at jamescrist.com.
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