- Written by Sharon Carlton
The crying toddler who clings desperately to Mommy's leg at daycare door and the twelve-year-old girl who panics about being a wallflower before her first school dance are both experiencing one of life's most common, yet universally distressing experiences: STRESS.
We can’t prevent our children from experiencing stressful events, nor should we. They need to face difficult situations in order to develop their own strengths and capabilities. However, we can prepare them to cope more effectively by teaching them the tools to manage their emotions and behaviors.
Kids experience a body-mind reaction to stress similarly to adults: increased muscle tension, quickened heart rate and breathing, sweating, light-headed sensations, and irritable, or fearful feelings and worried thoughts. Many may not be able to communicate those experiences to you.
As an observant parent what you may notice are changes in their usual behavior or regression back to earlier habits. A young child might regress to infant behaviors such as biting, may have nightmares or become more withdrawn or sensitive. An older child may react to stress with more whining, complain of head or stomach aches or have trouble sleeping. A stressed-out teen may become more moody, have difficulty with peers, grades may suffer, or they could display more rebellious behavior.
There are numerous ways parents can actively help their children through the trying times of growing up. Being a great listener allows children to express themselves and feel accepted.
Providing firm guidelines for behavior gives children the security of clear expectations. Setting aside special time with your child allows you to express your affection and acceptance. Letting them know that you are always there to fall back on for help and support with problems encourages their independence. The most important help you may provide will be teaching them skills that they can use themselves. The tool kit includes: breathing, muscle relaxation, imagery, visualization, calming thoughts, and problem-solving skills.
- Abdominal, or belly-breathing involves taking air into the lungs, slowly and deeply, attempting to direct the air as low into the belly as possible. When we breathe deeply, we typically force our rib cages up and our shoulders lift with the effort. Belly-breathing keeps the shoulders low and relaxed. Teach this by having the child place his hands on his abdomen, watching them rise with each breath. If practiced regularly, it becomes less awkward’ feeling, and can be used for an extremely quick way to relax
- Muscle relaxation can be done in many ways. Children can learn to progressively tighten, then relax their individual muscles to become more aware of the differences in sensations between tension and relaxation. They can imagine their muscles to be like uncooked spaghetti (tense), then cooked spaghetti (floppy and relaxed).
- Most children have an amazing ability to use imagery. Ask them to imagine themselves in a safe, secure, relaxing place where they feel happy and calm. Encourage them to use all their senses to really be’ in this special place. When a child can imagine himself feeling relaxed and peaceful, his brain registers this experience as if’ it were really happening.
- An important way to cope with an upcoming stressor is to be adequately prepared. It only makes sense that if you study for the test, you can reduce your anxiety. Visualization of successful coping is a wonderful tool to increase your child’s confidence in her abilities to approach a stressful situation. Just like the Olympic figure-skater visualizes landing her triple axle before her performance, your daughter can visualize giving her presentation at school, or talking to the boy she likes in class. Rehearsal in imagination has been found to be almost as effective in learning a skill as actual performance.
- Stressful thoughts cause stressful feelings. Many children don’t even realize that they are talking to themselves in discouraging, anxiety-producing ways. If she is focussed on I'm going to mess up’, her mind will feel worried, and her body will soon become tense. Teach her to be aware of the worry thoughts, and to replace them with encouraging, calming thoughts.
- Children who experience the most difficulty with stress and anxiety often have the most limited problem-solving skills. When they are faced with a stressor, they react with a narrowly defined appraisal of the situation: If this problem exists, it has to be terrible, and I cannot cope’. The most successful kids are those who can think creatively, generate many possible solutions and think outside the box’. We can encourage this capability by allowing our children to come up with their own ideas, rather than telling them how to solve the problem. This strategy can be tough, because it requires us to step back and let our kids flounder, and sometimes fail. If we always bail them out, we cheat them of the opportunity to discover new ways of trying. Problem-solving involves identifying the problem, generating possible solutions, predicting consequences, trying the solution, then re-evaluation.
Perhaps the most important of these steps is the brainstorming of many possible solutions. Creative thinking contributes to greater success, but it also ensures a calm I can cope’ attitude.
All of these tools can be learned, combined and mastered with practice, and will enable most children to manage the discomforts of stress. Sometimes life throws a stressor at a child that is too big to deal with. If stress-management tools such as these don’t seem to have much effect on your child’s distress, consultation with a professional can give your family even more coping resources.
Sharon is a mother of three and a Chartered Psychologist who specializes in counselling children, teens and their families. You can learn more about the ‘tool kit’ and other resources for managing stress and anxiety by calling her at 208-0886.