Parenting advice to help kids and teens learn healthy ways to handle stress
Think stress is just for adults? Not these days. Stress builds and there goes those happy family memories.
REALITY CHECK: Research finds that between 8 and 10 percent of American children and teens are seriously troubled by stress and symptoms. And stress is also hitting our children at younger ages. If left untreated stress not only affects children’s friendships as well as school success, but also their physical and emotional well-being.
Chronic stress symptoms break down children’s immune system as well as increasing their likelihood for depression. And the holidays just seem to bring it on! One thing is certain: Stress is part of life and each child handles stress differently. Here are four critical parenting questions to help you assess how well you and your family are doing:
Parenting QN 1. How does my child typically handle stress?
Parenting QN 2. What could be triggering the added stress?
Parenting QN 3. What can I do to reduce unhealthy stress?
Parenting QN 4. Does my child know healthy ways to reduce the stress?
Here are three steps to reduce kid stress and solutions to help children and teens cope with stress.
STRESS BUSTER STEP 1. Defuse Home Stress
One recent study found that 85% of teens say they are stressed—and the number one cause: stress at home! It may be time to take a Home Climate Stress Check. Here are just a few things to consider:
The Home Climate Stress Check
1. How is the everyday climate in your home? Does it increase your kid’s stress level or help him relax? Are there opportunities for your family to relax?
2. Are you watching your family’s diet intake for things that could increase stress?
3. Are there times you’re modeling how to let down and cool off to your kids?
4. Are you checking your kids’ (and yours) stress loads?
5. Are you making sure sleep is on everyone’s agenda?.
6. Are you taking time to talk to your kids about their day and their worries?
7. Are you checking your kids’ work load? Can they keep up?
Watch out! Stress is mounting and is impacting our children’s emotional health. Competition, after school activities, a lack of sleep, a crunched schedule, peer pressure, tests, and bullying are just a few things that boost our kids unhealthy stress levels.
Kids also say that they are catching our stress. Be sure to take care of yourself so you don’t pass your worries down to your kids. Make sure your home is a place where your kids can de-stress. And build in times where you and your kids can relax.
STRESS BUSTER STEP 2: Know Your Kid’s Stress Signs
Each kid responds differently to stress, but the key is to identify your child’s physical behavioral or emotions signs before he is on overload. A clue is to look for behaviors that are not typical for your child. (Don’t assume your child knows his or her stress signs!) Here are common stress signs to look for in your child:
Physical Kid Stress Signs: Headache, neck aches and backaches, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, stomachache, vomiting, shaky hands, sweaty palms, feeling shaky, lightheadedness, bedwetting, trouble sleeping, nightmares, change in appetite, stuttering, frequent colds, fatigue
Emotional or Behavior Kid Stress Signs: New or reoccurring fears; anxiety and worries; trouble concentrating; frequent daydreaming, restlessness or irritability; social withdrawal, unwilling to participate in school or family activities; moodiness; sulking; or inability to control emotions, nail biting; hair twirling; thumb-sucking; fist clenching; feet tapping; acting out, anger, aggressive behaviors such as tantrums, disorderly conduct; regression or baby-like behaviors; excessive whining or crying; clinging, more dependent, won’t let you out of sight; withdrawal
Once you know your child’s signs, start to tune in closer when those signs show up. What’s triggering them? Are you seeing a pattern? For instance:
It’s the day of the spelling test and your child is always moodier that day.
It’s Tuesday and it’s time to go to the babysitter when you notice your child is angrier than usual.
It’s homework time and your child is reviewing her math assignments when you see that temper tantrum begin.
Chances are your child is not stressed all the time – but certain times. Track it on a calendar. You may begin to see a pattern that you’ve missed.
Next, figure out what is the cause of the stress. It will help your child recognize why he is so upset – and can apply a certain stress buster (step 3) and you know that maybe your teen is in a math class that is too accelerated and needs a tutor or a different teacher. Look for a pattern in your child’s behavior!
STRESS BUSTER STEP 3. Teach Your Child How to Handle Stress
This last step is crucial but often overlooked: Make sure you teach your child a specific way to reduce stress. Without knowing how to cut the stress, it will only mount. Here are a few strategies. Choose the one that works best for you and your family. Then practice, practice, practice until it becomes a habit, and your child can use the stress reducer without you.
1. Melt your body tension
Tell your child to make his body feel stiff and straight like a wooden soldier. Every bone from his head to toe is “tense” (or “stressed”). Now tell him to make his body limp (or “relaxed”) like a rag doll or windsock. Once he realizes he can make relax, he can find the spot in his body where he feels the most tension; perhaps his neck, shoulder muscles, or jaw. He then closes his eyes, concentrates on the spot, tensing it up for three or four seconds, and then lets it go. While doing so, tell him to imagine the stress slowly melting away from the top of his head and out his toes until he feels relaxed or calmer.
Try yoga! Many teens swear that practicing deep breathing in yoga really helps to keep stress at bay.
2. Use a positive phrase
Teach your child to say a comment inside her head to help her handle stress. Here are a few: “Calm down.” “I can do this.” “Stay calm and breathe slowly.” “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
3. Teach elevator breathing
Tell your child to close his eyes, slowly breath out three times, then imagine he’s in an elevator on the top of a very tall building. He presses the button for the first floor and watches the buttons for each level slowly light up as the elevator goes down. As the elevator descends, his stress fades away.
4. Visualize a calm place
Ask your child to think of an actual place he’s been to where he feels peaceful. For instance: the beach, his bed, grandpa’s backyard, a tree house. When stress kicks in, tell him to close his eyes, imagine that spot, while breathing slowly.
5. “Blow your worries away”
An instant way to relax is taking a slow deep breath from your diaphragm that gets oxygen to your brain. A quick way to teach the skill is to tell her to pretend she’s blowing up a balloon in her tummy (as you count “one, two, three” slowly). Then she lets the air out with an exaggerated “Ah-h-h-h” sound (like when the doctor looks in her throat).
Explain that taking slow breaths from deep in your tummy will help blow her worries away and then encourage her to practice taking slow, steady breaths by blowing soap bubbles or using a pinwheel.
6. Find a relaxer that works for your child
Every child is different, so find what helps your kid relax, and then encourage him to use it on a regular basis.
Some kids respond to drawing pictures or writing about their stress in a journal helps.
Some kids say listening to the same soothing music on their MP3 player or downloaded into their cell phone works to reduce stress.
Other kids say imagining what “relaxing” or “calm” feels like helps. (Show him how to make his body feel like a slowly moving fluffy white cloud or a rag doll). Or allocate a cozy place in your home where your kid can chill out when he needs to ease the tension.
Other kids say exercise, walking, biking, running, or shooting baskets helps to work off stress.
The trick is to find the strategy that works best for your child or teen. Then help him or her turn that stress reducer into a habit. Better yet, do the strategy as a family. Together you can reduce that stress!
All kids will display signs of stress every now and then. Be concerned when you see a marked change in what is “normal” for your child’s behavior that lasts longer than two weeks. When you see your child struggling and feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.
And don’t wait: Stressed-out kids are two to four times more likely to develop depression, and as teens they are much more likely to become involved with substance abuse.
Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert
For more parenting advice follow me on twitter at Michele Borba or on my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’s Reality Check. My upcoming TODAY show segments or media appearances are listed on my homepage, Michele Borba. For specific parenting advice refer to my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries or my other 22 publications.