Stress is everywhere and affects everyone. Children are no exception. But unlike adults, kids are rarely mature enough to explain that they’re feeling anxious or figure out how to deal with it. And parents might have trouble recognizing when their child is having anxiety.
Anxiety—another way of saying “stress” —can show up in several ways: frequent headaches or stomachaches, difficulty sleeping, moodiness or trouble paying attention. Helping your children learn how to manage stress early on will help them throughout their entire life.
Start by telling your child what certain signs of anxiety feel like. Knowing what they’re experiencing can help alleviate some of their fears. Ask your child what his nerves look and feel like. Does it feel like caterpillars playing in his tummy? Does he clench his muscles? Throw up? Bite his nails?
Most likely it’s anxiety, and, unfortunately it’s contagious: Children are affected by parents who worry about finances, job security or relationship pressures. Teachers see their students struggle with not only anxiety but anger and sadness when their parents are worried.
But children can easily be taught how to cope. Every one of us has a toolbox filled with positive ways of dealing with pressure. The more we take out those tools and use them when needed, the more we automatically put them into practice.
I have been a guest speaker at preschools and elementary schools for several years teaching kids what I pass on to my adult patients in the hospital: what to put in their toolbox and how to use those strategies.
Here are some of my suggestions:
- Talk with a parent or friend. When we talk about what happens in our life, we are able to identify our emotions and reactions to them. It’s also a great way to set free those bottled-up feelings. Give your kids a chance to talk about what’s on their mind. There is power in the connection to others and knowing we are not alone in our struggles. A girlfriend of mine has a son who would rather text her about what goes on in his life than talk face to face. Some kids feel more comfortable confiding in Mom in the car while she runs errands. Opening those lines of communication in any fashion is an opportunity.
- Have them run around outside. According to one Harvard Health Publications topic (health.harvard.edu), exercise reduces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and stimulates the production of endorphins that put us in a good mood. For those with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression who don’t respond well to talk therapy, exercise programs can decrease anxiety. Exercise is also great for our physical health. Set a good example and get the wiggles out together with an impromptu game of tag or ball. Too ambitious? Hold hands and take a nightly evening walk.
- Offer healthy foods. Don’t expect cheap gas to give good gas mileage. Avoid caffeine and foods high in fat and calories, which can cause jitters or lethargy. Eating foods in their natural state, or minimally processed, is the fuel kids’ bodies need to grow, keep fit and combat stress. Start small with something simple like ants on a log (celery sticks with peanut butter topped with raisins) or apples dipped in Greek yogurt for a snack. Better foods can help alleviate stomachaches in youngsters. Eating meals together allows each member of the family to reflect on their day.
- A good night’s sleep. Lack of enough sleep or quality sleep puts the body and mind at a disadvantage. It creates grumpy, tired children who aren’t able to adequately process their feelings. The Sleep Foundation recommends toddlers get 12 to 14 hours of sleep a night, preschoolers 11 to 13 hours, and school-age kids 10 to 11 hours. Preteens and teenagers should strive for 10 to 11 and 8 to 9½ hours regularly. Avoid or limit social media, especially in the late evening. Establish a regular routine and a schedule for lights out. Quiet time before bed gives our brains and bodies the signal they need to settle down to have restorative sleep.
- Listen to music, draw, or play with friends. The hobbies we enjoy make us happier. Distraction techniques are a great way to get our mind off our problems and offer time for our emotions to calm down. I like to escape in a good book, while my niece prefers to color. I once read that actor Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper on TV’s The Big Bang Theory, used to come home from school every day and play the piano for an hour before anyone could talk to him. These positive coping skills are great tools for any age.
- Take a deep breath. Finding a quiet place to regroup is often helpful to little ones who are overwhelmed by too much stimulation. Taking a deep breath, slowly through the nose and blowing it out, triggers a relaxation response. Getting more oxygen to the brain with deep breaths helps us think more clearly, reduces the heart rate and aids in digestion. A friend I know has a daughter who would get awful headaches that would lead to vomiting when she was stressed at school. Reducing the noise and action by going somewhere quieter helped her calm down.
Help your child fill her toolbox so that she’ll have coping strategies when stress becomes unbearable. She might settle on one or two that usually do the trick for everyday situations.
For specific anxiety-provoking events, Stephanie Gilbert, a school psychologist in the Heuvelton Central School District in St. Lawrence County, suggests supporting your child by together coming up with strategies tailored to those challenges.
Teach study skills to prepare for a big test, anger management for interaction during a sports game, or social skills to implement when an oral report is coming up. Some kids, especially those with a diagnosed disorder such as autism, may have idiosyncratic needs and specific ways to self-soothe. Individualize what works best for them in the same way.
Sometimes talking with a licensed counselor is helpful. If you need help filling your child’s toolbox, consider contacting your child’s school counselor or psychologist for more suggestions.