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.
One thing is certain: Stress is part of life and each child handles stress differently. The critical four parenting questions are:
How does my child handle stress?
What could be triggering the stress?
What can I do to reduce unhealthy stress?
And 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: the stress at home! It may be time to take a Home Climate Stress Check. Here are just a few things to consider:
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?
Are you watching your family’s diet intake for things that could increase stress?
Are there times you’re modeling how to let down and cool off to your kids?
Are you checking your kids’ (and your) stress loads?
Are you making sure sleep is on everyone’s agenda?
Are you taking time to talk to your kids about their day and their worries?
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. Make sure your home is a place where your kids can de-stress. Build in times where you and your kids can relax.
STRESS BUSTER STEP 2: Know Your Child’s Stress Signs
Each kid responds differently, but the key is to identify your child’s physical, behavioral or emotional signs before he is on overload. A clue is to look for behaviors that are not typical for your child. Here are common stress signs to look for in your child:
Physical 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 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.
STRESS BUSTER STEP 3: Teach Family Members 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.
Melt the 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 himself 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.
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.”
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.
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 and imagine that spot, while breathing slowly.
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.
Find a relaxer: 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. 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.
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.
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