It might seem like childhood is a breeze (they don’t have to worry about the big things in life, right?), but often it is full of stress. Many children just keep swimming until they finally sink because they truly don’t know how to cope. They don’t know what stress is, how it affects them, or how to ask for help. And they definitely don’t know how to help themselves.
It can be difficult to spot signs of childhood stress, as symptoms of stress are often physical in nature. That headache that just keeps coming back for more probably isn’t due to dehydration or allergies – it’s probably a function of stress.
How do you know if your kid is stressed? Some common signs:
• Complaints of stomachaches or headaches
• Sleep problems
• Difficulty concentrating
• Behavioral changes (short temper, increased anger, excessive crying, clinginess, etc.)
• Nervous habits like nail biting or hair twirling
• Refusal to participate in normal daily activities (school, camp, sports, etc.)
• Childhood stress can be triggered by any number of reasons. Sometimes it’s something external, such as big life transitions or world events, and other times it’s internal, such as the pressure to do well in school and make friends.
Why are they stressed? Some common triggers:
• Transitions (new schools, new teachers, a new baby in the family, moving, etc.)
• Family problems (divorce, illness, death in the family, fighting between parents, etc.)
• Over-scheduling (too many activities = stress and exhaustion)
• Internal pressure (wanting to fit in, wanting to get perfect grades, fear of making mistakes or disappointing parents)
• School stress (test anxiety is very real and very stressful, bullying, poor relationship with teacher, learning issues)
• Bad news (major world events can really shake kids up)
• Scary stories, books, movies, TV shows, games, etc.
It’s essential to teach kids how to cope with stress. Simply telling them not to worry goes in one ear and out the other. They need to practice stress relief strategies that they can use anywhere at any time. Here are ten ways to help…
1. Talk about stress. Describe it. Share your own experiences in age-appropriate language. Normalize it.
2. Educate them about the mind-body connection. Connect the dots for them so that they can begin to understand that stress can cause headaches, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms.
3. Listen. If we want to help our children cope, we have to listen to what they are saying. Don’t dismiss things that seem small to you. Those things might feel very big to your child.
4. Teach relaxation strategies. A stress ball kept in a desk at school can provide relief when academic stress sets in. Deep breathing exercises and guided relaxation can help your child learn to calm her senses and breathe her way through a stressful moment. Music, reading, and journaling (even for little ones – one word at a time still releases the negative emotions) are all useful strategies.
5. Prioritize a consistent sleep schedule. Consistent sleep helps reduce stress. Prioritize bedtime and set a good example for your kids by making sure that you get adequate sleep (10-12 hours for them, 7-8 for you).
6. Prioritize healthy eating habits. A balanced diet helps keep stress under control. Help your child learn to make the connections between food choices and behavioral reactions. Be sure to stock your kitchen with plenty of healthy options and teach your kids to cook.
7. Ensure that your kids get plenty of exercise and outdoor play. Adequate daily exercise helps reduce overall symptoms of stress and anxiety. Aim for at least 45 minutes of kid-friendly (riding a bike, shooting hoops, etc) daily exercise. Taking a 15 minute walk or kicking a soccer ball when under stress can also relieve the acute stress reaction and help your child open up and talk about it.
8. Encourage a worry journal. Writing down their daily stressors can help kids get their feelings out. Leave a journal by the bedside table and encourage your child to record her daily stressors and the things that made her happy.
9. Avoid over-scheduling, and allow mental health days. Sometimes kids need a day off. One day of missed school won’t set your child back too much, especially if it means caring for the soul and sending your child back relaxed and ready to learn.
10. Hug it out. You should never underestimate the healing power of a hug.
Here’s to less stressed kids… and parents!