Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
Fourth grade was a difficult year for my son, Paul. His teacher was coping with some personal challenges and often took out her frustration on the class, especially on Paul. I remember the day it became too much for him to handle. He’d come home from school, and while I thought he was in the kitchen getting a snack, he had left the house. I went into a panic as I realized I did not know where he was. The parents of his best friend, the elementary school principal and I scoured our small coastal town searching for him. All were greatly relieved when he returned to our house an hour later saying he just needed to take a walk. “When you’re a kid, you don’t necessarily know how to identify your feelings as stress,” recalls Paul, now an adult living in Boston. “That day, I just needed to walk it off.”
Stress in Children Is Growing
The American Institute of Stress (www.stress.org), a nonprofit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for information on all stress-related subjects, identifies stress as America’s No. 1 health problem. Levels of stress in children continue to rise. A study conducted by the Stanford School of Medicine indicates that the number of children between the ages of 7 and 17 being treated for depression — a by-product of stress — has more than doubled since 1995.
“I think many kids today are stressed because they lack balance in their lives,” says Alex Helenius, a marriage and family therapist intern in San Mateo who counsels children at local schools. “They may spend eight hours a day at school, are involved in afterschool activities and then do four hours of homework at night.
“Children often have no time for rest, play or self-care, and that can create significant stress for kids who feel they cannot keep up.”
Stress can start as early as preschool. Separating from parents may cause anxiety in very young children. As they get older, stress can increase when expectations for social and academic success kick in. “I’ve had fifth-graders tell me they were stressed about their current grades because they wanted to get into a good college so they can have a good job and make a lot of money one day,” Helenius recalls.
Is My Child Stressed?
There are several signs that suggest a child is experiencing stress, including mood swings, acting out, changes in sleep patterns and even bedwetting. Some children complain of stomach- or headaches. Others have trouble concentrating or become withdrawn. Very young children may exhibit more visible signs of stress like thumb-sucking, hair-twirling or nose-picking. Older children may lash out, lie or defy authority. They may overreact to something minor, become clingy or have nightmares.
A change in academic performance may also be an indicator of stress.
Helenius explains, “Stressors can be different depending on a child’s developmental level. Social relationships will be a greater source of stress for adolescents. Elementary school-aged kids, learning about new expectations in school or with peers, may feel their lack of competence in these areas can be overwhelming. Children’s unique personalities will cause them to be stressed out by different things.”
Creating a Stress-Free Zone
During Paul’s difficult fourth-grade year I considered asking that he be moved to another class, but changing a child’s environment may not help to reduce stress. “It is important for kids to learn how to deal with their stress instead of running away from it,” Helenius recommends. “Learning to cope with stress provides kids with skills they can use throughout their life.”
Regular routines and good nutrition help children cope with stress. A healthy diet that is low in sugar and caffeine can reduce a child’s anxiety. Consistent schedules and bedtimes create security. Exercise is a great stress reliever. Physical activity releases the endorphins that can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. And managing your own stress will have a calming effect on the whole family.
“Show your kids how to set aside the to-do list,” suggests Helenius. “If your kids see you taking time for self-care, they will too.”
Helenius advises parents to model positive self-talk for their kids. “Speak kindly about yourself when you make a mistake. Kids learn just by watching their parents.”
While social media has an impact on stress levels, there are helpful digital tools children can use to cope. Apps like thinkpacifica and breathe offer activities that help develop mindfulness. “Mindfulness is a great tool to use and incorporate into a child’s daily routine,” says Helenius. “It teaches the child how to stay present, instead of focusing on all the things they have to get done.”
At-Home Support System
Knowing they are heard and supported is important in helping children alleviate stress. Allow them to open up to you without attempting to solve problems. Listen to their feelings. Affirm their experiences. “It’s tempting to want to fix things, but often kids just want to be heard,” comments Helenius. “The more you can provide them with this safe space to vent and process, the more connected they will feel to you.”
Feeling connected and supported at home is a significant stress reliever for kids and adults alike.
As the mother of five, Susan Solomon Yem has experienced all kinds of parenting. Tell her your stories at susansyem@ gmail.com