If you have ever been so stressed that you feel like you can’t handle any more of it, you have a keen appreciation for what children go through with stress they experience as overwhelming and difficult to manage. This stress results in children who are anxious, depressed, oppositional, and even violent. The stressors that these children are experiencing become overwhelming for them leading them to respond in ways to try to manage those stressful feelings..
It is estimated that stress impacts over 1400 body processes ranging from digestion, impaired memory, anxiety, and high blood pressure to name just a few.
For some children. This results in adding even more distress. These children experience an overactive nervous system due to the stress which can cause them to have difficulty in their day-to-day functioning, including difficulty paying attention, oppositional behavior, and avoidance of tasks that seem overwhelming to them.
So, what is a parent to do? The answer lies in understanding how to help your child manage their overall stress.
It is not that stress is bad in and of itself. When the mind and body are stressed, they are forced to adapt to the circumstances they are experiencing. If those experiences are not overwhelming, children can adapt and grow from those experiences and actually become more resilient. Unfortunately, many children end up being overwhelmed by the stress and resort to ineffective ways of coping which maintains higher levels of stress for them.
Here’s what you can do as a parent.
1. Manage your own stress. Children are highly sensitive to the stress they experience in their environment. This means that as a parent the better you manage your overall stress, the better you will be able to help your child. I’m sure you can think of instances where you have had a difficult day at work and perhaps reacted in an angry way towards your children when you got home. How did your child respond? Did they withdraw or did they escalate in their interactions with you? Both of those responses would be attempts to cope with the stress they were experiencing. When a parent is able to manage their overall stress, they are able to respond more resourcefully to the difficulties that their child is experiencing. By doing so they are better equipped to help their child through the problem their child is facing leading to better outcomes.
2. Teach your child physical ways to calm themselves. When the body is stressed, it respond by activating the sympathetic nervous system. This is the fight- flight- or- freeze part of the nervo> us system. Our bodies are designed to handle stress for short periods of time, usually 20 minutes or so. When stressful situations exist longer than that, it has a negative impact on their overall functioning.
Breathing deeply helps to trigger the parasympathetic part of our nervous system. This is the rest and digest part of our nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are two sides of the same coin. Both are needed in our overall functioning. Chronically stressed children do not activate the parasympathetic part of their nervous system frequently enough. A very simple way of engaging this part of the nervous system is engaging in diaphragmatic breathing. By breathing slowly in and out, usually over a span of 1 to 2 minutes is enough to kick in the parasympathetic part of the nervous system. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube that can help with this. A rule of thumb is to breathe into account a five and out to a count of five. This would result in about six breaths a minute, which is enough to kick in the parasympathetic part of the nervous system.
3. Help your child check their thinking. Children who are chronically stress often have thoughts that sustain being chronically stressed. For instance, they may say things to themselves like “This will never get better.” or “It doesn’t matter what I do to change this.”. Children often get trapped in ways of thinking that limit what is possible for them. Your job as a parent is to help them gently challenge your thoughts by asking questions like “Is there another way of thinking about this?” or “Is the way you’re thinking about this helping you are not helping you solve this problem?”. Just remember that in the moment your child is frustrated, they may not be open to processing changes in the way they think about things. You may need to wait until they have calm down after being frustrated so that they can better process those questions with you.
4. Create a more user-friendly environment. Children can become stressed because they lack skills to become organized enough to help manage stressful situations such as getting ready in the morning or having their work done in time for school. As a parent you can implement structures and strategies with your child to help them avoid stress inducing situations during the day that could be avoided. For instance, you may have your child pick out their clothes the night before school so that there are fewer things they need to think about in the morning before school or you may help a child structure, homework time to help them stay more on top of the work they need to complete for school. More than likely there are number of different situations that are stressful points in your child’s life. Your job is to help identify those points and try to create with your child a plan that they can live with that would help address that overall stress.
5. Help your child build their capacity to manage stress. This can be done in a number of ways. Physical exercise is a great way to help with this since it helps stress, the body. When the body is allowed to recover from that stress it become stronger and is better able to handle the physical aspects of stress. Another idea would be to have your child identify times where they have handled stress better in their lives and identify both the behaviors as well as the thinking that went into that and seeing how that could be applied to the situations they are currently facing.
These are just a few examples of ways you can help your child manage stress. Remember, your job is not necessarily to take stress away from your child, but to help them manage it more effectively. By doing so, you will be giving them a roadmap that they can follow into adulthood that will help them be more successful as well as have reduced risk for stress related problems later in life. Isn’t that what we all want for our children?