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Helping Children Handle Stress

As I look through my office window I see him approaching; his blond hair teased by the wind, blue eyes sparkling, a smile that would melt anyone's heart. Under his arm he holds an enormous stuffed lion. He is 6 years old. His name is Joshua.

“Mim,” he says, as he tumbles in the door to greet me. “Oh, Mim!” His legs dance from one foot to the other. “I won the good lion award today, for being the best boy in my class.”

Joshua had never before won the good lion award or anything remotely resembling it. All Joshua had ever received were reprimands and letters to his parents telling about his misbehavior. Joshua had been in school eight months and had been on the verge of finishing his first year dismally. Yet now he was an “ideal student” (to quote his teacher) after eight one-hour-a-week training sessions in stress management and biofeedback. It appeared that Joshua's school problems were really stress problems.

Kids and Stress

Stress in children is nothing new. Every generation was or is under some of its own unique stress. What is new is that today we know so many ways to help children deal with stress before hyper arousal becomes a way of life and physical illness and emotional problems begin.

Stress is the body's response to a demand. Just being alive requires adaptive responses from our mind/body. Some stress is essential to life. Pioneering biological scientist Hans Selye identifies “damaging or unpleasant stress” as distress. We sometimes say someone is “under stress” when what we actually mean is that he is under excessive stress, or distress.

Selye writes, “Our reserves of adaptive energy could be compared to an inherited fortune from which we can make withdrawal but there is no proof we can also make additional deposits.” Our children should not start making withdrawals of these resources early in life, as Joshua was starting to do. They set themselves up for early stress-related problems and illnesses by depleting those reserves.

Children have less maneuverability to deal with their stressors than do adults. Starting with their entrance into school, even relatively relaxed children have a great deal to handle. All at once they have to face a structured, confined environment, discipline, competitive peer pressure, and teacher and parental pressure and expectations.

Expectations can create enormous stress loads on children. Many of the bright and “gifted” children I see are almost emotionally immobilized by expectations from themselves, parents, teachers, and peers. (Personally, I find the term gifted noxious in its implications. Aren't all our children gifted with unique abilities? Certainly they are not giftless.) They need help sorting out which of these expectations are realistic before they get caught in the traps of perfectionism or perform poorly and drop out.

We should encourage realistic expectations. But we need to remind ourselves that today’s society is more highly educated than in the past. It is more difficult for many of our children to be as “successful” as mom the executive or dad the doctor.

One of the most devastating results of inadequate skills to deal with stress has been the increase in teenage suicides. Writing on teenage suicide, John Q. Baucom identifies the following characteristics in a family whose children do not suffer depression or attempt suicide:

  • Parents admitted mistakes and apologized to their children.
  • Children openly expressed emotions, positive and negative, and were not punished for expressing anger. However, there were logical consequences for breaking certain family rules.
  • Parents allowed each child's unique identity to flourish.
  • Parents encouraged their children's participation in athletics and attended their games
  • The children had a variety of adult friends they could trust.
  • Parents made friends with their children's teenage friends.
  • Parents did not criticize with fear or guilt.
  • Parents did not compare one child with another.
  • A belief in God gave an added reservoir of strength.

Signs of Stress in Children

  • Body Signs
    • Headaches
    • Twitchy eyes
    • Palpitations
    • Tight stomach muscles
    • Sweaty hands
    • Oily skin
    • Gassiness
    • Tight/sore muscles
    • Flushed face
    • Shortness of breath
    • Dry mouth and throat
    • Cold hands
    • Sweaty feet
    • Frequent urination
    • Acid stomach
    • General fatigue
    • Hot face
    • Pounding heart
    • Constipation
    • Cold feet
    • Shaking hands
    • Burping
    • Diarrhea
    • Teeth grinding
  • Behavior Signs
    • Over compliance
    • Non communication
    • Uncooperation
    • Loss of interest
    • Rebelliousness
    • Inability to concentrate
    • Withdrawal
    • Change in eating or sleeping habits
    • Isolation
    • Accident proneness
    • Easily startled
    • Tiredness (often)
    • Impulsive acts
    • Preoccupation
    • Declining grades
    • Sickness (often and without clear cause)
    • Personality change
    • Belligerence
    • Over activity
    • Restlessness
    • Nightmares

Since many stressors cannot be avoided, we must give our children the skills to deal with them. Paramount in a child's arsenal for effectively handling stresses is his feeling of self worth. Parents can do much to enhance a child's self-esteem. Here are seven areas I find important in helping children develop self esteem:

1. Rules and regulations.

Hundreds of rules can confuse and overstress a child. Child development expert Kay Kuzma suggests that we simplify rule-making with “three unbendable principles that can apply to the whole household”:

Principle 1: You may not hurt yourself. Principle 2: You may not hurt others. Principle 3: You may not hurt things.

Then let the children take part in making up more specific rules based on these three principles.

2. Positive approach.

Hans Selye writes, “Man must have recognition. He cannot tolerate constant censure, for that,…more than any other stressor, makes work frustrating and harmful.” This statement applies to our little ones, as well. Let your children know they are special. Encourage and praise them.

Some years ago author Norman Cousins marshaled his psychological resources to overcome a usually fatal disease. “I became convinced,” writes Cousins, “that creativity, the will to live, hope, faith, and love have biochemical significance and contribute strongly to healing and to well-being.” When everything seems to go wrong, teach your children to look at the situation constructively and creatively. Make a game out of who can find the most positive aspects in the situation.

Cousins, who literally laughed his way to health, also writes that humor “allows good things to happen.” (He even refers to laughter as “internal jogging” and found it great exercise when he was confined to bed.) Encourage your children to develop a sense of humor, to laugh, to think positively.

3. Communication and problem-solving skills.

Parents need to help children learn to communicate their feelings, to acquire a feelings vocabulary. Make a feelings word list with your child. Put it on a bulletin board or refrigerator. Add to it as new feelings/words come to mind. The more labels children have to attach to feelings, the better they will be able to identify their feelings.

Children also need to become adept at recognizing cues that will tip them off as to how each family member is feeling. What does Jane do when she is angry? Does she shake, get red in the face, develop a stomachache, cry, or get very quiet? What does she do when she is disappointed, surprised, shocked, or embarrassed? Adults need to recognize these cues, and children need to learn to recognize them too.

It is important for children to acquire problem-solving skills, as well. Help your child identify the problem. Give it a name. Decide on an appropriate solution. Then break the solution into manageable steps.

4. Help with abilities.

It is each parent's responsibility to study his or her child and try to figure out the child's talents and where his or her interests lie. Let the child try various pursuits in academics, music, art, and athletics until something captures his interest. Then provide opportunities for the child to improve skills in these areas until he can excel and achieve recognition and personal fulfillment.

Think for a moment about what makes you mad, sad, or glad. Did you visualize an image? What we image in our minds produces our feelings and responses. Aaron T. Beck, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine stresses that “rapid thought or images occur between an activating event and the emotional response.” Cognitive therapy is based on the premise that if our thoughts and images are distorted, our feelings and responses will be too.

We need to help children early recognize distorted types of thinking before they develop habitual thinking patterns that may produce misery and depression. Also, parents need to guard carefully what images and thoughts their children are exposed to via television, movies, video, and music.

During training sessions in my office I have had little children describe movie scenes that had literally terrified them. Let's try to ensure that the thoughts and images presented to our children's minds via the media promote healthy values and self worth.

6. Nutrition and exercise.

Particularly between the ages of 6 and 12, children need intensive training in nutrition and cooking. The earlier the training, the better it will help protect their growing bodies against the stress of unhealthy foods. Good eating habits are easier to teach than bad habits, once established, are hard to break. Decision-making skills on food choices and their consequences are essential. If Jeremy goes to school, his body must go too.

Exercise, crucial to children's health, is a great stress reducer. The sooner we encourage children to integrate exercise into their lifestyle, the healthier they will be. Useful exercise - that is, household chores, gardening, and other forms of employment - should be encouraged. Also, promote athletic pursuits that may interest your child.

7. Relationship of work habits to feelings of self-esteem.

Children need to learn the invaluable experience to be gained by helping with daily home duties and other useful labor. The highest enjoyment in life comes to those who have learned to responsibly perform their daily duties. Do not boss and demand. Guide and encourage your children, as they learn new skills, so they can experience the joys being producers, not just consumers.

That Unique Song

After his last session, my exuberant little 6-year-old friend Eli said in parting, “Mim, if something happens, is it all right if I call or come back to see you?”

I hugged him, my heart also aching at the parting. “Yes, Eli, you can call or come back to see Mim anytime, even when you are grown.”

“Whew, that's a relief,” he said, flashing a beatific grin. He took his mother's hand and stepped out the door into the sunlight, now with many new skills to recognize and handle stress.

I wish I could have given him more, and we can. Let's be there for our children. With more research and focus on prevention, how many little Elis and Joshuas we can help protect from the pathological consequences of excess stress. Let's potentiate our little ones' ability to sing the song that only their life will be able to sing, with its full clarity and beauty.

Family


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