As adults, our world is full of stressors; however, whether we realize it or not, the same is true for our children. Some stress we experience is positive stress, also known as eustress. Eustress motivates us to do our best, accomplish our goals, and allows us to focus. We perceive positive stress as being within our ability to cope. It can be caused by something exciting, like a promotion at work, buying a home, getting married, or taking a class or learning a new hobby. However, there’s also negative stress (distress) that can overwhelm us and makes us anxious. Negative stress decreases our performance, causes anxiety, and can also manifest itself as mental and physical problems. Negative stress is stress that is perceived to be outside of our ability to cope. Faced with ongoing negative pressure, humans don’t always make the best choices when it comes to coping strategies. They may turn to alcohol, drugs, or food to self-medicate. When even adults struggle with effective coping mechanisms at times is it any wonder that our children struggle, too? Here are some ways you can help your child learn healthy coping strategies for dealing with stress.
Don’t Over-schedule & Make Time for Play
According to psychotherapist, Lynn Lyons, who specializes in treating anxious families, recommends avoiding the over-scheduling trap. We often expect our children to focus and do well in school for seven hours a day. After that, they are shuttled to an extracurricular activity that lasts for 2-3 hours. When they finally do get home at night, they are expected to complete their homework and get to bed. This schedule on repeat for weeks on end can leave very little room for downtime.
Downtime is essential for growing children’s bodies and brains. It’s important to know when your child is over-scheduled because children don’t always realize it on their own. One way to determine this is to look at your child’s schedule over a week. Determine if there are enough hours of downtime; time not allocated to a particular activity either on a weeknight or on weekends. If your family is continuously eating on the go and not spending quality family time together, you might consider cutting back, indicated Lyons.
Allow your child to have time for unstructured play. It doesn’t always have to involve a lesson or competition. Getting outdoors together is a great way to encourage this. Go for a bike ride together, play catch, go camping, or hiking. Physical activity is good for children, and these types of recreation aren’t high-pressure activities.
Children and teens need sleep. Getting enough sleep can help to minimize stress and boost a person’s mood. It also can lead to better academic performance. Emphasize the importance of sleep by keeping electronics out of your child’s bedroom and create an environment that lends itself to healthy sleep hygiene.
Self Awareness and Calming Strategies
As parents, we can encourage our children to listen to what their bodies are telling them. Explain that while it is reasonable to experience nervous energy going to school on the first day. However, if they’re waking up each morning with a headache, or are regularly leaving class because their stomach hurts, it’s a sign that they may be experiencing an unhealthy level of anxiety. Let them know it’s okay to come to you when they’re feeling stressed or anxious.
Often when we ask our children how their day was, we get a vague or incomplete answer. One way to get a better picture of how things are going for them is to ask for one rose (a positive thing about the day) and one thorn (something that was tough or upsetting to them). Children tend to be more comfortable talking when they’re not sitting face-to-face with you; try talking with your child while you’re riding in the car or doing dishes side-by-side in the evening.
You can also teach your child some basic calming strategies. Here are a few that are simple enough that they can be practiced wherever they may be when they feel anxious.
- Taking a deep breath. Have them make it a point to notice the rise and fall of their chest as they breathe in and exhale. Have them do this several times. It may also help if you have them practice by imagining blowing bubbles or blowing on a pinwheel.
- You can also try having your child imagine that they’re in their favorite place. What do they see? What do they smell? What do they hear? What do they feel? Using their senses, have them explore this place in their imagination.
- Teach your child to pick a number and count down backward from that number or count down by 3’s. It’s a distraction technique that takes the focus off of whatever is causing them anxiety at the moment.
Set a Good Example
As parents, we’re their first teachers, so model your own healthy stress management techniques strategies for your children. Let them know what your go-to strategies are. Do you go to the gym, take a hot bath, knit, read a good book? Watching you handle stress in a positive way can help your child to learn to do the same. Next time you use a coping skill, point it out to your child.
Learning how to manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways at a young age will help set your child up for a healthier lifestyle in the future. If you find that your child is really struggling with anxiety, seek advice from your pediatrician. Your pediatrician will be able to help you evaluate the situation and find the local resources to best address the situation. There will always be stress, but it’s essential to help our children learn appropriate coping strategies. That way, they won’t resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms down the road.
Dr. Edward S. Thalheimer is the President and Founder of The Tutoring Franchise Corp. If you would like further information about how to help children who need educational assistance, please go to www.tutoringcenter.com.