No matter what age you are, feeling overwhelmed by demands and pressures can create stress. Often these demands come from external sources, but they can also come from within – what we think we should be doing versus what we’re actually able to do.1
Kids are also affected by what’s going on around them, either within the family, the broader community or the world. Be aware of what conversations (or news) your kids may overhear at home; financial stresses, an unwell relative, trouble at work, all may be causing you anxiety that your kids will definitely pick up on. Remember also, that while some things may not be a big deal for an adult, they can cause significant stress for a youngster, so never dismiss their feelings as inappropriate.
A certain amount of stress is normal – starting at a new school, or taking a big test, for example. But it’s important to help kids to learn how to manage stressful situations or triggers.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
Every person, and child, is affected by stress differently and will display different signs. One red flag to look out for is any short-term behavioural changes such as mood swings, acting out, change in sleeping patterns or bedwetting. Some kids will show physical issues such as headaches or stomach aches, while others may have trouble concentrating at school or completing schoolwork. Still others may become silent, withdrawn or clingy, or become overreactive to minor issues.2
Ways to reduce stress
So, what can you do to help? According to Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist who specialises in assisting anxious families, the key to helping kids manage stress is to teach them how to problem-solve, plan and know when to say yes and no to activities and commitments. It’s certainly not about making everything ‘smooth and comfortable’, but rather providing them with the tools to manage stressful situations. If kids don’t learn how to do this, they will self-medicate with food, drugs and alcohol – anything that will make them feel better right away and it’s not usually something healthy.3
Here are some great suggestions to consider that may help you to help your kids through difficult times:4
Stop overscheduling and make time for play: Kids (and adults!) need downtime to rejuvenate body and mind. They need free play or relaxation time that does not involve clock-watching. As the parent, you need to help them to realise that they need this time, and so it’s important to watch for overscheduling. A good indicator is to look at how you’re eating your family meals – if it’s on the run, in the car then there’s definitely too much going on! Reflect together on your child’s schedule and see whether the week currently has any space for that downtime, and if not, find ways to incorporate this. Combining play with physical activity is an excellent way to look after overall wellbeing – activities such as riding a bike, throwing a ball, hiking, swimming etc.
Make sleep a priority: Not getting enough sleep can be an indicator of too many commitments. Sleep is vital for our overall functioning, as well as for reducing stress levels and improving emotional stability. Ensure that your child is in an environment that is conducive to sleep, e.g. remove electronic devices from the room.
Teach your kids to listen to their bodies: Kids need to learn to understand their own physiology and when something changes. For instance, sit in the car with your child, and press the accelerator and brake, and listen to the engine revving. Explain that “our body just revs and revs, and then it wears out and says ‘enough.’”3 While butterflies in the tummy before a test are quite normal, leaving class every day because of a stomach ache is not, and this is a likely sign of stress.
Manage your own stress: Stress is really contagious, and your kids will pick up on your own worries and the stressful environment that results. It’s important to show your kids, by example, how to relax and unwind and how to effectively deal with stress. If you kids are stressed, you may need to step back and take in the broader perspective of your family ecosystem and address systemic issues as well.
Here is a great resource for more stress-reducing activities that you can try out with your kids. Build some of these into your week and you’ll be amazed at the difference!