Keeping it carefree: Why stress cheats childhood, what you can do

Jan. 21, 2010 at 7:14 AM ET

From TODAY contributor, author and parenting expert, Dr. Michele Borba, Ed. D It’s no secret that kids today are more stressed than ever. At school, on the ball field and even at home, they face a tremendous amount of pressure to be the best, or at least do as well as their peers and of course never, ever come in last at anything. In a world of ever-increasing competitiveness and pressure to perform just to meet the status quo, our kids are feeling the heat in ways that we never experienced when we were young. A recent APA survey [APA Survey Raises Concern about Parent Perceptions of Children’s Stress “if they don’t learn healthy ways to manage that stress now, it could have serious long-term health implication”] confirmed that parents not only underestimate their children’s stress levels, but also may not fully recognize the impact stress can have on physical and psychological health. Studies find that eight to ten percent of American kids are seriously troubled by stress and the symptoms associated with it. In fact, kids are now suffering from stress as early as the age of three — a shocking reality that is sadly going mostly undetected by parents. If children and teens don’t learn healthy ways to manage stress, it can have both short-term consequences (bedwetting, short-temperedness, inability to focus on schoolwork, sleep-deprivation and weakened immunity from illness), as well as serious long-term health implications that can increase their likelihood for depression. If left unchecked, stress can affect not only our children’s friendships and school success, but also their physical and emotional well-being. If all this talk about youth stress is starting to stress you out, you may be wondering what you, as a parent, can do to help your child. The answer is to teach your children healthy ways to manage their stress. The best news is that parents can teach their kids stress reducers using common items found in most homes. When parents teach kids these strategies, their own stress loads are reduced as well. Read on for these stress-busting strategies: 1. Blow your worries away. Teach young children to blow their worries away by pretending to blow up a balloon in their tummy as you slowly count to three and then let it out with an exaggerated “ahhh” sound like they use at the doctor's office. Place your child’s hands on his stomach for him to feel his breaths. Too often kids try to take quick, fast breaths from their chest instead of their stomach — it doesn’t work! Say, “Taking a slow deep breath is an easy way to reduce your stress and let your worries out.” Kids can also practice taking slow, deep breaths using a pinwheel or bubble blower until they get the right “feel.” Young kids like to pretend that the bubbles are their worries blowing away. 2. Melt the tension. Tell your child to make his body feel stiff and straight like a wooden soldier so that every bone from his head to toe is “tense” (or “stressed”). Now tell him to make his body limp (or “relaxed”) like a rag doll or windsock. Once he realizes he can make himself relax, he can find the spot in his body where he feels the most tension; perhaps his neck, shoulder muscles or jaw. He then closes his eyes, concentrates on the spot, tensing it up for three or four seconds, and then lets it go. While doing so, tell him to imagine the stress slowly melting away from the top of his head and out his toes until he feels relaxed or calmer. 3. Use a positive phrase to stay cool. Teach your child to say a comment inside her head to help her handle stress. She can say phrases such as: “Calm down.” “I can do this.” “Stay calm and breathe slowly.” “It's nothing I can't handle.” 4. Visualize a calm place. Ask your child to think of an actual place he's been to where he feels peaceful. For instance: the beach, his bed, grandpa's backyard, a tree house. When stress kicks in, tell him to close his eyes, imagine that spot, while breathing slowly. 5. Teach a stress-buster formula. A very effective strategy to help kids calm down and reduce stress is called “1 + 3 + 10.” Print the formula on large pieces of paper and hang them up in your child’s bedroom or on the fridge. Then tell the child how to use the formula. “As soon as you feel your body sending you a warning sign that says you’re getting tense, do three things. First, stop and tell yourself: ‘Be calm.’ That’s 1. Second, take three deep slow breaths from your tummy. That’s 3. Now count slowly to ten inside your head. That’s 10. Put them all together, it’s 1 + 3 + 10, and doing it helps you stay cool.” 6. Make a stress box. There is no right or wrong way to reduce stress: the key is to offer kids options so they can find what works best for them. And once they find their unique “stress buster” they must practice it over and over until they can use it on their own. Families can create their own “Stress Box” by filing a shoebox or other container with proven stress reducers such as a notepad and pencil (to draw or write their stress away); a small Koosh ball, Play-Doh or clay to work their stress out, an MP3 or CD player and relaxation sounds to listen to with earphones. The parent adds a new stress reducer to the box after it has been modeled with the child, then encourages family members to go to the container and find their stress buster when the need arises. 7. Learn relaxation and breath control with yoga. Adolescents say a great tip that helps reduce their stress is learning yoga. In fact, many high schools are now offering yoga classes as an alternative for physical education. Purchase a yoga DVD that you can do at home together. Even better: invite another mom and daughter to join you and make yoga a weekly routine. Growing, bettering yourself and learning is an important part of childhood and it takes lots of hard work to be a kid these days. Don't let the stress that sometimes comes along with that hard work impede the happy childhood that is your child's right to have. Work with her on ways to manage the stress that comes with growing up. In the end, you'll have a kid who is ready to deal with whatever pressures they face with a joyful and healthy outlook. And who knows, you may learn a thing or two about blowing off some steam in the process! Dr. Michele Borba is the author of more than 22 books including the upcoming "Big Book of Parenting Solutions." For more from Michele you can visit her Web site at: MicheleBorba.comRelated stories:

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