Let's face it: Parenting is hard, and kids don't come with an instruction manual. That's why “The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries,” a new book by Michele Borba, is so helpful. Borba's book allows parents to flip straight to an issue that's bewildering them most and download needed guidance in a hurry. In this excerpt, Borba helps parents figure out how to assist their kids when they start exhibiting signs of stress.
SEE ALSO: Angry, Argues, Defiant, Depressed, Fearful, Grief, Moving, Peer Pressure, Pessimistic, Sleepless
Physiological signs: bedwetting, nausea and diarrhea, stuttering, colds and fatigue, nail biting or hair twirling, restlessness and irritability.
Psychological signs: big mood swings, short-temperedness, withdrawal, inability to concentrate, arguing, excessive whining or crying, increased clinginess and dependency.
The change to parent for
Your child learns to recognize how his body responds to stress and situations that increase it and develops ways to reduce tension as well as cope.
Question: “My 8-year-old is so tense lately. She can’t sleep, is moody, and is having a tough time focusing on her schoolwork. Could this be stress-related? I don’t know how to help her.”
Answer: Stress isn’t just for adults. Studies show that today’s kids are feeling a lot more pressure than we think they are, and stress symptoms are showing up in kids as young as 3. Ask yourself these three critical questions: How does my child handle stress? What could be triggering it? and Does my child know healthy ways to reduce the stress?
Think stress is just for adults? Not these days. In fact, a recent iVillage poll found that almost 90 percent of mothers think kids these days are far more stressed than when they themselves were growing up. Research finds that between 8 and 10 percent of American children are seriously troubled by stress and symptoms; if left untreated, stress can not only affect your child’s friendships and school success but also his physical and emotional well-being. Overscheduled days, competition, school, treadmill-paced lives, home problems, scary nightly news, and stressed-out parents are just a few contributors.
One thing is certain: stress is part of life, and some kids actually do seem to thrive on it. But one in three kids suffers from chronic stress symptoms that can not only break down his immune system but also increase his likelihood for depression. Your critical parenting question is this: Does the stress stimulate my kid or paralyze him? In order to know that answer, you need to recognize how your child handles normal stress and what unique signs he exhibits when on overload. When he gets to that level and stress is having too negative an effect, it is critical that you intervene for your child’s physical as well as psychological health. This entry describes proven solutions to help you determine just how well your child is coping, and ways to reduce your child’s stress.
Signs and symptoms
Each kid responds differently, but the key is to identify your child’s physical behavioral or emotions signs before he is on overload. A clue is to look for behaviors that are not typical for your child.
Physical stress signs
- Headache, neck aches and backaches
- Nausea, diarrhea, constipation, stomachache, vomiting
- Shaky hands, sweaty palms, feeling shaky, lightheadedness
- Trouble sleeping, nightmares
- Change in appetite
- Frequent colds, fatigue
Emotional or behavioral stress signs
- New or reoccurring fears; anxiety and worries
- Trouble concentrating; frequent daydreaming
- Restlessness or irritability
- Social withdrawal, unwillingness to participate in school or family activities
- Moodiness, sulking or inability to control emotions
- Nail biting, hair twirling, thumb sucking, fist clenching, foot tapping
- Acting out, anger, aggressive behaviors such as tantrums, disorderly conduct
- Regression or babylike behaviors
- Excessive whining or crying
- Clinginess, more dependency, withdrawal; won’t let you out of sight
Step 1. Early intervention
Identify the reasons.Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but too much stress is unhealthy. Your first step is to identify why your child is experiencing stress overload so that you can develop a realistic plan to reduce it. Here are common causes of unhealthy kid stress. Check those that apply to your child:
__Genetics: predisposition to stress out
__Overload: too many after-school activities with no time to relax; overscheduled
__Real-world events: scary nightly news or world events
__Trauma: fire, divorce, flood, accident, death of parent
__Peer problems: peer pressure, bullying, rejection; racial differences
__Appearance: concern with clothes, weight, appearance, fitting in
__School: grades, homework, overemphasis on performance
__Unrealistic expectations: too pressured; too high of standards in relation to abilities
__Home problems: divorce, illness, a move, financial strains, stressed parents, sibling rivalry
Get enough Z’s.Heavy workloads and overscheduling can wreak havoc on kids’ sleep patterns. And without a good night’s sleep, stress can build. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Also check to make sure she is not using the computer within 30 minutes of going to bed (flickering lights on the screen can inhibit sleep) and not drinking caffeinated sodas or energy drinks.
Identify potential stressors. Frightening nightly news on the TV? A bully on the bus? Too much yelling at home? You can’t (and shouldn’t) protect kids from all stress, but is there one thing that is causing unhealthy stress that you can eliminate? For instance, hire a tutor to help with his science homework. Stop yelling in front of the kids. Turn off that scary nightly news. Minimize those stressors you do have control over.
Cut one thing.Many parents admit that a major kid stress culprit these days is overscheduling. Could this be your kid’s problem? Spend a week evaluating your child’s daily schedule of school, home, and all extracurricular activities. How much free time does your child have left? If you can cut out just one thing in your child’s weekly activity, it may make a tremendous difference in reducing the stress.
Keep to family routines.Sticking to a routine helps reduce stress because it boosts predictability for a child. Those family meals, bedtime rituals, nighttime stories, hot baths, hugs and backrubs not only create great family memories but also bust stress.
Monitor TV viewing.Tweens say one a big stressor is watching late-breaking news without an adult to explain the event. So monitor what your child views, limit viewing of those stressful real-world news events (terrorism, war, kidnappings, storms), or at least be there to reassure your child about that sometimes scary news.
Help your child learn stress signs.Point out your child’s stress signs so that he will learn to recognize them. “When you get tense you clench your fists.” “Have you noticed that whenever you worry you get a headache?”
Don’t overprotect!Of course it’s tough to watch our children deal with tense situations and feel stressed. Our parental instinct is to swoop in and rescue them, but fight that urge. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine analyzed over 20 studies and found that too much parental control and overprotection actually increase kids’ anxiety. Stress is a part of life, so your child will have to learn how to cope. And the only way he will learn how to handle stress is by experiencing it. The parenting secret is knowing when your child is on overload and dealing with too much stress or doesn’t know how to cut back to reduce it.
Step 2. Rapid response
Stay calm.If you’re frazzled, your child’s stress level will only increase. So whenever you’re tense or upset, take a few deep breaths to calm down. Doing so will reduce your child’s stress faster and help him stay calm.
Melt the tension.Tell your child to make his body feel stiff and straight like a wooden soldier. Every bone from 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, tenses it up for three or four seconds, and lets it go. Tell him that while doing so, he should imagine the stress slowly melting away from the top of his head and out his toes until he feels relaxed or calmer.
Use a positive phrase.Teach your child to say a comment inside his head to help him handle stress. Here are a few: “Calm down.” “I can do this.” “Stay calm and breathe slowly.” “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Teach elevator breathing.Tell your child to close his eyes and take a slow, deep breath, then imagine he’s in an elevator on the 20th floor of a tall building. He presses the button for the first floor and watches the buttons for each level slowly light up as the elevator goes down. Tell him to take a slow, deep breath and visualize each button lighting as the elevator descends from the twentieth to the ground level and his stress gradually fades away.
Visualize a calm place.Ask your child to think of an actual place he’s been to, one 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 and imagine that spot, while breathing slowly.
Step 3. Develop habits for change
Reduce stress as a family.Meditate with your kids, do yoga with your daughter, go to a gym with your son, ride bikes with your preschooler, listen to relaxation tapes with your kids. You’ll not only help your kids learn healthy ways to minimize their stress but also reduce your own. And after all, less stressed parents make less stressed kids!
Label emotions.Help your child name his feelings so that he begins to know when he’s starting to feel tense. Your child will also have the words to tell you how he feels so that you can help him reduce that stress. “I see you’re gritting your teeth. Is your math frustrating you and making you feel tense? Need some help?” “You look mad because you really wanted your friend to play with you. Do you want to come sit by me so we can talk about it?”
Find a relaxer.Every child is different, so find what helps your kid relax, and then encourage him to use it on a regular basis. Some kids respond to drawing pictures or writing about their stress in a journal. Other kids say that imagining what “relaxing” or “calm” feels like helps. (Show him how to make his body feel like a slowly moving fluffy white cloud or a rag doll.) Or allocate a cozy place in your home where your kid can chill out when he needs to ease the tension. In a survey of almost 900 tweens, the kids said their best stress reducers are doing something active, listening to music, watching TV or playing a video game, exercising, talking to a friend, being alone or with friends, or talking to a parent.
Open up the communication.Your stressed child may not seek you out, so go to your child. In the same survey, 75 percent of tweens said they need their parents’ help to reduce their stress and like having their parents talk with them, help them solve their worries, try to cheer them up or just spend time with them.
Model how to cope.Don’t cover up your stress about your overdrawn checkbook or the new boss. Instead admit your worries, then model healthy ways you deal with it. Whether you’re taking a walk around the block, soaking in a hot tub, writing in your journal or heading for the gym, your child needs to know not only that stress is normal but also that there are ways to reduce it.
WHAT TO EXPECT BY STAGES AND AGES
Preschooler:Kids as young as 3 years of age experience stress, but it can go unnoticed because preschoolers can’t put their feelings into words. Pay closer attention to your child’s stress symptoms. Stressors include new things, dogs, monsters, spiders, being sucked down a drain and abandonment of any kind: being away from home, separation from parents or loved ones, being kidnapped.
School age: Stressors include performing in front of others (for example, a speech, recital or sporting event); tests, grades and school; bedwetting; being chosen last on any team; getting along with peers; disappointing their parents; and real-world dangers: fires, burglars, illness, storms. Kids younger than 10 are especially vulnerable to repeated stress.
Tween:Stressors include grades, school and homework; taking on too many activities; negative thoughts and feelings about themselves; moving or changing schools; family pressure, arguing, financial problems and tension; friends and peer acceptance; peer humiliation and pressure; gossip and teasing; worry about their changing bodies and being different from others; and letting their parents down.
Excerpted from “The Big Book of Parenting Solutions” by Michele Borba. Copyright © 2009 by Michele Borba. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.