Kids and parents alike are under stress today. Anxiety disorders are on the rise and the current culture of busyness in the world of family rearing adds significant stress to the life of a child.
Once upon a time, kids enjoyed plenty of unstructured playtime to explore their interests, decompress and spend time with friends. Today many children are play deprived. This not only adds to their stress levels, but it robs them of the opportunity to work on things like creative problem solving, social interaction skills, perseverance and patience. Add to that the pushing down of academics and it’s a recipe for stressed out kids.
Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to reducing childhood stress. When parents take stress seriously and help kids learn to manage their stress levels, families thrive.
Know the signs of childhood stress
Most kids don’t know how to verbalize feeling stressed, but they do tend to show physical symptoms. Watch for any major behavioral changes in your children and take these common physical complaints into consideration:
· Neck or muscle pain
· Changes in eating habits (eating too much or too little)
· Refusal to engage in regular activities (play dates, sports, school)
· Short temper
· Excessive crying
· Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, nightmares)
Get back to basics
When kids show signs of stress, it’s important to stop the cycle of stress by getting back to basics. When kids are always on the go and trying to fit in some homework, things like sleep habits and healthy eating can be compromised.
· Focus on good sleep habits by aiming for 12-14 hours of sleep for toddlers and preschoolers, 10-11 hours for kids ages 6-12, and 8-10 hours for tweens and teens. Kids can’t thrive when they are low on sleep. Say no to activities that disrupt sleep.
· Instill healthy eating habits. Everyone eats on the go at some point, but this shouldn’t be the norm for children. Start the day with a calm and healthy breakfast (think proteins and fruits) and pack healthy lunches and snacks for the school day. Kids boast better health and more energy when they make healthy eating choices.
· Prioritize downtime and free play. Kids don’t always understand their limits. They might beg to play every sport and try every activity because they see other kids doing the same, but it’s important to teach kids how to set appropriate limits. Kids need unstructured playtime and downtime to recharge. Resist the urge to fill every afternoon with an activity and make room for play, instead.
Revisit the schedule
I often caution parents to follow the rule of three. There are endless opportunities when it comes to sports and enrichment programs, but busy families struggle to slow down and spend time together. We can’t teach our kids healthy habits if we spend our days running from one thing to the next.
Take a good look at your weekly schedule. Kids spend at least six hours per day at school. That’s the first activity in the rule of three. Two afterschool activities per season is plenty for most children. Some can only handle one.
Take the individual needs of your child into account and remove excess activities from your weekly schedule as much as possible.
Teach coping skills
Kids don’t enter this world with a list of coping strategies to get them through the hard times; it’s up to us to teach them. When we empower kids to use adaptive coping strategies to target stress, we set them up for a lifetime of healthy habits.
· Color your feelings. Give your child a blank sheet of paper and some crayons. Ask your child to assign different colors to different feelings (e.g. red is mad, gray is sad, etc) Ask your child to fill the page with the feelings he experienced that day. Discuss what triggered those feelings and how he worked through them.
· Teach deep breathing. Relaxation breathing is the best way to combat stress in the moment. Teach your child to inhale slowly for a count of four, hold for three exhale for a count of four. Practice this when your child is calm so that he is prepared to use it when he’s upset.
· Create a relaxation box. Have your child decorate an old shoebox with pictures and stickers. Ask your child to choose at least five items that remind him of something calming. Items might include pictures from a family vacation, a favorite stone found on a walk, small toys that he can play with on his own, a stress ball or even a favorite book. When your child is overwhelmed, have him open his relaxation box and choose an item to hold, describe, think about or play with while he calms down and resets his soul.
All kids are individuals and they can tolerate different levels of stress and schedules. It’s important to consider the child’s temperament before scheduling activities and listen when a child verbalizes potential signs of stress.