Within the cycles of the school year, holidays and the shift of seasons, we recognize that even the most wonderful changes can bring the stress of additional demands and time commitments. As we think about the role of stress in our own lives, we need to be mindful of helping manage our children’s’ stress in order to best nurture their potential.
Stress is simply an automatic response to a perceived threat. Not all stress is bad; a manageable level is healthy, and serves to maximize performance. Some stress is inevitable (increased academic expectations for each grade, developmentally more complex social interactions) and even good things create stress (new teacher, new friend, successful sports teams, and involved parents). Problems occur when stress is prolonged and constant, or is more than a given child can handle. Individual children can handle different levels of stress.
Physiologically, stress causes blood to move away from digestion to limbs and to muscles. Respiratory rates increase, impulses quicken, and our ability to cognitively process new information is impeded as our senses sharpen in a fight/flight/freeze response. Sustained stress on children can cause long term effects:
§ Reliance on primitive areas of brain, preventing other areas from fully developing
§ Hippocampus, the brain area involved in long term memory, can shrink
§ Stress hormones impact growth hormones
§ Digestive distress
§ Impaired learning and judgment
§ Sleep disturbance, potential for depression/anxiety
Warning signs to look for in children:
§ A change from typical functioning, including some of the following:
§ Changes in sleep, eating; lower frustration tolerance, clingy behavior, physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches, frequent trips to the nurse), regressive behavior
§ Older children: Increased talk about stress, or refusal to talk; mood swings, tearfulness, irritability; difficulty concentrating; increased hyperactivity; lying; bullying behavior; testing rules with parents and/or teachers; drop in grades; diminished interest in activities/hobbies.
Tips for Helping Children to Manage Stress:
§ If you or your child’s teacher sees warning signs, pay attention to them and seek support.
§ We are our children’s most important role models in handling stress in healthy ways; be aware of what you say and how you act around them!
§ Tell your children you love them – let them know your love is unconditional and will not waver with grades, winning, performance, behavior and mistakes.
§ Create opportunities to talk one-to-one in car rides, bed time, or any time children are less guarded; make sure you give them your full attention, even if you have to put down your cell or stop what you are doing.
§ Morning routines set the tone: A stressful morning can derail the day. Prepare things the night before and leave enough time so YOU don’t feel rushed, and avoid stressful discussions in the car or at breakfast. Make the last interaction in the morning a positive one.
§ Share stories about your experiences in dealing with specific stressors, such as the first day of school, and interview, a party. These stories can be real, made up, or about an older sibling, but they will provide reassurance. Role play with your child about how an anticipated situation might go.
§ Help your children develop time management and decision making skills. Let them make decisions about non-critical things, and learn from their successes and mistakes. Children who are more comfortable making decision will feel more in control and less stressed.
§ Help your children cope with disappointments by helping them process and understand the feeling of disappointment, and differentiating what they can impact (study differently next time) and what they can’t control.
§ Teach your children relaxation skills, such as deep breaths, picturing a positive situation, and relaxing their body.
§ Provide ‘down time’ for your children to play, even if it means letting go of some after school activities. Too much programming, including enrichment, can be stressful!
§ Set realistic expectations for them, recognizing their effort as well as their success. The pursuit of perfection can markedly increase stress levels. Remind them that school is about learning and grades are only one measure of their success.
§ Help them sleep and eat well to give their bodies the right tools to deal with negative stressors.
If you are interested in learning more about general anxiety, test anxiety or ways in which parents can help support anxious student, please contact Diane Ferber, Executive Director at The Collaborative Center, at firstname.lastname@example.org.