A parent’s guide for teaching problem solving and self-awareness
Experts say stress can be contagious. While some stress is normal and can even be useful, today’s families now face more stress than ever before.
If children can learn to respond to stress in a healthy and constructive way early on, they will be more resilient and better able to cope with whatever life sends their way. Parents and caregivers are often in the best position to teach their children life-long stress management skills, and there are many strategies that can help.
What is stress?
In fact, successfully managing stressful situations or events enhances a child’s ability to cope today and in the future. Whether your child is feeling stress from a normal everyday stressor or from something out of the ordinary, you can help him or her cope with stress reactions by showing them effective stress management techniques.
Stress is an automatic reaction that happens in your body when there is a perceived threat. The release of chemicals (such as the hormone adrenaline) sharpens your senses, focuses attention, quickens breathing, dilates blood vessels, increases your heart rate, and tenses your muscles.
This is the “fight or flight” response that prepares us to act quickly to tackle or avoid danger. Stress is a normal, everyday occurrence. We tend to think of stress as a bad thing, but a certain amount of it actually helps us feel alert, energized and interested in life. However, too much stress, particularly when we don’t have any control over it, can make people unhappy and can interfere with their ability to respond to everyday tasks and challenges. Stress can also lead to health problems.
Stress is like a guitar string
Just as a guitar string needs to have the right amount of stress or tension to make music, we all need some stress in our lives to get us moving and motivate us to be our best. But if the string is stretched too tightly, it will break. Human beings operate similarly to the guitar string—we need just the right amount of stress to perform well and feel good, but too much stress can make us snap!
Taking control of stress
Simple stress relievers include thinking more optimistically, talking to a trusted adult, taking a breather or doing something active, like running or playing basketball. To help your children learn more about the stress response, watch a short video together called “What is Stress” under the “Parents” tab at morethanmedication.ca/stress_lessons/parents. Dr. Robin C. Alter suggests encouraging your child to talk about what they were most surprised to learn about stress—and how it affects our bodies and minds.
How to recognize it in your children
Although it’s not always easy to recognize when kids are stressed out, short-term behavioural changes such as mood swings, acting out and changes in sleep patterns can be indications. Some kids experience physical effects, including stomach-aches and headaches. Others have trouble concentrating or completing schoolwork. Still others become withdrawn or spend a lot of time alone.
To recognize possible signs of stress, anxiety and distress in your child, be on the lookout for the following physical clues:
• whining • poor listening • crying • nail biting • day dreaming • fighting with friends and family • being overly cautious • poor school performance • lack of appetite or eating more than usual • tense muscles • headaches or stomach-aches • being cold • disturbed sleep • poor concentration • forgetfulness • difficulty problem-solving • being easily distracted • confusion
When does stress become too much?
Some stressors in a child’s life may take the form of “daily hassles” that are typically short-lived. Examples include having to adjust to a new classroom schedule, meeting new people or feeling pressure
to do well on a test.
Be attentive and seek professional help if:
• stress is interfering in your child’s life and stopping them from doing the things that are important • your child is constantly seeking abnormal amounts of reassurance • your child is not coping well with daily stressors • as a parent, you would like to discuss parenting strategies and ways of increasing your child’s resilience
Stress is contagious: dealing with your own stress
Dealing with stress can be difficult. However, the most important thing to remember is that you are only in control of your own actions and reactions. And learning to deal with your own stress properly can have a profound impact on not only you, but those that are close to you as well.
If children see parents using stress-reduction tools in tense moments, they will learn by example.
Want to know how stressed you are?
Take our quick quiz. Answer each of the following statements with “yes” or “no.”
• I feel nervous or anxious a lot • I take quick, shallow breaths • I suffer from depression and/or fatigue • I have chronic tension in parts of my body (raised shoulders, etc) • I have ongoing health problems (hives, headaches, indigestion, etc).
If you answered “yes” to three or more of these questions, stress management techniques might be beneficial to you.
Dealing with your own stress as a parent in a healthy manner will have a positive effect on the people around you, especially your children.