Adults are all too familiar with the concept of stress—we live with it almost every day to some extent. Not so surprisingly, American children are sadly experiencing chronic stress as well. In fact, data indicates that pharmaceutical use for children with emotional disorders has risen to an alarming rate, as has the suicide rate for adolescents. We know from our own personal experiences that mounting stress has an enormous ripple effect on our day-to-day lives. Sleeping patterns, eating habits, productivity, social/emotional well-being—all of these factors are very much correlated to stress levels. If we adults sometimes find ourselves in the weeds when it comes to stress, how can we expect children to react to an increase in stress?
The solution to stress in children should not involve managing stressors once they have reached their peak, but rather helping children avoid getting to that point of eruption. Here are a few tips to help parents take a proactive approach to stress:
Pack the schedule with pockets of “downtime,” as opposed to more activities. Of course children yearn to participate, whether it be dance class, soccer practice, after-school camp, science club, etc. This enthusiasm should not be discouraged, but it is a parent’s job to manage a realistic schedule and to keep it manageable. Yes, things will pop up—parties or sleepovers or field trips will emerge from the woodwork. However, downtime is essential for children to maintain their mental health. Often times, a child or adolescent’s stress levels mount when they feel incapable of maintaining the balancing act. To avoid this, allow time in the family’s daily schedule to do absolutely nothing. These pockets of time can be used for anything—a school project, extra violin practice, reading, or simply relaxing. The key here is that the time is used to keep that overbooked sense of urgency at bay.
Explicitly discuss stress and where it comes from. The more your teen recognizes where and when his or her stress emerges, the better equipped he or she will be able to anticipate and circumvent the stressor. For instance, if procrastination or last-minute rushing is the catalyst, teach time management strategies and how to plan ahead.
Similarly, if you know your child’s stressors, help him or her to prepare for upcoming events that might cause anxiety or stress. If you know that your child despises the dentist, give him or her a heads-up about an upcoming appointment. Explain that nervous feelings are valid, but that the pros of going to the dentist far exceed the temporary uneasiness.
Think of outlets for stress. In the same way that we hit the gym to expel the stress of the day, allow your child to explore options to clear his or her mind and body of any angst. If a walk around the block the morning before an important recital keeps the jitters at bay, make that a routine. Or, bring a stress ball to the dreaded dentist appointment. When said event is over, celebrate your child’s bravery, tenacity, and composure.