A young girl sits in my office, describing the “swishy” feeling that she gets in her stomach when she’s at school. It tends to happen at drop-off, just after lunch and as she watches the clock tick toward the end of the day. It happens so often that she knows she’s not actually sick, but it bothers her just the same. She can’t find a way to make it go away, and that makes it hard to concentrate.
The thing is, she actually is sick to her stomach. This 7-year-old is, quite literally, worried sick. Stress and anxiety trigger that “swishy” feeling in her stomach, and without adequate strategies to work through it, that feeling is there to stay.
By the time young worriers get to me, they’ve been silently fighting these feelings for quite some time. Although kids are under increased stress these days, most don’t really know what it means to feel stress. What they do know is that they have headaches, stomachaches, nightmares and an intense feeling of wanting to stay close to home.
According to the results of the Stress in America Survey released by the American Psychological Association, teens report higher levels of stress than adults during the school year. Findings from the survey show that 31 percent of teens report feeling overwhelmed by stress, 30 percent say stress makes them sad or depressed, and 36 percent have experienced fatigue because of stress. Yet nearly half of teens surveyed (42 percent) responded that they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t sure if they’re doing enough, to manage their stress.
If teens, who are fairly aware of the stress impacting their lives, struggle to find ways to manage, how can we expect younger children to cope?
When parents come to my office with their stressed-out little ones, we talk about goals first. What is it that they hope to gain from treatment? More often than not, parents want me to magically erase the stress from their child’s lives. They want it to go away. I sometimes wish I had a magic wand to serve just that purpose, but removing stress from the lives of our children isn’t a realistic goal.
Parents are always on a mission to protect their kids from the hard stuff, it seems. Bully-proof your kid. Stress-proof your kid. Intervene at school at the slightest sign of discomfort, which essentially boils down to school-proofing your child. Here’s the deal: Kids experience stress and discomfort and they will encounter difficult situations. It’s impossible to completely remove stress from the lives of our children. There isn’t a way to stress-proof our children. What we can do, though, is teach our kids to be stress-savvy.
When we take the time to educate our children about stress and teach them strategies to use when they feel anxious and overwhelmed, we not only normalize the complex emotions that sometimes confuse young children, but we teach them how to manage and cope with their stress.
Here’s how to do it:
Help them connect the dots. Childhood stress can be hard to spot. The symptoms often mimic common physical complaints and it can be hard to know when to intervene. The problem, of course, is that if it is left untreated, stress can result in anxiety, depression, poor school performance and exacerbated symptoms of asthma, allergies and diabetes.
To help your child connect the dots, draw the outline of a body and pinpoint different places where stress can cause problems. It’s important to address the fact that all kids are different. If your child has frequent headaches before or after school, for example, it could be a symptom of stress. For another child, however, stomach problems might be the obvious clue.
Talk about the fact that muscle tension in the arms can result in aches and pains in the arms, shoulders and neck. Discuss how grinding the teeth and tensing the jaw can lead to headaches.
The more kids understand the connection between symptoms and stress, the better able they will be to seek help. To that end, talk about these common symptoms of stress in kids:
• Headaches and stomachaches
• Sleep disturbance
• Changes in eating habits
• Quick to anger or frequent tears for unknown reasons
• Not wanting to participate in normal daily activities
• Nervous or anxious habits such as nail biting and hair twirling/pulling
• Withdrawing from friends
• Behavioral regression
Create a stress-free zone. All kids are different, and there is no one “right” way to cope with stress. Most young children can benefit, though, from having a designated spot where they can escape. The particular location can vary from child to child, to suit their personalities.
For a child who loves music and art, for example, create a corner that includes a music player with headphones, art supplies and a cozy spot to sit, listen and create. For a more active kid who needs to move, the retreat might be stocked with a jump rope, stress balls and dough to pound.
Coloring books are a great way for kids to release pent-up tension while taking a break (there’s a reason those “adult” coloring books are so popular), and bubbles can help kids learn to utilize deep breathing.
Find a deep breathing exercise that works. Deep relaxation breathing is the best way to calm down when stress and/or anxiety become overwhelming. Given that everyone has individual needs and preferences, there isn’t one magic breathing exercise that works for all. Try these, and practice daily:
• Rainbow Breathing: Ask your child to sit comfortably with his eyes closed and practice breathing in for a count of four, holding for four, then breathing out for four. Take an imaginary walk on a rainbow while your child practices deep breathing. Ask your child to think about his favorite red things on the red stripe, his favorite orange things on orange and continue until you finish the rainbow.
• Balloon breathing: Blowing up balloons is a great metaphor for kids because they understand that to inflate a balloon you need to use controlled breathing. Ask your child to close his eyes and count his breathing while imagining that he’s inflating a balloon of his favorite color. When the balloon is full, cue your child to visualize the balloon floating away into the clouds.
• Guided imagery: Some kids enjoy storytelling, and this can be a great way to calm the senses while engaging in deep breathing. Have your child sit comfortably with his eyes closed and ask him to describe an imaginary place he would like to visit. While your child focuses on his breathing, take him on a guided trip to his calming destination. Be sure to provide gentle reminders about slow, deep breathing along the journey.
Childhood stress can have a variety of triggers, and it can sneak up on kids. Open and honest communication about feelings and emotions reminds kids that they can seek help when life feels complicated, but the best gift you can give your child is unconditional love. Kids will encounter stress and hard days, that’s part of life. Knowing that you will listen and help them empowers them to work through their stress, instead of stuffing it down and potentially making it worse.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.
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