Coping strategies for kids & families.
With the advancements and modern ways of doing things in the twenty-first century, it’s a pretty busy world. So it’s no secret that people of all ages, including babies and young children, may feel the effects of stress now and then. Although some stress is normal, it can get out of hand and cause problems in adults and children alike. Stress is here to stay, but there are some very effective ways in which you and your kids can manage it.
What, Exactly, Is Stress?
According to the dictionary, stress is body or mental tension caused by physical, chemical or emotional factors. Stressors, which are challenges or threats to our well-being, along with change, can cause stress. Some stress is considered good, as it is associated with positive events, such as the birth of a baby, or, for a student, making honor roll. These positive, happy times still carry stress. A new baby is a wonderful, welcome addition to a family, but the many new responsibilities and activities involved can be stressful for new parents. The proud sixth-grader who makes honor roll knows that it comes with assignments that are done correctly and on time, and tests that require much preparation. For most kids, the real problems arise when stress becomes distress. Chronic stress or distress can affect all areas of health and well-being, and have lifelong consequences if not addressed.
The Power of Adrenaline
When your child experiences stress, adrenaline, a powerful chemical, is released in response. Adrenaline increases heart rate and breathing. It also leads to increased sweating, and power-supplies blood to essential organs — the brain, heart and muscles. In addition, muscle tension, headaches and stomachaches are common symptoms of stress. All of this results in a surge in strength and mental alertness, commonly known as fight-or-flight syndrome, making us ready to respond or retreat from the situation.
Signs of Stress
Children exhibit signs of stress in many different ways, some more obvious than others. Irritability, mood swings, constant worrying and crying can indicate that your child may be experiencing distress. Also, changes in sleep patterns, including nightmares, and an increase in or lack of appetite can be signs of stress. Generally, there are two most common indicators of stress in kids: negative changes in behavior and regression. Regression involves a child returning to a previous phase of development — such as a nine-year-old suddenly sucking her thumb.
Dealing With Stress
One of the most important things you can do during high-stress times is to support your child in developing her own coping strategies. There is a concept called resiliency, which involves the positive factors in a child’s or adolescent’s life that help her bounce back from troublesome times, including stress and crisis. Two important components of resiliency are supportive environments and the development of positive coping skills. Here are stress-management tips you can use to help your child.
• Eat more stress-busting foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
• Limit or avoid caffeine-containing foods and beverages.
• Encourage daily, age-appropriate exercise, as physical activity is known to counter the negative effects of stress.
• Make sleep a priority for your child. Getting the right amount of sleep each night is a great defense against stress.
• Teach your child some simple relaxation techniques to use daily to diffuse stress. Deep breathing, counting to ten, and repeating phrases such as “I’m ok” or “It’s alright” can actually help your child through the tense times.
• Let your child know that it’s ok to talk with you or a trusted adult, such as her teacher, if she’s having a bad day.
• Don’t hesitate to use a little humor to break tension from time to time. Remember that laughter — a natural stress-buster — really can be the best medicine.
• Help your child prioritize activities and assignments that are most important, and possibly eliminate those that are not. For example, if an after-school sport or club is on her schedule every day, but she is having trouble completing her homework every night, help her pick something that’s ok to let go. Our over-scheduled kids need to know that they are going to have fun and be successful even if they don’t “do it all!”
• Teach your child to be more flexible, and let him know that it’s ok to adjust his schedule, after-school time and life, to reduce stress. Remember: Even the branches of the strongest trees are designed to bend so they don’t break.
If you have tried the strategies above, but your child still seems to be in over his head, he may be experiencing distress, and it may be time to consider getting professional help. Speak with your child’s health care provider if:
• Stress is interfering with his daily functions, including school, play and friends.
• He is having difficulty managing anger, or is experiencing increased outbursts.
• He seems more tired, overwhelmed or irritable than usual.
• He is engaging in risk-taking behavior, such as experimenting with alcohol.
These may be signs of a serious form of stress, and your child should be evaluated to get the help he needs.
Remember that you — the parent — are the most important factor in helping your child to manage stress. Your love, support and encouragement are key to his coping successfully with life’s challenging moments.
Patti Lucarelli, MSN, CPNP, APN, RN-BC, PMHS, is a PNP at the Jane H. Booker Family Health Center, Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Neptune, NJ. She is also Chair of the Ready, Set, Grow Editorial Board.