But when you’re a stressed-out kid, it is!
As adults, we often think about how easy life would be if we could go back to elementary school — a world of art projects, recess and summer vacation.
The truth is that it would be easy only if we could go back as our adult selves. As adults, we know that the class bully is insecure and probably has a rough home life. We know that a bad grade on a report card or not getting an invitation to the popular kid’s bowling party isn’t the end of the world. It’s easy to forget that our kid selves didn’t have the luxury of that insight, nor do schoolchildren today.
To an adult the worries of a child can seem trivial. Often parents minimize or fail to recognize stress in children. Kids are affected by the same types of stressors — divorce, financial strain, chronic illness, etc. — as adults, yet they lack the coping skills for such experiences. Not to mention eustress, or good stress. Even fun events like birthday parties, holidays and basketball games are stressful.
No one is born with a handbook for how to handle life — we all have to figure things out as we go along. Children look to the adults in their lives to learn how to respond to stress. You have the opportunity to help your children respond to stress appropriately and to foster them through an important developmental stage.
According to renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, children ages 6 to 12 years are in the psychosocial developmental stage of industry vs. inferiority. The primary objective of this stage is for children to develop competency and a sense of accomplishment. If their overall perception of self is that they are unable to do well in school, make friends, etc., they will be set up for a life of feeling inferior and incapable.
However, if they can develop a sense of accomplishment and achievement, they move toward becoming industrious and successful, and are more likely to master the next stages of development: self-identity and interpersonal relationships.
Children are quite vulnerable with regard to how they are perceived by their peers, teachers, coaches and parents during this time of life. Often their stress is related to social acceptance and academic or athletic performance. Additionally, as children enter middle childhood and preadolescence and develop logical thinking, their worries evolve from monsters in the closet to events such as tornadoes and car accidents. Regardless of how silly or unfounded you feel your child’s worries are, be sure to acknowledge what she’s feeling and spend time talking to her about it.
It’s important to be proactive in managing stress so your children are equipped to react appropriately. Take a few minutes in the evening to have each family member name the high and low points of the day,in a couple of sentences. This will allow you to identify stressors, to show your kids you value them and want to know what’s going on in their lives, and to model healthy communication.
Evaluate the “busyness” of your child’s life. Children can be overwhelmed with too many activities. Lifestyle habits can contribute to stress. Kids should sleep eight to nine hours every night, go to bed within two hours of bedtime on weekends, avoid caffeine, drink 48 to 64 ounces of water throughout the day, avoid skipping meals and eat a balanced diet.
Not all children express stress in the same way. Some become quiet and introspective; others act out and are angry; some turn to physical comforts such as food; and others have somatic symptoms such as abdominal pain and headaches. Younger children may not be able to verbalize accurately what they feel, which can be quite frustrating for them. You can help your kids identify their emotions by connecting the correct term (anger, frustration, sadness, fear, etc.) to their feelings.
Relaxation techniques, such as visualizing the ocean, slow deep-breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are all effective stress-reducers that are easy for children to learn. Help your kids recognize physical signs of stress: feeling nervous or worried; achy shoulders, neck or back; rapid breathing; upset stomach; headaches; etc. Encourage them to practice relaxation techniques every night at bedtime, which will prepare them to use these techniques when they feel stressed and to fall asleep.
Children who learn coping skills and appropriate ways to handle stress when they are young are more likely to maintain emotional well-being as adults. Some kids continue to have a difficult time with stress or managing their emotions in spite of a parent’s best efforts. Don’t hesitate to talk to your child’s health care provider if worry or stress is significantly impacting his quality of life — even young kids can suffer from anxiety and depression.
The best way to help your children manage stress is to be available and accessible to them. As the author M. Grundler once said, “The best inheritance a parent can give to his children is a few minutes of time each day.”
Susan Beaird, MSN, RN, CPNP, is a PNP at Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN, and instructor for Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. Specializing in pediatric neurology, she cares for children with headaches.