One thing that parents and kids have in common is stress. While the sources may differ and reactions may vary, everyone, at some point, experiences undue anxiety. Stress is an inevitable part of life created by a physiological reaction to an uncomfortable situation. In fact, if one never experiences any anxiety, that is actually a bigger problem than having anxiety.
Interestingly, stress also can be a positive emotion. Good stress motivates and energizes kids, often pushing them to do better, and a little ‘fear’ can cause kids to work harder and study more. To understand how stress is impacting your child, it is important to recognize the different types of reactions that one may have.
Acute stress is a short-lived response to a particular event such as a big test. It is a very common feeling and, in some cases, can be interpreted as bodily excitement such as the nerves associated with starring in the school play. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is ongoing anxiety that continually taxes one’s body and mind. It is not exciting or motivating; rather, it wears on the body and can cause a mental meltdown. If a child is experiencing a high number of acute episodes or is in a persistent, chronic state, it is a problem that needs professional assistance.
It can, however, be difficult to decipher between problematic behaviors and developmentally appropriate responses because children of different ages react differently to stressful situations. A preschooler may excessively cry, tremble with fright, or run aimlessly. During the elementary years, an overly anxious child may demonstrate regressive behaviors, develop irrational fears, or have persistent physical illness such as head and stomach aches. An overly angst-ridden teen may become socially withdrawn, act out, or appear frequently confused.
Ignoring stress will most likely cause increased anxiety for your son or daughter. However, knowing when to approach your child and what to say might strain your parental nerves. Observe and learn when your kids might be most willing to talk. Is it before bedtime, after diner, or during car rides? Initiate a conversation but avoid flinging questions. Also consider creating a ‘covert’ activity such as a weekly donut date where conversation is actively encouraged. Availability provides opportunity for your child to speak with you about any topic.
When your child does finally decide it’s time to dialogue—listen. Stop what you are doing and provide your full attention. It can be difficult to avoid strong reactions, but parents should respond with empathy and focus on the emotional content of the conversation. Parents who minimize their offspring’s feelings shut the door to future problem-solving sessions.
Unfortunately, anxious adolescents turn into anxious adults. And while encouraging conversations is an important component of stress reduction, kids need to learn ongoing ways to reduce life’s tension. Distraction is an excellent way to provide regular relief. A physical activity or an engaging hobby will take individuals of any age away from the daily grind. Having fun is a powerful mood enhancer.
For ‘in the moment relief,’ kids, especially younger ones, need to learn how to ‘just’ breathe. An anxious person takes small, shallow breaths using their upper chest. To reduce stress, air needs to flow smoothly from the abdomen. Model this for your children and they will quickly learn this easy to implement strategy.
Kids have a lot to worry about, despite the carefree lifestyles we adults think they may lead. Interestingly, the one thing kids do not worry about is their parental relationship. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association noted that only 8 percent of surveyed children and teens cited mom and dad as a source of their stressful woes. Doing well in school and family finances topped the list of major worries.
Whenever there is change, it is important for parents to understand that situational stress is an appropriate and reasonable reaction. If you feel, however, that your child’s anxiety is too intense, lasts longer than it should, or occurs more frequently than is typical, trust your parental instincts and seek further assistance. Your school’s counselor or family pediatrician is a great place to find guidance and professional recommendations.