In our fast-paced society, children are dealing with more stress than ever before, yet many parents and other adults are oblivious to their problems. Think about it, though. Children feel stress from changes, from disruption of routine, from social pressures, and from isolation, just like adults do. And their lives are full of these things: annual changes in school routine, daily pressure from peers, isolation because they do not control most aspects of their lives, and disruption of routine even from fun events like vacations or school holidays. The main differences are that children have fewer coping mechanisms than their adult counterparts and that they are less likely to have the resources to solve their own stress-related problems.
Acknowledge the situation. Children's stress might look different from adult stress, but it is very real. Too often, parents or caregivers simply refuse to acknowledge or notice that there is a problem. In addition to the things that stress adults, children's lives are full of control issues that contribute to their stress load. They are usually told what they will be doing, with whom and when. They also feel additional stress from incomplete understanding of the world around them. However, stress has the same consequences for children as it does for adults. It can cause physical and emotional symptoms, and even damage long-term health.
Recognize the symptoms. We adults are generally in tune with our minds and bodies enough to recognize stress, analyze it, and deal with it. Children do not have the experience to do so. They also may not have the language skills to express their discomfort. Instead, children under stress may act out, have tantrums, whine, or isolate themselves. They might act stubborn, display a lack of patience, or have trouble concentrating. They may talk about physical problems, such as headaches, stomachaches, soreness or lack of energy. It's easy to pass off the symptoms of stress as behavior problems and try to deal with them in that way. Parents and caregivers need to be detectives to untangle symptoms and get to the root of the trouble.
Teach communication skills. For many children, words come much later than the need to communicate. This in itself contributes to stress. You can help kids learn to understand what's going on inside their bodies with simple exercises, and you can teach the words that will help them tell others what's the matter. Children as young as three can benefit from these and similar exercises.
Start by teaching the difference between tense and relaxed. Have the child pretend to be a wooden soldier. You might need to demonstrate how to march around the room in this way. Use words like "stiff" and "hard." After marching awhile, try lying on the floor and making the same movements. Next, have the child keep the muscles stiff but still. This is the feeling of "tense." Once your child can tense muscles on command, he or she can learn to relax on command, too.
Teach relaxation exercises. Start with a simple exercise: Have the child tense and then relax muscle groups from the bottom of the body to the top. Instruct him or her to tense the feet first for ten to thirty seconds, then relax. Move upward, tensing and releasing each body part. Even this simple exercise can help young children learn to relax.
Young children can also learn a technique called "palming." It's surprisingly soothing and very simple to try. Rub hands together quickly so that friction warms the palms, then lay the warmed palms on the closed eyelids while breathing deeply. Quiet your mind while you enjoy the warmth. It feels wonderful!
Teach visualization techniques. Many relaxation techniques are built on visualization. Children are naturally good at this; they call it 'pretending'! Try having your child visualize him or herself on a soft pile of feathers or on a warm sandy beach. Talk about becoming lighter and lighter until your whole body floats away. Another popular visualization is traveling away in a large balloon. These are especially effective after using the muscle relaxing exercise described in step four.
Another common visualization for stress management with children is the idea that stress is heavy and can flow outward through the soles of your feet. Have the child mentally open the bottoms of his or her feet and let the tension drop downward and out onto the floor.
Create a soothing environment. Children, like adults, respond to stimulation in the environment. They also find the same sorts of things to be soothing. If your child is stressed, try modifying the environment. Add some soothing, quiet music, burn a scented candle or use a mildly scented air freshener, or add some white noise. Recordings of natural sounds might be soothing for some, and even quiet appliances like fans or fish tank pumps can be quite soothing.
Teach feeling words. You can also help children lower their stress levels by teaching words that will help them express what's going on inside themselves. Teach the names for stressful feelings, like anger, sorrow, grief, anxiety, and so forth. Talk together about stressful situations and encourage expressive artwork. Don't assume that because you are not hearing about stress or feelings from your child that the feelings are not there. Many young children simply do not know how to express what is bothering them. Spend time alone with the child and offer hypothetical statements such as, "Boy, if my cat had just died, I sure would feel sad. I'd be so sad that it might make my stomach hurt just like yours does." You can also offer memories of your own feelings in similar situations.
Use drama and role play. Many times, children are best able to express themselves through dramatic art. Make puppets, costumes and similar props available for your child to use and allow him or her to create scenes and situations to work through. These can well give you clues about what is causing the stress in his or her life.
We can all use more information about handling stress. If you want more information and strategies, you can discuss the situation with a medical professional. There are also resources on the Internet. Try these websites:
Children need adult help to learn about managing stress. It's very real in their lives, but even the oldest and most verbal kids often don't have the tools they need to communicate about stress or to alleviate it. They need help from the adults in their life to better understand stress, its effect on our bodies, and how to cope with it effectively. Won't you help?