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Traditionally, many school-aged children love school and look forward to start of a new school year. But for other children, it’s also a time of great stress. In fact, stress—those overwhelming feelings of doubt about ourselves or our ability to handle things—is as common in children as adults.
The greatest challenge to parents today is teaching children to manage stress effectively. Children may react to excess stress with behavior that seems immature, inappropriate, or even disturbing. One child exhibits anxiety and tears the night before going back to school. Another child speaks of new teacher and asks her parents questions while trying to imagine the teacher's personality. Another child enjoys shopping for school clothes and looks forward to seeing new friends.
Stress can be terrifying to children who lack the emotional maturity or experience to understand and deal with it. The challenge for parents, teachers, and other caretakers include how to recognize signs of stress in children of different ages, how to know when stress threatens to overwhelm a child, and what to do about it.
In Nurture Your Child’s Gift, I offer excellent suggestions to help parents cope with their children’s stress. A stressed-out condition can result from a specific cause or from life in general. Here are some examples:
- At 17, Jen was a high school senior expecting to graduate with honors in the Spring. Just before Christmas, however, Jen’s father lost his job and the family had to move into the basement of a cousin’s house. Jen soon developed a severe allergy, then asthma. The illness cost her so much time from school that she required home-schooling to make up the difference.
- Mark was only two when his parents divorced. Confused, Mark wandered the house, calling plaintively for his father, but weekends with Dad made him cry. Most weekends, Mark developed upset stomachs that were so bad he’d miss preschool on Mondays.
Toddlers need to feel safe and comfortable. Stress for preschool children can arise from a new face at home or at day care, the disappearance of a familiar face, visiting lots of new places at once, or abrupt changes in the family’s structure, relationships or daily routine.
During the grade-school years, children become concerned with pleasing people like teachers, parents, guardians and coaches. School life—even a change in assigned seating or having to take a test—brings higher levels of stress every year. And when it comes to peers, even the threat of diminished acceptance is terrifying. Sleep-overs, birthday parties, sporting events and music competitions can trigger stressful reactions.
Through middle school and beyond, the pressures kids feel from parents, teachers, peers, society at large, and from within increases. Children have to learn adapt to these pressures. Because they have grown in their intelligence, curiosity and knowledge of community, demands for their attention, time, energy and effort can often feel like a tug of war. As in the cases of Mark and Jen, it is not unusual for life-altering events to express themselves in illness. At the University of Missouri, for instance, researcher Mark Flinn found that a child’s risk of upper-respiratory infection increases by 200 percent for the seven days following a high-stress event. And parents like Miranda’s might confuse what they believe are normal behavior with an expression of anxiety. Children often display their tensions in small acts that have aggressive undertones.
How You Can Help
- There are many ways parents can help their children deal with stress and stressful situations.
- Don’t try to fix everything for the child, and avoid offering advice. Sometimes just listening so that your child feels truly heard may be enough to relieve the stress.
- As you listen, ask questions that encourage your child to think a situation through. “What’s the next step?” or “How would you handle that?” are good questions. Ask a lot of “what-if” questions, too.
- Help children listen to themselves. Nurture Your Child’s Gift suggests quiet-time techniques for children to listen to nature sounds like rain or waves upon the beach, to their own heartbeat, or to recordings of whales, dolphins or birds.
- Encourage children to spend time listening to their thoughts. When they feel free to speak their own thoughts aloud about a situation, things suddenly become clear.
- Nurture Your Child’s Gift details a diaphragmatic breathing exercise for kids and parents. Shallow breathing is associated with the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Deeper, effective breathing produces feelings of relaxation and calm.
- Use soothing and rhythmic music, even simple drumming, to help your child relieve muscle tension. It works!
- Don’t overlook exercise for releasing stress and tension. It works for your child just as it does for you. Have children walk the dog, get on the treadmill or stretch through easy yoga movements for children. Any movement they enjoy will help ease stress away.
- Parents can do much to alleviate stress in their children’s lives. Effectively dealing with your own stress is the first step. Showing your kids how to release their stress comes next.
Copyright © Caron B. Goode.
Emotionally healthy children do better in school, find more success as adults, and lead happier lives. They can be happy and fulfilled as they grow up.
Follow these strategies to increase your children’s emotional wellbeing:
1. Be open about your feelings. The world isn’t always positive, and you may have struggled. It helps your children understand your feelings if they see the reality of the world.
- Kids copy their parents, so they’ll mimic your emotions.
- As an emotionally healthy adult, you’ll show your kids that it’s normal to have both positive and negative feelings. If you’re open about them, they’ll be able to learn from you.
- You may be tempted to protect your children from your real emotions. However, you’ll miss a teaching opportunity.
2. Avoid judging feelings. Adults sometimes criticize others and their feelings. Your kids are always watching, so they learn to judge others too.
- When you judge and criticize the emotions of others, you show your kids that it’s normal to make fun of or mock other people.
- They can suffer emotional damage because they learn to criticize others or become scared to show their own feelings.
- It’s also important to avoid labeling feelings as good or bad. Sometimes you may be happy, and sometimes you may be sad, but both are normal. Help your children to accept and not to be ashamed of how they feel.
- You can’t control every aspect of your child’s life. If you try to tell children how to feel, they can become scared to show their true emotions. They learn that they can’t be honest about their feelings, so they stifle or hide them.
- When you tell your kids they have to be happy, you prevent them from figuring out why they don’t feel this way.
- Parents often feel that their kids are an extension of their personalities and expect them to act and feel the same way. However, each child is a unique individual. You can’t expect them to feel the same way as you.
4. Resolve your emotional wounds. You’ll find it difficult to teach your kids how to deal with their feelings when you’re struggling with your own. Kids naturally copy their parents, so they may pick up on your traumas.
- Take care to prevent the emotional wounds from your past or present from carrying over to your children.
5. Ask questions. Kids benefit from opportunities to discuss their emotions. Ask questions and find out how they feel, rather than assuming what they’re feeling.
- When you ask about their feelings, your kids will learn to articulate them. They’ll learn to express their thoughts and emotions.
Emotionally healthy children grow up to be successful and happy adults. They’ll also be able to use these skills when they get older and face challenges. The ability to be emotionally available and knowledgeable is a powerful tool. Your kids will enjoy great advantages from learning about their feelings.
“Play is a uniquely adaptive act, not subordinate to some other adaptive act; but with a special function of its own in human experience.”
Families with children with behavioral disorders...
...may not remember how to play, have fun, and spend peaceful times with each other. Rather, energy is spent in repeating relationships.
When I step in to coach this type of family, who have forgotten, the concept of joy and family time is often painfully absent. Rather, focus is shaped amidst the turmoil and enormous energy spent caring for a child with difficult behaviors.
As parents practice new skills to calm their internal landscapes as well as the environments of their homes, they must also re-learn how to have fun. A vital part of healing the family is reintroducing fun, connective activities, joy and humor into the schedule. A new module in the Coaching Families With Special Needs In Behavioral Regulation provides practical information to help coaches and parents co-create a plan for repairing relationships through family fun.
The other day, when I was in town, I witnessed a shocking event. A funeral procession was slowly making its way down Main Street.. The hearse appeared to have engine trouble at the top of the hill. Suddenly, the back doors of the hearse burst open, and the coffin flew out the back of the vehicle! A few people screamed as the coffin skidded down the street and crashed into a pharmacy at the bottom of the hill. Remarkably, it came to a stop right in front of the pharmacist’s desk. In a flash the lid popped open, and the guy inside asked the pharmacist, “Doctor, doctor! Can you give me something to stop this awful coffin?”
NOTE: What just happened in your brain and body?
Some significant processes occurred in your neurophysiology that have the power to alter not only the way you feel, but also your perception and outlook on past, present, and future situations.
How does the joke relate to self-regulation and repairing family relationships?
[ctt template="5" link="ueYc6" via="yes" ]Laughter IS the best medicine. No, really! It’s true. We had a decent laugh over the joke I just told, and each of you are still benefiting from its effects. @parent_coach[/ctt]
Laughter and humor cause the brain to release ‘feel-good’ endorphins that flood bodies and minds with well-being. Laughter causes us to breathe deeper and fills our lungs and bodies with stress busting oxygen. The wonderful combination of endorphins and oxygen culminates in a feeling of happiness.
Studies conducted by the Mayo Clinic as recently as 2013, show that laughter and smiling relieves depression, anxiety, and helps the body to produce natural painkillers. Additionally, positive self-affirming thoughts, release neuropeptides that improve our immune systems and help us fight stress. This strikes at the heart of our topic.
Neuropeptides make it easier for us to cope in difficult situations. Here are the chemical reactions we WANT to occur more regularly in the brains and bodies of disorganized and dysregulated families and children. This is just the prescription families need to coax them back to emotional balance and relationship; only, they do not know if you are a parenting coach, who arrives to model and teach this concept.
[ctt template="5" link="bza94" via="yes" ]Now, here is the challenge. How do you coach the long-suffering, overwhelmed parents to initiate a plan to have fun while they are still suffering the after effects of secondary trauma and high stress? @parent_coach[/ctt]
Here are some of the challenges you face.
- Some parents do not believe they will ever have fun or smile again.
- Others ache to smile light-heartedly and long to regain some of their previous carefree lives.
- Some parents have convinced themselves that a strict schedule where the child accounts for every minute of the day is the only sane way to keep their child on the straight and narrow; therefore, they do not have time for fun.
- Others are resentful and angry because of the extreme difficulties a behavioral child brings to the family dynamic, resulting in radical changes in lifestyle.
- Parents, brothers and sisters have learned to live compartmentalized and disjointed lives in the chaos and conflict that sometimes ensues when living with a child with disruptive behaviors.
All of these caregivers may believe the simple pleasures of life are long lost. It is likely that none of them know how to break current ingrained negative patterns of interacting and bring family together again in playful ways.
Been There Too!
Referring to my personal experience, I recall feeling old, tired, depleted, and played out. (No pun intended!) However, the words of George Bernard Shaw are appropriate here:, “We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
We know that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and this is true for parents and kids alike. The ramifications of a life without the emotional glue of experiencing happiness, love and joyful interactions with those persons who mean the most to us are profoundly limiting.
So, how do we draw our hard pressed and pressured caregivers out of their old paradigms and beliefs and into the lighter side of life? Here is the four step secret formula to help families begin to have fun together, even while dark clouds linger.
- Administer fun in small measured daily doses.
- Monitor frequently for signs of heightened stress or conflict.
- Troubleshoot prevention, intervention, and exit and salvage strategies with parents should activities show signs of spiraling downward.
- Reflection of the effects on each family member is encouraged.
. How we parents communicate and demonstrate conversations with our children speaks louder than any intention or goal. A parent coach or family consultant trains parents and family members in communications skills. How are your communications skills?
Not Like This
"Caron, speak up." My father screamed. Other statements he used were....
"Quit mumbling. Stop mumbling. You are driving me nuts."
My father was a man with a hearing loss, probably acquired from his stent of service in the second world war. He boasted how he was lucky to be alive despite the shard of metal in his brain. He drank a lot which often resulted in being a happy drunk until he couldn't hear what one of his children said. Then, his short fuse resulted in the not-so-nice screaming bout.
The story of my father demonstrates how truly important establishing two-way communication within families is. Two-way communication implies two people are speaking, but also listening, as well as respecting, opinions and solutions. Two-way communication suggests that listening receives as much respect as speaking.
Communication styles are characterized by the way people want to appear and be heard:
- People want to look (or attempt to appear) a certain way when communicating. For example, it was necessary to my father that he raised his voice and corrected me because he was the "boss."
Unclear, poor communication leaves family members unhappy and lonely. If your communication skills are lacking, then a family member may be miserable and feel alone. These tips can help you improve the opportunities for being heard, speaking your truth, and inviting conversations with your children.
Ten Right-Way Communication Skills for the Home
Fostering a more favorable environment in your home includes offering opportunities for discussions and space for disagreements, Try these communication strategies
1. Be open and honest with one another. While being honest, be kind when saying something that may cause a family member any distress. Children are more receptive to calm voices, kind words, and tone of voice, but then, isn't everyone?
2. Have some fun each day. Family fun doesn't have to take up a lot of time. It can be as simple as having ice cream cones or playing with your pets. Simple tasks or rituals make a significant difference in how the communication flows in a home, mainly when people are engaged in functions together.
3. Set priorities for chores that everyone must do. Agree on who does what chores and when they should do them, so everyone participates in age-appropriate tasks. Write them on a chore chart ahead of time to prevent arguments!
4. Keep privacy boundaries. Adults and kids both need their privacy on a regular basis. Ensure that the kids understand the importance of respecting this priority.
5. Have a family meeting each week to discuss family issues. Find a time in which everyone in the family can attend. Hold the meeting every week, preferably at the same time. In the meeting, let each family member speak their mind, even if it's a complaint. Solve challenges, run ideas by each other, and make plans for the future together.
6. Allow free time. Everyone needs some time to do things on their own or with their friends. Meeting this need will help each family member feel more satisfied, fulfilled, and open to communicating.
7. Spend holidays and special events together as a family. Strengthen your family bond with special occasion family traditions. Let the kids share their ideas about the occasion, too.
8. Establish a weekly family night. Make time just to enjoy being together. Watch movies, play games, or have story time. Encourage laughter and open communication.
9. Learn to negotiate. Learning to compromise and come up with win-win solutions for everyone involved is a priceless skill that will serve your family members well throughout their lives.
10. Say, "I love you." Each day, remember to show your spouse and kids how much you love them. Share loving, encouraging words and hugs freely throughout the day - even if it's a hard day, especially if it's a hard day!)
A happy home promotes a supportive place to live, play, and look forward to the future! A comfortable home welcomes your loved ones when they return from work or other outings. They can leave the stresses of the outside world behind as they enter the warm sanctuary of home. Practice these communication strategies to create an inviting environment in your home because you shape the foundation for your child's ability to get along in life.