Helping Children Handle Stress

How can we help our children handle the stresses of everyday life?

In middle childhood, pressures may come from a number of sources-from within the child herself, as well as from parents, teachers, peers and the larger society in which the child lives. Pressure can take many forms that challenge children and to which they must respond and, often, adapt. Whether these are events of lasting consequence like the divorce of their parents, or merely a minor hassle like losing their homework, these demands or stresses are a part of children’s daily existence.

Children welcome some events and are able to adapt to them with relative ease. They perceive other events as threats to their own or the family’s daily routines or general sense of well-being, and these stresses are more troublesome. Most stress faced by children is in the middle, neither welcomed nor seriously harmful, but rather a part of accomplishing the tasks of childhood and learning about themselves.

Youngsters may also worry about making friends, succeeding in school, combating peer pressure or overcoming a physical impairment. Whatever its form, if stress is too intense or long-lasting, it can sometimes take a toll on children. Clusters of stressful events seem to predispose children to illness. Major events, especially those that forever change a child’s family, like the death of a parent, can have lasting effects on children’s psychological health and well-being. Minor daily stresses can also have consequences. They can contribute to loss of sleep or appetite. Children may become angry or irritable or their school grades may suffer. Their behavior and their willingness to cooperate may change.

How different children cope with stress

Children’s temperaments vary and thus they are quite different in their ability to cope with stress and daily hassles. Some are easygoing by nature and adjust easily to events and new situations. Others are thrown off balance by changes in their lives. All children improve in their ability to handle stress if they previously have succeeded in managing challenges and if they feel they have the ability and the emotional support of family and friends. Children who have a clear sense of personal competence, and who feel loved and supported, generally do well.

Certainly, a child’s age and development will help determine how stressful a given situation may be. Changing teachers at midyear may be a major event for a child in the first grade and merely an annoyance for a sixth-grader. Being short may be a minor issue for a 5- or 6-year-old boy but a source of daily embarrassment for an adolescent. How a child perceives and responds to stress depends in part on development, in part on experience, and in part on a child’s individual temperament.

Ironically, many parents believe that their school-age children are unaware of the stresses around them and are somehow immune to them. After all, their children not only have all their basic needs met, but perhaps they also have a roomful of toys, friends to share them with, plenty of playtime, and a full schedule of extracurricular activities.

Yet children are very sensitive to the changes around them, especially to the feelings and reactions of their parents, even if those feelings are not communicated directly in words. If a parent loses a job, children will have to adjust to their family’s financial crisis; they must deal not only with the obvious family budgetary changes but also with the changes in their parents’ emotional states. Children may have to cope with a bully on the playground, a move to a new neighborhood, a parent’s serious illness or the disappointment of a poor sports performance. They might feel a constant, nagging pressure to dress the “right” way, or to achieve the high grades that can put them on the fast track toward the “right” college.

Stress and today’s middle-years child

Some psychologists believe that today’s middle-years youngsters actually are faced with more stress than the children of previous generations were and have fewer social supports available. The change in family structure from the large, supportive, extended families (including both parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents) of previous generations, to the present high incidence of divorced families, single-parent families and stepfamilies has drastically altered the experience of childhood. Millions of youngsters must adjust to such changes.

Even in intact and stable families, the growing number of households with two working parents often forces children to spend more time in after-school programs or at home alone. For some children this loss of time with their parents is quite stressful. So, too, is the responsibility for caring for themselves and the family home and sometimes for overseeing a younger sibling after school.

Many children and their families are stressed by the multiple activities that fill children’s “free time.” Overscheduled children with inadequate “down time” can become exhausted.

Today’s children are also being raised in an era in which they are exposed to violence and peer pressure about sexual activity and drug use and are warned to be cautious about kidnapping, sexual abuse and other crimes. This sense that they are living in an unsafe world is a constant source of stress for some children. In short, today’s youngsters are regularly confronted with challenges to their coping skills and often are expected to grow up too fast.

Good and bad stress

Not all stress is bad. Moderate amounts of pressure imposed by a teacher or a coach, for example, can motivate a child to keep her grades up in school or to participate more fully in athletic activities. Successfully managing stressful situations or events enhances a child’s ability to cope in the future.

When the stress is continuous or particularly intense, it takes a toll on both the psyche and the body. Sudden stressful events will accelerate your child’s breathing and heartbeat, constrict her blood vessels, increase her blood pressure and muscle tension and perhaps cause stomach upset and headaches. As stress persists, she might be more susceptible to illness and experience fatigue, nightmares, teeth-grinding, insomnia, tantrums, depression and school failure.


Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics). The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.


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Helping Your Child Cope with Conflict

Help Children Act Calm

  • Let them know that it takes more courage to walk away from a fight than to stay and fight.
  • Teach them that fights don’t solve problems—they make new ones.
  • Remind them that when they get mad but don’t fight, they have really won.

Sometimes, getting along with other kids is hard. Some kids:

  • Get into fights when they are angry.
  • Get teased a lot.
  • Encourage others to fight.

This can make your child feel bad or get in trouble. Teach your child how to deal with anger and stay out of trouble.

Everyone Gets Mad

Anger doesn’t usually last a long time, but it is a very strong feeling when it happens. Children get mad when:

  • Their feelings are hurt or they can’t do what they want.
  • Others don’t understand them or lie about them.
  • They feel left out or others don’t act the way they want.

When children are mad, their bodies react:

  • Their hearts beat faster and their faces feel hot and sweaty.
  • It might be hard to breathe and they can’t think clearly.
  • They have a lot of energy and want action.

When children are angry, it is:

  • Good to put their feelings into words.
  • Not good to hit someone, break things, or say things that hurt.

Teach Your Child to ACT CALM

When children get mad, they can ACT:

Acknowledge – Acknowledge angry  feelings.Notice changes in their bodies.

Calm down – Breathe deeply, count t o 10, or walk away.Punch a pillow, run, or play music.

Think and talk – Think about the problem and ways to fix it. If someone doesn’t know what children are trying to say or do, they need to explain themselves.Talk with someone about being mad and ways to fix  the problem without fighting. If there is nobody to talk to right away, stop and think, “This is why I’m mad and what I need to do is …”

If someone tries to start a fight, your child can be the one to stay CALM:

Calm down – Keep a safe distance from the other person. Take slow, deep breaths. Stay alert and stand tall.

Avoid – Avoid name-calling or returning insults. It only makes things worse. Avoid other kids who may want to fight. Try to talk in private with the kid who wants to fight.

Listen – Calmly listen to what the other kid says. Ask, “What does this person really want?”

Move on – Find ways to solve the problem without fighting. Use humor. “I wouldn’t want you to catch my cold.”Give a reason.  “We’ll both get thrown off the team if we fight.” Walk away. If nothing else works, it’s best to walk away.

Children do what they see others do. You are your child’s most important role model.

If your child is still having trouble getting along with other kids, talk with your pediatrician.


Source: Connected Kids: Safe, Strong, Secure (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics) The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.


Help Children Cope After Disasters

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After a disaster or crisis, children benefit from adults who can help them learn how to cope effectively. Although it is not useful for adults to appear overwhelmed by the event, it is helpful to share some of their feelings and what they are doing to deal with those feelings. Children can’t be expected to cope with troubling feelings if no one models effective coping. Allow children to “own” their feelings. Let your child know that it is all right to be upset about something bad that happened. Use the conversation to take the opportunity to talk about other troubling feelings your child may have. A child who feels afraid is afraid, even if adults think the reason for the fear is unnecessary. If you feel overwhelmed and/or hopeless, look for some support from other adults before reaching out to your child.

Don’t feel obligated to give a reason for what happened. Although adults often feel the need to provide a reason for why someone committed such a crime, many times they don’t know. It is okay to tell your child that you don’t know why at this time such a crime was committed.

Children are not only trying to deal with the disaster, but with everything else that follows. They may have to relocate, at least temporarily, and could be separated from friends or unable to attend the same school. Parents may have less income and the change in finances may impact their ability to participate in activities they enjoyed or travel to visit family out of town. Allow children to express their regrets over these “secondary losses” (without accusing them of being selfish) and help them figure out ways to minimize the impact or find alternatives.

Children, just like adults, often feel helpless after a disaster. Help them figure out what they can do—that is meaningful to them—to help others in their community impacted by the disaster.

Additional Resources:

Helping Your Child Cope

Helping Children Cope with Death

AAP Offers Resources to Help Parents, Children and Others Cope in the Aftermath of School Shootings

Getting Your Family Prepared for a DisasterHow to Prepare for Disasters

Last Updated 12/17/2012. Source American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2012)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.

Talking to Children About Disasters

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Children can cope more effectively with a disaster when they feel they understand what is happening and what they can do to help protect themselves, family, and friends. Provide basic information to help them understand, without providing unnecessary details that may only alarm them.

For very young children, provide concrete explanations of what happened and how it will affect them (eg, a tree branch fell on electrical wires and that is why the lights don’t work). Let children know there are many people who are working to help them and their community to recover after a disaster (such as repair crews for the electric company, or firefighters, police, paramedics, or other emergency personnel). Share with them all of the steps that are being taken to keep them safe; children will often worry that a disaster will occur again.

Older children will likely want, and benefit from, additional information about the disaster and recovery efforts. No matter what age, start by asking children what they already know and what questions they have and use that as a guide for the conversation. Limit media coverage of the disaster—if children are going to watch media coverage, consider taping it (to allow adults to preview) and watch along with them to answer questions and help them process the information. While children may seek and benefit from basic information about what happened so that they can understand what is happening in their world, they (and adults) don’t benefit from graphic details or exposure to disturbing images or sounds. In the aftermath of a crisis is a good time to disconnect from all media and sit down together and talk as a family.

Be sure to ask children what questions or concerns they have. Often they have fears based on limited information or because they misunderstood what they were told. Reassure children when able to do so, but if their fears are realistic, don’t give false reassurance. Instead, help them learn how to cope with these feelings.

 

Last Updated 12/17/2012. Source American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2012)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.