The Stress and Anxiety Connection
Stress can come from any situation or thought that causes your child to feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or tense. What is stressful to one child will not necessarily be stressful to another. Stress is subjective, and often parents do not experience stress the same way their children do. Parents also do not feel stress about the same things as their children do. Understanding what is stressful for your child and responding, even if the issue seems trivial, will help your child build his overall sense of security. For example, if your child tells you he is “afraid of the dark and wants to sleep with a light on,” it will not be helpful to say, “Oh, that's silly, there is nothing out there, I already checked.” The child who feels stress or anxiety will know that you do not know what you are talking about, he might feel confused about how to trust you or himself, and his symptoms will grow. Stress is one of the biggest risk factors in children who feel anxiety, and it can lead to depression, eating disorders, or a host of other difficulties. The impact is usually cumulative, adding up over time before it becomes an anxiety disorder. This gives you many opportunities to interrupt the cycle and redirect your child's sense of security, self, and competence. Becoming aware of what seems stressful in your child's life gives you the power to intervene and stop the cycle of anxiety before it begins.
The following are the typical emotional or behavioral signs of a stressed child: Worry, inability to relax, new or recurring fears (fear of the dark, being alone, of strangers), clinging or unwilling to let go of mom or dad, unexplained anger, unwarranted crying, aggressive or refusal behavior, regression to a behavior that is typical of an earlier developmental stage (like bedwetting or thumb sucking), unwillingness to participate in family or school activities, and shyness that limits activities.
According to Mental Health America, an advocacy group that recently conducted a nationwide survey on how people manage stress, most Americans manage stress by watching TV, skipping out on exercise, and choosing junk food over a healthy meal.
It is common for your child to be stressed if he sees you are stressed. This is something you might need to talk to yourself about. Are you overbooked or overwhelmed, constantly worried, or not sleeping? Or, are you not eating well, unable to set boundaries to take time for yourself, or do you allow your child to hear information that is upsetting to you? Research has suggested parents who are not emotionally available for their children, or who lack positive coping mechanisms themselves, often have children who are stressed out. You are the most powerful model for your children and need to provide examples of healthy stress management and self-care.
Possible Reasons for Stress
It is normal for your child to feel stress when she is starting school or a new school year, or changing from one school phase to the next, such as between elementary and middle or junior high school. Moving, changes in peer groups, or families with high expectations in academics or other activities have also been found to be highly stressful. If your child has been abused, neglected, deprived, or has had a major loss that threatened her security, she is also at risk for stress or anxiety. Additionally, when there has been a demand for a child to carry responsibility that would normally belong to a parent, like dealing with a family member's chemical abuse or chronic illness, children often feel stressed and anxious. This is because they have to overfunction by taking on chores and emotional responsibility greater than their years, and this may lead to patterns of perfectionism and rigidity as a result. This method of coping is how your child maintains a sense of control when life feels out of control.
Fight or Flight
Just like anxiety, when your child is under stress, her body will react. It produces certain hormones to deal with a real or perceived threat. Some of the hormones that are released are called adrenaline, noradrenalin, and corticosteroids. The chemical processes set off the flight or fight response, compelling either escape or self-defense. Your child's heart rate will increase so it can pump more blood to his muscles and brain, and his lungs will take in air faster to supply his body with the added oxygen it thinks it needs. The process is automatic, happens in seconds, and is almost impossible to stop. Later, in Chapters 13 and 16, there are tools to help mitigate this process.
The typical physical signs of a child experiencing stress are headaches, upset stomach, sleep disturbances, new or recurrent bedwetting, stuttering, or changes in eating habits.
One of the immediate ways to reduce stress and alleviate anxiety is to ask your child to take three long, slow, deep breaths and repeat as necessary. If you join your child in the process, it will enhance your child's sense of calm as well as your own! More than three deep breaths can create a sense of lightheadedness, which could increase the child's anxiety, so be sure not to overdo it.
Take a Breather
Breathing is essential as a way to help reduce stress when your child's body has kicked into high gear. Here is how it works: When your child takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, although he will not be aware of it, his heart rate just slowed down. When he inhales, it beats faster, and when he exhales, it will beat slower. You can explain to him that it is a rhythm that will help his heart stay healthy and is an excellent way to be in better control of his feelings. Other benefits of deep breathing include increased oxygen flow to the brain and other organs, decreased muscle tension, increased energy and focus, and a general sense of well-being.
Play is necessary for children to learn. Studies show it helps them learn how to control themselves, how to interact with others, improves intellectual skills, and fosters decision-making, memory, thinking, and speed of mental processing.
Sleep and balanced nutrition are also excellent ways to combat the effects of stress. Replenishing your child's body goes hand in hand with a happy and healthy child. Sleep varies according to age. Doctors give, for the most part, the following recommendations: children birth to age six need ten to thirteen hours of sleep a night, six- to nine-year-olds need ten hours, ten- to twelve-year-olds need nine hours, and adolescents need approximately eight to nine hours of sleep a night; depending on their schedules it can be more.
Remember, this list is only a recommendation, not an absolute. It is also understood that daily life can affect bedtimes and mealtimes and that you do your best on any given day. Your doctor's suggestions are important information to keep in mind as you work toward maximizing your child's potential.
The Well-Meaning Parent
Many professionals feel that children today are too busy, too scheduled, and do not have time to play creatively or have fun. Between school, dance, soccer, hockey, football, track, and music lessons, putting aside how stressful it is for parents to manage that with their own schedules, where is the opportunity to learn how to socialize in an unstructured and relaxing way?
It is best, not only for the child, but for the parent as well, to live a balanced life. Be open if your child complains about the number of activities she is involved in or refuses to go. She may be trying to let you know through a temper tantrum that she is overwhelmed or feeling stress. For that matter, if your child's schedule is stressing you out, you also get to say “This is not working.” As a parent you want to provide your child with the best opportunities, but you do not want to sacrifice something more important in the process — your sanity.