It might be hard to recognize at the moment, but children are under constant stress. They are learning every single moment of the day (whether they realize it or not), and their brains are usually firing on every cylinder - even during playtime.
It is crucial for children to be able to deal with the stressors in their lives (following the rules, moving into a new home, the addition of a new parental figure, etc.) because it builds their confidence. At the same time, though, not giving children the proper tools to see their stress, label it, and then cope with it, can potentially undermine not only their mental health, but also their physical health too.
The human brain creates specific hormones under stress, and if it is left unchecked, those hormones can lead to panic. That panic can then result in erratic behavior, poor decision making, and a lack of self control. This sequence of events leads to even more bad side effects like the inability to concentrate during schooling, or even physical ailments.
Constant stress can culminate into a very tense body (for both children and adults!), and those muscles will attempt to compensate in many different ways. As such, the body will start to develop aches, pains, and cramps in sensitive areas like the neck, back, shoulders, or even headaches. From there, sleep patterns are disturbed because the constant mental hurdles end up keeping the child awake, but also because the physical pain in their bodies (as a result of the hurdles) are preventing a sound sleep.
Stress is ALWAYS going to be a part of their lives. Just like stress is always going to be part of an adult's life. There is no way around that. To be honest, stress can be a useful tool for humans, which is why trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist doesn’t do anyone any favors. The key for our children’s health is to give them the proper tools to not only cope with the stressors, but to label the stressors so they know how to handle it when it inevitably bubbles up.
By not allowing stressors to arise, or not teaching our children how to cope with the stressors by labeling them, we are only furthering the effect of the stressor.
So if something pops up, you are going to have to help your child work through the stressor. It might take a little more of your time than you want to give, but the end result is worth the extra 15 minutes from your day.
Yes, it can be frustrating to calm a child, or to discuss a matter with them when they clearly have no idea what’s going wrong - except for the fact that something is wrong. Yet, consider their side of the equation.
How frustrating must it be for a child who can feel a churning in their body, but not have the linguistic ability to effectively communicate that churning? How tiring must it be to constantly be under tension in their muscles, or not be able to sleep properly because they keep replaying certain scenarios in their head overnight?
Better yet, how do you fare when this happens to you? How do you operate at work when you don’t have the right amount of sleep? How bad do your tension headaches get when you don’t have the ability to go and grab a couple of Tylenol for relief?
It’s easy for adults to forget that children simply don’t know as much as we do. They can’t necessarily label the stressor, or the feeling it creates like we can. They can’t go get a massage, or grab some pain reliever like we can. They don’t have the capacity to know that they are not their thoughts like we do.
The more we can sit down with them and help figure out their feelings, the more likely they are to eventually have these abilities earlier in life. The earlier in life they have these abilities, the more likely they are able to handle their stress, and be able to cope with the stress in a healthy manner.
Here are some ideas for stress management:
- Be open about your stress, and how you cope with it.
- Intuit what their stress is, and offer ways they can cope with it.
- Allow the child to discuss their stressor, and actually listen. It will take time and patience, but this is part of the process that is vital!
- Teach children about positive self talk, and how framing situations with a more positive attitude can help the problems caused by stress.
- Find age appropriate books about stress, and read together!
- Let the child act out what they are feeling
- Let the child draw what they are feeling
- Practice some deep breathing techniques
- Go outside, get some fresh air, and maybe go for a walk to talk about the stressor.
- Find a class for children’s yoga, or bring them to your session. Physical exercise like this is very important because it promotes the need to focus on their center and awareness.