How to Stress-Proof Your Child
What parents can do to boost their kids’ resilience
Rona Renner, RN, has seen the effects of stress in children as young as 5. Renner, a parenting educator and consultant in Berkeley, California, recently worked with the parents of a kindergartener already showing signs of wear and tear from her overscheduled life.
The youngster took the bus to school at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t leave childcare until 5:00. On the weekends the parents tried to involve her in a whirlwind of fun outings with her baby brother — but she often ended up dissolving in tantrums.
Renner could see that the underlying problem was stress. She helped the parents rethink the girl’s schedule so she could be picked up earlier and have more one-on-one time with each parent — “something she hadn’t gotten much of since the baby was born,” she said. “The mom began to ask her what she wanted to do on the weekend and was surprised to find out she often wanted to stay home and play games with her dad. With some coaching the parents slowed down the pace, and the daughter became calmer and more fun to be with.”
An epidemic of stress?
Stress in kids seems to get worse, not better, with age. By the time they reach high school, stress is one of their top health concerns, a 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association found. It also found that many parents were unaware of their kids’ high levels of stress.
“We regularly see kids who are so anxious about taking tests that they freeze,” says Marilyn Wilcher, senior director at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. BHI has developed a program called Resilient Youth, aimed at teaching kids effective ways to manage stress.
“We teach them relaxation techniques that give them a sense of control over their minds and bodies. They learn to stop, breathe, reflect and choose,” Wilcher says. “We also teach them to look at their thoughts and recognize whether they are realistic or not. They learn to reframe their negative ‘awfulizing’ thinking.”
In small doses, stress can be good, motivating your child and even boosting memory, but too much of it is debilitating. Recent research shows that kids are suffering from stress caused by overscheduling, pressure to succeed in school, their parents’ financial insecurity or conflict with peers or family members, and that the level of stress tends to increase with each grade level.
High levels of stress can hurt academic performance and also cause all sorts of physical and emotional problems, including:
- stomachaches, body aches and headaches
- insomnia or nightmares
- undereating or overeating
- inability to concentrate
What parents can do
Parents can help their kids get a grip on stress and become more resilient people. Here are tips from Wilcher, author of "Grab a Tiger by the Toe: Stress-Proof Your Child,” and experts at the American Association of School Psychologists on steps you can take.
See that your child gets enough sleep. Children will be much more likely to fend off stress if they get enough sleep (at least 10 to 13 hours for preschoolers, 9 to 11 for older kids and 8 to 10 for teens). “We also have many students with insomnia,” Wilcher says. “We teach them to meditate to help them fall asleep. They repeat a word, sound or prayer in conjunction with their breathing. The word could be peace, calm, relax or whatever coincides with a religious belief, like Hail Mary or Shalom.”
Help your child get enough good food, exercise and play. Balanced meals can help fortify kids against stress, as can at least an hour a day of vigorous exercise. But kids also need down time. Renner advises parents to avoid pushing their own busy lifestyles onto their children. “Many kids are nonstop busy all day,” she says. “Being sure that a child has some time to daydream or ‘do nothing special’ is one of the best ways to ‘stress-proof’ them.”
Help your child relax. For kids with test anxiety, Wilcher recommends skills such as visualization, meditation, chair yoga and deep breathing exercises. For example, ask your child to visualize acing the test the night before the exam as she is falling asleep and again just before she takes the test. Also, try introducing a gratitude journal, in which your child writes down several things she is grateful for each day. “This helps them focus on the positive instead of complaining about the negative,” Wilcher says.
Be ready and available when your child wants to talk. Answer questions calmly and honestly. Simply talking to kids about their worries, especially at the beginning of the school year, is one of the most helpful things parents can do, says Wilcher. Allow your child to help make decisions when it’s appropriate.
Encourage your child to express all kinds of feelings, whether they’re loving or sad and angry. Be reassuring when your child is worried. “Just talking about their concerns can help kids reframe the worries to more realistic thinking,” Wilcher says. “Typically kids are concerned about having friends or being able to do the work — just talking about it can allay these fears.”
Related: Does Your Teen Need a Therapist?
Encourage healthy friendships. Bullying at school often causes enormous stress, but having even one close friend can help “bully-proof” your child, experts say.
Show the way you want your child to respond to stress. Kids look to their parents as models, Renner says. “If we get a flat tire, do we start to curse and carry on?” she says. “Or do we talk to our kids about our frustration and how we can get help? Stressful situations occur frequently, but teaching problem-solving skills and staying calm will go a long way to help our kids reduce their fear and anxiety.”
Look out for “self-medication.” Some kids try to escape stress by zoning out online or by drinking and using drugs. Set limits on your child’s TV, video game and Internet use and talk a bout the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol.
Involve teachers and counselors if necessary. Consult with your child’s teachers and a physician or school psychologist, counselor or social worker if he continues to be plagued by stress.