This story originally appeared in the January-February 2015 issue of Scouting magazine.
It’s a new year. Days are shorter, and post-holiday to-do lists are longer. It’s time for another semester of tests and term papers for the kids as parents recover from the holiday season.
Fortunately, you and your family can survive the start of the year — and the rest of it, really — by recognizing and managing stress, says longtime Scouter Carla-Krystin Andrade, Ph.D., P.T. If you follow her advice, your family might not resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, but at least it’ll feature more smiles than frowns.
Stress is a state of emotional strain or tension, and Andrade is quick to point out that stress by itself isn’t bad.
“We need some element of excitement, variety and demand,” she says. “Otherwise, life gets pretty tedious.”
The problem is when stress starts to have negative effects. Stress can have physical, behavioral and mental/emotional effects. Physical signs can include muscle tension, headaches, altered sleep patterns and more. Behavioral signs can include withdrawal, relationship problems and irritability. Mental/emotional signs can include forgetfulness, anxiety, hopelessness and depression.
The trick is identifying these signs in yourself and your kids, especially because they vary greatly from one person to the next.
“There’s actually a continuum from being depressed, withdrawn and isolated at one end to being anxious, angry and irritable at the other. There’s no one emotion that you can associate with being stressed,” she says.
Because stress wears so many disguises, Andrade recommends that family members talk openly about their stress signs. This doesn’t have to resemble a psychotherapy session, however.
Instead, it can be as simple as saying things like this: “When I get stressed, I notice that I just want to stay in my room. If you see me locking myself in my room, can you just give me a bit of space and don’t come banging on the door right away?”
Create Safety Valves
Next, Andrade recommends creating physical outlets for stress in your kids.
“They experience stress very physically; they talk about wanting to smash things and punch things and kick things,” she says. “A lot of us get very alarmed by that, but it’s actually really natural.”
Physical outlets could include strenuous exercise, throwing a ball in the backyard or even hitting a punching bag in the basement.
“I had a punching bag in my home for years until my son got to his teen years,” Andrade says.
She also recommends “silent screaming,” which, as it sounds, is screaming without making a sound.
“It’s one of those things that starts out very serious, but then it becomes playful,” she says. “After a while, silent screaming feels a little ludicrous when you’re not angry anymore.”
Find Time to Talk
The bustle of the new year can pull family members in different directions. Andrade thinks parents should find time every day when the family can get together and just talk. This could be at bedtime, during dinner or at any other time that works for your family.
The key, she emphasizes, is to keep stressors at bay during that time. This isn’t the time to talk about pet peeves, homework or messy bedrooms — or to slip into lecture mode.
“Throw out an open-ended question: ‘What’s the best thing that happened today?’” she says. “If they want to go on a rant, let them rant — and listen. If they sit and eat in silence, it’s not a problem at all.”
Build in Stress Busters
Finally, Andrade says, families should build group or individual stress-busting activities into their schedules. Possibilities include going for a hike, working on collections, reading stories together or doing crafts — anything that engages the hands and disengages the brain.
“Listening to music is one of the stress-busting rituals in our household,” she says. “My son plays guitar. He plays; we listen. There’s no agenda.”
Just as signs of stress can vary from one person to the next, so can the benefits of various stress busters. The last thing you want to do is adopt a stress buster that actually makes stress worse.
So, what should you do if your preferred stress buster stresses your kids out, or vice versa?
“Parents need to be sensitive to the fact that their idea of a really relaxing time may not be what the kid wants,” she says. “If there’s going to be a compromise, the parent compromises.”
To make sure you’re choosing right, Andrade recommends asking three questions as you evaluate stress busters: 1) Is it beneficial, or will it cause further problems? 2) Is it appropriate for the time, the place and the person? 3) Is it a short-term stress buster when you really need a longer-term solution?
Stress busters don’t have to be time consuming, either. Most people, Andrade says, can benefit from her three-step quick stress buster, which simply involves relaxing your shoulders, taking a deep breath and thinking of something positive (or at least neutral, like counting to 10).
But if you need more time to bust your own stress, don’t worry.
“It’s hard to give yourself to people if you can’t find yourself,” Andrade says.