ScoutingJanuary - February 2003

Family Talk Family Talk

Helping Children Cope With Stress

By Kathy Brandt
Illustration by Joel Snyder

Children today have a host of opportunities that bring with them the potential for strain. When pressures are negatively affecting a child, parents and significant adults can take several positive actions.

It's easy to think of childhood as a carefree time of chasing butterflies through deep grass or impromptu neighborhood games of kick the can. How can a 7- or 10-year-old possibly feel stressed? After all, children have none of the pressures that we adults feel, like making a living, paying bills, raising children, and perhaps caring for aging parents.

But if you really recall your own childhood, looking past the good times, you'll probably remember the pressures of growing up.

Maybe your parents fought. Maybe the bully down the street was an ever-present threat. Maybe your dog was hit by a car or your best friend abandoned you for another. Maybe a teacher seemed like Attila the Hun, or you lived in dread of presenting an oral book report or performing in a piano or dance recital. Today our children feel such stresses—and more—as they navigate the hectic 21st-century highway.

Causes of stress

Stress for young children comes from many sources, such as family conflicts, childcare arrangements, and peer pressure. When a child starts school, a whole new set of stresses emerges. Will my teacher like me? Who will my friends be? By age 10 or 11, children begin to focus on relationships with peers and are consumed with fitting in.

Ask children what causes them stress, and you will get a wide variety of answers, such as going to birthday parties, taking tests, being chosen last on a team, trying to please teachers, making friends, and starting a new school year. Others include having an unusual name, feeling ugly or smart, being pressured to make good grades, being criticized by parents and teachers, having arguments with parents or friends, or seeing parents overwhelmed by their own stressful lives.

And children can be sensitive to what might appear to be the most minor social encounters—say, a snicker in the lunch line or a shove on the school bus.

Today more than ever before, children have a host of opportunities that bring with them the potential for stress. They can participate in a science fair or history day, go to special art classes, or attend a summer baseball camp.

All these opportunities come with the pressure to do more and to make choices. Children are faced with dilemmas such as "If I go on a special class trip during the holiday break, I won't be able to participate in my Scout troop's winter camping weekend."

My own son, at about 9 or 10, was completely overwhelmed and reduced to tears by the need to make so many decisions. "Mom," he said, "I'm so afraid I'll make the wrong choice." It took a lot of talking—and listening—to help him through his fear and confusion.

Symptoms of Stress

Children manifest stress in a variety of ways (see sidebar). They don't have the skills to cope with stress effectively and have difficulty understanding or describing what they feel, says Sabine Hack, M.D., assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, in discussing children and stress in an article on the New York University Child Study Center Web site ( For example, a child might complain that his head hurts when, in fact, he's anxious about the first day of school.

Parents should look for two general indicators that their child is overwhelmed by stress. A child may change his behavior and react by doing things out of character with his normal style. The outgoing child becomes quiet and reserved; the normally well-behaved child begins to act out. Or the child regresses, engaging in thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or tantrums. When stress is negatively affecting a child, parents and significant adults can take several positive actions:

Listen to your child.
A vital tool in helping your child handle stress is listening. "It underlies everything else," says Lisa Boyum, Ph.D., a pediatric and adolescent psychologist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colo.

The dinner table is one of the best places to do this, she says, because mealtime conversations help parents monitor what their children are doing and the issues they are facing.

Simply discussing a matter with parents may provide children with the solutions they seek, so it is essential to keep lines of communication open. Children and parents can readily use regularly scheduled family excursions and pastimes, like shopping for groceries or going to the gym, to converse.

Parents might be tempted to address their children's anxieties with on-the-spot solutions, but don't interrupt with advice or analysis, suggests Dr. Boyum. Avoid lecturing and focus on simply listening.

Let them get things out. Help them talk about what's bothering them. Let them know you've heard them. If you don't have answers, tell them you need to think things through. Take their problems seriously and don't criticize.

Establish routines and set expectations.
Consider how your child's activities and daily schedules may contribute to stressful situations. Parents should establish schedules and set expectations for their children but also give them a degree of control. Organize the day-to-day routine based on the child's personality, understanding that while one child may flourish in an activity-packed day, another will flounder.

All children need "familiar, predictable environments and established routines, with clear, safe boundaries," says Dr. Hack. Be definite about rules and consequences; open-ended or unclear ones can leave children fumbling and unsure.

Decide together on consequences and follow through. Allow children to make manageable decisions, such as how to arrange their rooms. Let them contribute to family decisions and decide which activities are important for them.

Monitor your child's schedule.
Many parents feel that their children must be engaged in a host of activities in order to be prepared to succeed. Some parents spend every minute between the time their children get out of school until dinner rushing them from one activity to the next—piano lessons, karate, soccer, art class, baseball, or ballet.

Don't overload children with too many after-school activities and responsibilities, and don't expect them to be first in everything. Don't assume that an activity-packed schedule helps kids develop.

Valuable learning also comes from unstructured playtime. Time to play and relax without rigid structure gives children freedom to be creative and reflective. Play helps them learn about the world and explore without pressure.

Turn off the TV when noise, violence, and commercialism render it anything but relaxing.

Set an example.
Parents should also be aware of their own anxiety levels. According to Dr. Hack, studies on families who have experienced traumatic events show that "the best predictor of children's coping is how well parents cope."

If a parent is harried, rushed, on edge, the child will be, too. Show the child how you think through options for dealing with the difficult situations in your life and come up with solutions. A child who sees how you talk about your own problems, taking time to relax and living a healthy lifestyle, will be influenced to do the same.

Teach and promote stress management skills.
Help your children develop problem-solving abilities. Tell them stories about how you once felt in similar situations. Ask open-ended questions about which solutions might work or what would happen if... Help them organize for school projects, deadlines, and activities. Teach them how to set priorities and accomplish goals by breaking tasks into small, manageable portions.

Encourage vigorous, noncompetitive physical activity, such as biking, hiking, and swimming. Promote healthy eating habits. Teach relaxation skills, such as remembering a favorite vacation or happy experience.

Teach children to breathe slowly and deeply when they start feeling overwhelmed. Help them incorporate body tensing and relaxing.

For example, have the child make a fist, then release it, and relax his hand as much as possible. Have the child do the same throughout the body, tensing and relaxing feet, legs, arms, neck, and mouth. This technique helps children recognize the areas in their bodies where they are tightening up.

Finally, help your children find humor. Help them laugh. Give them back rubs and hugs. Simply put, show them you care.

Kathy Brandt is a freelance writer in Woodland Park, Colo.

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