Stress and Your Kids – Part 5 (of 5)

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happy kids

Last week in Part 4 of this series, I talked about the vital importance of healthy sleep and nutrition for our kids – something we probably all understand at some level but don’t always realize the impact they have on our kids’ ability to cope with stress.  If you haven’t read that post yet, I would encourage you to go back and review it, since good sleep and nutrition are truly half the battle in ensuring our kids’ health and well-being.  So what other strategies could help our kids manage stress and prevent the harm that too much stress can have on them?

Help Your Kids Develop Healthy Relationships

Let me share with you some important statistics:  kids who are regularly left alone are twice as likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use marijuana; they also have more problems coping with schoolwork.  Parents who aren’t around as much tend to be more indulgent, less likely to set limits, less likely to be consistent with discipline, and more likely to look the other way than have a confrontation.  Absent parents often fail to establish routine in the household and lack of routine is stressful for kids.  Bottom line:  You matter greatly to your kids!  In fact, a healthy and strong attachment to you is foundational to your kids’ resilience.  For more information about this, check out my CD series, Life Proofing Your Kids, where I share important parenting principles that work!

What other relationship resources make a difference?

A Caring and Loving Extended Family.  Kids with healthy extended families and lots of involvement in these extended families seem generally healthier and happier; loving grandparents are a particularly wonderful resource who can provide support and listening ears when parents are too busy or stressed.  In the absence of an extended family, look to build a network of friends or neighbours to play a similar role – churches can also take on this role.

A Practical Faith in God.  Beyond just taking your kids to church or praying with them at dinner time or bedtime, your kids need to see you turning to God and trusting him for everything.  They need to see you praying for wisdom and talking to God about every day concerns as well as big issues.  They need to see you giving over your fears and worries to God again and again, and they need to hear you talking about God as your loving and trustworthy Father.

A Safe and Abuse-Free Environment.  Child abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, is incredibly devastating to a child and the long-term consequences of this can be disastrous.  This may seem obvious, but the number of families who come to my office who tolerate abuse to their children (especially emotional and verbal) is innumerable.  If you or your spouse have a problem with anger and regularly explode on your kids, you need to get help to get your anger under control before it destroys your family.  I cannot stress the importance of that enough.

Supportive and Understanding Schools & Teachers.  Although schools can be both the recipient and cause of stress, they can also be instrumental in helping to stress-proof your kids – parents should therefore maintain a close working relationship with their kids’ schools and especially with their teachers and caregiver.  It’s important to keep the lines of communication open with the teachers.  Choosing the right school or day care is of paramount importance if you have the choice.

If your child seems to be under undue stress at school, here are some things you can do to ease the anxiety:

  • Don’t put undue pressure on your kids to make better grades than they’re capable of making; emphasize the learning process and not the grade.
  • Monitor the number of extracurricular activities your child is involved in.
  • Let your child talk about the anxiety – sharing one’s worries helps to relieve them.
  • Watch for signs that a very young child is under stress at day care – unusually clingy behaviour, regression to an earlier stage of development, increase in temper tantrums and other stress-related behaviours.
  • Arrange for tutoring or counselling if your child seems unduly stressed about grades or school issues.
  • Encourage your child to learn and practice relaxation techniques or self-soothing exercises every time he/she is anxious about school.

Supportive and Caring Church Activities.  The peer support and influence that Sunday School or youth group can give our kids is invaluable.  Many times, especially for teens, their youth pastor or leader will be the one they choose to confide in.  And having the loving support of Christian friends is important, especially as they navigate the stresses of trying to fit into a world that has different moral values.

Help your Kids Become Physically Fit

Because kids may be active and even hyperactive, parents don’t always think about their needs for physical fitness.  Kids need at least 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week.  The exercises will help reduce stress by using up the surplus adrenaline (but only if the exercise is not overly competitive or stimulating).  Find an activity that burns up energy but doesn’t cause frustration or anger.  Too many kids nowadays spend far too much time indoors on their computer or video games and are not nearly active enough.

Teach your Child to Relax

Stress-proofing requires both exercise and relaxation – exercise lowers stress by helping the body and mind to work more efficiently and by working off excess energy; but relaxation prevents stress damage even more directly by lowering the level of circulating adrenaline.  Teach your kids how to manage their own relaxation level by learning to do relaxation whenever they feel pressured, tense, angry, anxious or “wired” – e.g., deep breathing, progressive relaxation, gentle massages, or warm baths.  There are many workbooks at your local bookstore that are great resources to teach these skills to your kids.  Or you can look for other resources or games that are available at www.parentbooks.ca or www.sourceresource.com.

A simple tool to teach your  kids to monitor when they’re under stress is by the temperature of their hands – hand temperature depends largely on the blood supply to the hands and one of the effects of increased adrenaline is to slow down the blood supply to the hands and feet and send most of the blood to where it’s needed the most.  Our hands will always cool to some extent whenever we’re under stress.  A simple way to test is to put our hands on our face – although the hands gets colder when we’re under stress, the face stays the same temperature.

Inoculate your Kids against Stress

Life is full of stressors and we can’t protect our kids from all stress – in fact, it’s not healthy to raise them in a bubble.  When we inoculate our kids against stress, we expose them gradually under controlled conditions to more and more stress while at the same time, showing them how to cope with stress.  Over time, this will build strength of character, a healthy and positive outlook, a sense of personal competence and a willingness to take on challenges and not avoid risks.  This helps them to become healthier, more effective adults and prepares them for the ups and downs of life.  If you’d like more information about this important topic, check out my CD, Rubber Band Kids.

Stress inoculation involves 5 important principles:

Gradually Expose Kids to Problems.  Don’t over-protect but tell them the truth at age-appropriate levels.  Also, make problems for them by giving them age-appropriate responsibility and stress.

Resist the Rescuing Urge.  Don’t rush in to rescue your kids the moment there’s a problem.  As kids get older, parents should gradually back off more and more, leaving them to solve their own problems.  Also, don’t rush to stop negative emotions of anger or sadness but teach your kids how to express their emotions, grieve and then move on.  Otherwise, kids are being taught that feeling negative emotions are bad, and they should do everything to avoid those emotions (and unfortunately it prevents them from fully processing and growing from the pain or being able to truly move on).

Teach Healthy Self-Talk.  Almost every moment of every day, we engage in “self-talk” – if the talk is rational, honest and in touch with reality, we are basically healthy and our stress is normal.  If our self-talk is irrational and untrue and always negative, we will experience excessive stress and unnecessary emotional turmoil.  Pay attention to your kids’ self-talk – if necessary, ask them what they’re thinking.  A lot of times, kids can’t verbalize their self-talk, so try asking probing questions.  If you listen to your kids’ emotional experiences, paying attention to body language and to the little slips of the tongue, you will be able to capture their self-talk – and then the teaching begins by re-framing or re-phrasing their experience so that it’s more rational and healthy.  By rephrasing the self-talk in a healthy way and repeating it many times, our kids will eventually internalize that self-talk.

Teach Recovery.  Stress inoculation also includes teaching our kids to allow adequate time for recovery from periods of over-stress – times of high arousal should always be followed by times for recovery.  Kids should learn to pay attention to their bodies and rest when they’re tired and fuel it with healthy food when they’re hungry.  Self-care is a vital life skill that you can model and teach.

Teach Kids to Filter their Stressors.  This is another thought strategy in which they learn to ask themselves when confronted with a problem or crisis, “Is this really important enough for me to get upset about?”  You are emphasizing the power to make choices – all filtering should ultimately help your child to make a choice:

  • If someone criticizes you, you can choose whether or not you want it to affect you.
  • If someone tries to force you to do something, you can choose whether or not you want to do it.
  • If something threatens your security, you can choose whether or not you want to be upset about it or not.

Effective filtering requires positive self-esteem, because kids need to believe in themselves and their right to choose what happens to them, so if their self-esteem is shaky, you may first need to work on strengthening it.

Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem

When I work with clients, one of the most important gifts I want to give them is a belief in their resilience to handle the ups and downs of life – it’s about believing in their ability to handle any challenge with God’s help.  Healthy self-esteem is not based on performance but on self-acceptance (being content with oneself), of accepting “good enough” rather than perfection, of having an honest appraisal of one’s strengths AND weaknesses (without falling prey to self-condemnation for those weaknesses).

A very important aspect of building your kids’ self-esteem is teaching them to be more self-accepting of both success and failure.  Sometimes as Christian parents, we inadvertently teach self-rejection when we are afraid their success will go to their heads and so we create an attitude of discomfort with accomplishment.  But more commonly, parents teach kids to reject themselves because of their failures and it’s very, very easy for kids to get the message that failure is proof of unworthiness – that message is all around them at school, in sports, and through the media because of our success-driven, competitive society.

Here is a basic strategy to help:

  • When your child is successful, help him or her to be accepting of this success.  Praise it, celebrate it, and don’t rain on their parade – keeping them focused on reality doesn’t mean robbing the success of it’s glory.
  • When your child fails, nurture him or her with reassurance – don’t criticize and try not to show disappointment.  You can also normalize failure, for example, by talking about how even professional baseball players only hit the ball once in a while (one out of 3 is considered awesome).  Focus on what they can learn from failure and place a high value on failure and what it can teach you.  If failure comes too often, encourage activities where your child can experience more success – notice and comment on small achievements and be alert for feelings of inadequacy.
  • Help your child build an honest self-image – kids must learn to accept their shortcomings but also to value their strengths.  Help your kids discover their unique talents but make sure that the image you mirror back to your child isn’t distorted by your own desires or disappointments.
  • Praise your kids just for who they are, not what they do – work on providing unconditional acceptance.  Cherish everything about your child, not just the special or outstanding things.  Make it safe for your child to be whoever he or she is.  Do this by showing love and forgiveness, nor matter what your child does. Yes, discipline your kids, but never use discipline as a form of revenge, and be fair.

Thanks for hanging in there with me through this long series!  Helping our kids manage the stress in their lives is so important that I could not do this topic justice without expanding it the way I did.  If you missed the earlier part of this series, be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.  If you have any additional questions that haven’t been addressed or you wish further information, feel free to email me or contact me by clicking on the “Ask Dr. Lin” widget to the right of my website.

 

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