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How Stressed Is Your Child?

by Elizabeth Morris

Our research showed that more than half the children in classes answered "Yes, I feel tense and anxious regularly" when asked about their experience of stress. Children from the age of eight were very aware of the pressures and demands on them and worried about living up to all kinds of expectations. Not only that, they said that they thought they had many things to do and not enough time to do them all in. A common complaint for many adults! We are now wondering whether, as adults, we are not letting children have enough of a childhood because we are so concerned that they prepare well for their adulthood. We all recognize that it is a tougher, faster and more demanding world than it used to be and we want to kit the children out to be ready for it.

Children identified the amount of homework and extra curricula activities they have as a source of their stress. Mothers certainly confirm that they are kept busy taking their children from one class to another in an attempt to give them the "skills for life" through dance, sport, extra tuition, music, Brownies etc. All of these activities have a lot to offer but we could see the children's point - having so many placed extra stress on them because it added to the list of things they had to do. For example, keeping up with the homework, doing well at academic studies, understanding all the new concepts they were being taught, dealing with moving class, school, locality etc, etc, etc. Chilling out time seemed to be an unusual option for the children we spoke to. They said that they spent the spare time they had playing computer games or going out on their bikes.

Twenty years ago people didn't understand this concept for themselves - now it's a universal problem with so many children of eight and older talking of the stress they are feeling. Adults need to help the children learn positive, practical techniques to manage their stress now, while they are still young. Just think how much easier our adult lives would have been if we'd been taught how to handle stressful situations. But maybe more than anything else we need to make sure that they have a chance to be children, where part of the deal is that they have limited responsibility to achieve things and freedom to learn through playing with their friends.

Assessment, Understanding and Emotional Coaching

What's the solution? Three things are going to help. First of all checking how much stress a child is experiencing. If a child is very happy with everything they are dealing with in their life then there is little point in trying to change that. However if they are not enjoying it and are driven by the need to please you, or compete strongly with their peers all is not well and that child needs help. Try doing a brief assessment using the checklist below. The second part of the solution lies with you, the adults. You need to understand what it is like to be that child. This calls for empathy and imagination and becomes an important element in the emotional support you can give a child if they are suffering from too much stress.

A Checklist

Here is a checklist to quickly asses whether the child in your life is suffering from excessive stress. Mark each question with a Yes or No.

  1. Has your child recently moved to a new school or into a new year?
  2. Has your child lost an important adult through death or divorce?
  3. Has your child been lost and felt frightened recently?
  4. Has your child recently gone to hospital and/or are going to have an operation?
  5. Does your child hear their parents argue regularly?
  6. Has your child been spanked in the past, or regularly?
  7. Has your child lost a game when they think that it mattered to important adults?
  8. Has your child been embarrassed in front of people recently?
  9. Has your child been fighting with their friends?
  10. Has your child been held back a year in school?
  11. Has your child exhibited very different behavior recently?
  12. Is your child withdrawn/passive or aggressive rather than assertive?
  13. Does your child habitually bite their nails?
  14. Does your child wet the bed regularly?
  15. Has your child shown marked reluctance to attend a certain class or activity?
  16. Does your child regularly complain of physical aches or pains?

The more "yes's" you check the more likely it is that your child is experiencing stress. The questions you have ticked are a mixture of situations that children tend to find stressful and some of the symptoms they display when they are feeling stressed. If you checked 10 or more it would be a good idea to really look at your child's life and talk to them about how they are feeling with a view to helping them manage much better. 5 - 10 means that your child has periods of stress and needs to be watched in case those becomes a more permanent state. Teaching them some stress management techniques and making sure that they are not overburdened with tasks to accomplish will help too. Less than 5 means that your child is struggling with some things some of the time and could do with a hand to cope in these specific situations.

Emotional Coaching

Emotional coaching is a good way to begin helping your child. This is a simple five-step process that involves listening carefully to your child. You need to listen to the "essence" of what they are saying - their feelings and underlying beliefs - rather than the content of what they are saying. This will enable you to get a much better picture of what they are feeling and exactly what it is that they are struggling with. Some children, for example, struggle because there is too much for them to deal with. Watch out for complaining of tight deadlines or getting into a panic when they have to produce something. Other children struggle with some thing specific and start to try to avoid the situation, feeling ill, getting aggressive or disappearing shortly before the time they are due to do this thing. Many adults find it hard to listen to a child without trying to make that child's feelings 'better' or solve the situation for them by telling them what to do. This doesn't work.

Accepting feelings - even if the are not logical. What does work is to quietly listen to the subtext of what they are saying. If they are being frightened by something, such as going into a new school year, do not say things like, "you'll love it once you're there." This may well be true, but what matters is that right now your child is feeling scared and stressed. Having this understood - and even more importantly - accepted by you, is a major help in them beginning to deal with the situation. What many children, and adults, find hard is having their feelings denied or ignored. Once your child feels that you have understood how they feel they can then start to think about how to manage the situation better. What traps emotions in one place in a person and keeps it going round and round is when it is not accepted by either you or themselves. Once they feel acceptance of their feeling or their stress they might then start to remember how they felt at the start of the previous year and what helped them at that point. Or they may look at how their older friend or brother managed when they got to that stage.

How do you start helping them build their stress tolerance? The best way to help children become more stress resilient is to listen to them and take their feelings seriously while you help them deal creatively and assertively with whatever is worrying them. The next best way is to make things fun. The more fun your child has in their life the easier it will be for them to bounce back at heard times. If they regularly laugh and play, having time out to concentrate on fun things they will be healing the stress reactions that have been accumulating in their bodies. Adrenaline takes a while to flush out of the system and every time your child feels scared or angry their body will start to run on adrenaline. It then needs time to return to normal and the way that this can happen most easily is to have lots of time laughing, relaxed and enjoying themselves. Their bodies will then have more of nature's own 'wonder drug', endorphin, to give them a feel-good boost of happiness, robustness and optimism.

How stress resilient are you?

Another idea is to have high stress resilience yourself. Do you bounce back after a tough knock? Do you expect to be able to cope with anything on your own or are you happy to have help if you need it? Do you regularly have stress related illnesses as your body tries to deal with the demands on it? Or do you rarely have a cold or headaches? Do you regularly take risks and feel confident that you can handle what comes your way? Is your self-esteem secure and do you mind making a mistake or do you feel ashamed of yourself if you get it wrong?

Children learn most easily by copying their parents or adults they love. The fastest way for them to learn how to accept their own emotions is to see that you accept your own. If they can see you using your emotional intelligence to pick up the internal signals your emotions are sending you about what you need or want they will start to do this for themselves. Feelings give us a lot of information, they tell us when we are tired, thirsty, scared and needing support, angry and needing to re-establish a boundary, sad and needing to express that, confused and needing to sort through conflicting demands and so on. The clearer you can be about all of this the more stress resilient you will be. An idea you can try out. Try this idea in your family - it will help you all develop your emotional intelligence and build up stress resilience. Chose a time during the day when everyone is around, breakfast, supper, bedtime... and spend a few minutes doing a "feelings check". This means that everyone says a few words about how they feel right at that moment. "I'm excited after that game." "I'm scared to go to bed tonight.", "I'm angry after seeing that program on TV.", "I feel pleased because I'm going to see Sue in a minute." Whatever is said is accepted without comment by anyone else. This is just a "tune in" for everyone and whatever you feel is OK. It helps if everyone can have at least a minute letting themselves know what they feel, it helps everyone know what is going on for everyone else in the family and it gives everyone an experience of being accepted. Not bad for a few minutes work!

If you have several children this feelings check gives you a quick and easy way to tune into them all. You can then spend a few minutes more with each child as they go to bed to talk to them a bit more if they have expressed some difficult feelings. Once again the point is not to try to make them feel something else or to "stop being silly." It is to help them by accepting what they feel and letting them know that you are happy to help them solve the problem if they want some support.

Your child usually knows what's wrong. Ask your children what they think would help them most. So often we make it harder than it needs to be. Children are clever and resourceful and often know what is stressing them if you ask. They may be unworried by the situation and know that it is a temporary anxiety that they'll live through - or they may be really stuck about how to deal with it because they haven't got the right skills. A friend of ours asked her high school age children what was stressing them at the moment. They all said exams and homework. She asked if they wanted help with these things and they said 'No.' Worried that they were trying to do too much on their own and trying to push her away she anxiously asked why they didn't want her help. They laughed and said that they didn't think she would be able to help them with their homework because it was beyond her! Accepting easily and non-defensively that she wasn't good at algebra or some of the subjects - but that she did know a woman who was - made her children laugh. After that they said that they wanted to help one another first and that they would ask for her friend's help if they got stuck. This conversation left them all feeling better and lessened the general stress level in the family.

Learn To Be Good Enough

I can't get it right all the time. Learn to be good enough. It's all in the mindset! Life is a learning adventure. One of the most stressful things we can do for ourselves and for our children is to have the belief that we have to get things right all the time. That we have to be perfect, or fast, or the best, or please other people. These beliefs drive us on when we would be more sensible stopping and trying some thing a new way - or even giving up! The more we can help children believe that life is an adventure and that we learn from everything we do, the less stressful life becomes. If you turn every 'mistake' into a chance to learn, nothing is wrong - just an opportunity! This means much less pressure.

Stress resilience can make life more fun, more lively, more rich and varied and far more worth living. It is more than a skill, although certainly having the skills to listen to yourself, understand your feelings and those of other people, and know how to get support when you need it all help. It is mostly about attitude. It involves having a belief that you can cope, that you expect to be able to recover and that you don't mind accepting your limitations and playing to your strengths. The sooner you can pass this on to your children the sooner they will be able to live with the stresses that surround us and thrive on these challenges rather than sinking beneath them.

Elizabeth Morris is an author of books, factsheets, special reports and a regularly contributor. Recent publication "The Pillars of Successful Management" - Elizabeth Morris  

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