Children have no bills to pay, no work deadlines, and no car troubles. What could possibly be stressful about childhood? Plenty.
“Childhood is a time of firsts… From the first day of school to the first kiss,” says family physician Dr. Amie Gordon-Langbein. “The first of anything is a little bit scary. So it’s normal to feel stress when you’re a kid.”
In addition to the normal stress of childhood, Dr. Gordon-Langbein contends that today’s kids are facing more ‘stressors’ than ever before. Below, she talks about some of the work she does with children to help them keep their cool.
What is particularly stressful about childhood?
DR. AMIE GORDON-LANGBEIN: As parents, we need to teach children how to deal with those stressful feelings, and how to feel comfortable with a certain amount of stress.
One kid is going to be excited to jump into the pool for the first time and another is going to be terrified. Are stressful responses natural, or learned?
A good part of it is just genetic predisposition, or personality style. But I think a significant part of it is learned. Children learn the way to handle stress by watching their parents. And certainly the patterns that they learn in childhood are the patterns that are carried into adulthood.
Is there any evidence that stress is more prevalent among children today than it once was?
The stressors are more significant today. Kids at a very young age are starting to learn about things like drugs and alcohol, for instance. They hear about terrorism; they see it on the television. One-quarter of all adolescents have a sexually transmitted disease before they graduate from high school. And according to the National Institute of Mental Health, adolescent suicide rates have increased dramatically in the last few decades. In the year 2000, suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds, and the fifth leading cause of death among 5 to 14 year olds.
So I think kids have many more issues to deal with these days, and they have to learn how to cope with them, and verbalize their fears and their concerns.
So what are some exercises that parents can do with young kids to help them learn how to de-stress at an early age?
One important way to help children deal with stress is to help them develop good problem-solving skills, especially once they’re of school age. When your child describes a stressful school situation, practice playing different roles in the conflict.
This teaches kids how to imagine what other people feel, and also teaches them that there are different ways to handle stressful situations.
So that’s one… What’s another ‘stress buster’ for kids?
Another exercise is muscle relaxation. It teaches kids what it feels like be totally relaxed. This is how it works. You would tell a child to sit in a chair, or lay down, and start by making a really tight fist and making his arm muscles really tight like a rubber band that’s going to snap. Then tell him to open his hands and wiggle his fingers and make them relaxed. Limp. Then do this with the rest of the body, the legs, the feet, head and face. Tightening and releasing the muscles.
What do kids learn from this exercise?
They learn that there’s a difference between a stressful body and a relaxed one. And they learn that they can control it.
What is the benefit of a breathing exercise for children? How does it help kids to relax?
Basically it helps to slow down the nervous system, and slow down that feeling of anxiety that we feel when our hearts start to race and we’re breathing really fast.
How does it work?
Ask a child to sit in a chair and put her hands on her chest and take a deep breath in. Ask her to pretend her body is like a building and on the first breath she is filling the first floor with air, then blowing it out. On the second breath in, she fills the second floor. And so on until she’s all the way in the attic, filling the attic with air and blowing it out. By repeating this several times, she can calm herself down.
Kids can do this on their own, say in a classroom, when they’re feeling nervous about taking a test. And this is a technique they can use for a lifetime.
Do you ever use visualization techniques with kids?
Yes, visualization techniques during times of stress can make children feel calmer. It’s very simple, and involves changing your focus from something stressful in the moment to something unrelated to that stressful situation.
You can say to a child, “Close your eyes and try to see – in your mind – your own name. Can you spell your name in your mind? Can you spell it backwards? Can you picture what a camel looks like? What does its head look like? How many humps does it have?” And this technique teaches kids how to re-focus their energy, and calm down.
Another technique is to imagine peaceful situations. You can ask a child to imagine five situations that he feels really good in. You teach him to close his eyes and imagine that he’s there, on the baseball field or on the beach or wherever he’s most relaxed and happy, and you tell him that the next time he’s in a situation that makes him feel uncomfortable, he can close his eyes and imagine that place, or situation. And that’s another way to help kids find an inner calmness.
You mentioned the importance of being able to articulate stressful feelings. How can parents help their children learn to do this?
Reflective listening is very useful in this regard. It involves rephrasing your child’s comments to show them that you’ve understood what they said, and that you’re listening. For instance, your child might say, “Mom, when I have to answer a question in school, I feel sick.” And you could say to him, “So when you get called on, you have butterflies in your stomach?” By reflecting back what he’s said, you have shown him that you’re really listening, and that it matters what he feels, no matter what that feeling is.
I think that reflective listening is important also because it encourages children to attach words to feelings, and one way to avoid being overwhelmed by a feeling is to be able to name it. If you can name it, it’s not right in your face. It’s at a distance. So it’s important to teach children at all ages to verbalize their feelings, so that they can cope with them better, and not feel overwhelmed by them.
Also, it’s important to help them to see that feelings pass. If you spoke with your daughter today about how she was feeling sad, you might ask her tomorrow how she’s feeling. If she says she feels better, you might say, “I’m glad you’re feeling better, and I’m glad that today is a better day.” This way children can begin to learn that stressful feelings don’t last forever.
This article was originally posted on Adoption.com.