I was chatting with my daughter when, out of the blue, she blurted out that her friend was “stressed.”
I burst out laughing and asked what being “stressed” meant. She looked at me like I was the preschooler, sighed, and explained that being “stressed” was when one couldn’t concentrate on what one was doing, like an art project, because someone was bothering her.
I nodded my head and realized it was not a bad definition for a five-year-old.
To a certain extent, she was correct. According to www.kidshealth.org, stress is a “function of the demands placed on us and our ability to meet them.”
Whether that stress is from external pressure such as school and people, or an internal source of conflict such as that between expectations and reality, it is a normal part of life.
There are two kinds of stress.
The “good” stress keeps us on our toes and pushes us to meet the challenges that come our way, and even activates our survival instincts. For instance, a quick-moving car coming down the street can trigger our stress sensors and make us jump out of the way.
The “bad” stress is that which we have come to associate with pressure in general, and which leads to the inability to concentrate, as well as emotional and physical health problems.
Most people assume that stress comes with age, as people mature and face serious issues such as academic and work pressures, relationship woes and financial obligations. But what we don’t realize is that stress can affect even the small and young members of our family.
In front of a screen
Dr. Kristen Race, author of “Mindful Parenting,” points out that children today are living much more stressful lives than we, their parents, ever did. They have only half the amount of free time we enjoyed, and spend anywhere from one to seven hours before a screen, all of which result in less sleep and relaxation.
While adults can usually recognize when they are feeling stressed and pinpoint the cause, children don’t usually understand and cannot process what is happening to them. They can get easily overwhelmed by the feeling and anxiety that accompany stress.
This translates into impulsiveness, distraction, irritability and outbursts, as well as attention problems similar to (but not) ADHD.
This is because “when kids are stressed, it is difficult for them to use that part of their brain that helps them pay attention and solve problems,” says Dr. Race.
The leading cause of stress is usually scheduling.
Nowadays, academic after-school activities have become such a normal part of childhood that I find myself feeling almost guilty if my kids aren’t taking any supplemental science, math or reading classes after school. It’s as if I am being irresponsible by not exposing my child to all these amazing learning opportunities when she is at that stage where she is just continuously absorbing.
However, a recent schedule check made me realize I’m guilty of overscheduling my own little girl, too!
Free time to play and relax is essential to brain development of children. As tempting as it may be to enroll them in many extracurricular academic enhancement classes, Dr. Race suggests that children under age 10 should have around two afternoons a week where they can just play, rest and allow their minds and bodies to rejuvenate after a long day in school and homework.
It is when they hit the pre-teen and teenage years that they can start handling full daily schedules.
Another cause for children’s stress is not getting enough sleep. As adults, we know firsthand the effects of not getting enough sleep, and often resort to drinking coffee for that needed caffeine boost and wake-up call. But kids can’t do that and often end up sluggish or irritable, and more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and stressed by their daily activities and challenges.
I know this is easier said than done, but a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine is always recommended by doctors for children. The advantages and positive effects range from a (supposed) higher IQ, more positive and cheerful disposition, to improved performance in their activities.
Things don’t end after kids go to sleep. Maintaining a calm and pleasant environment when they wake up and as they go about their morning routine, rather than a chaotic morning rush, sets the tone of your children’s day.
Overstimulation can also cause stress to children. Most people think that playing with video games is a form of downtime, but many experts believe that these, especially violent ones, may lead to overstimulation of children’s minds and leave them unsettled even after they stop playing.
Keeping screen time down to an hour a day or limited to weekends is one way of eliminating an unnecessary source of stress.
Teaching children how to deal with stress is not just about keeping their lives smooth, comfortable and stress-free, because real life is far from such ideal conditions. Eventually, they will face demanding situations that will test their ability to cope.
If we don’t teach them to learn to deal with stress now, they might try to deal with it in ways we would not want them to when they are older—such as through substance abuse, violence and other unhealthy habits.
Children must be taught to listen to their bodies and emotions and to understand the physiology of stress. This is important for them to learn how far they can go, and when to sit back and give themselves a break.
Practicing and anticipating how to react to potentially stressful scenarios is another way of preparing them, so they do not get paralyzed by fear and stress when in an unfamiliar situation.
Learning at a young age how to plan and organize their schedules and commitments, and what to say yes and no to, are great life skills that will surely help children have less stress in their lives as they get older.
But preparing them to recover from broken schedules, mistakes and bad decisions may be even more important.
Knowing how to improvise and fix a situation when things don’t go according to plan, and to learn from their mistakes, will surely help them in the long run, and give them the confidence to face any challenge.
And, as with all things, teach by example. We can hardly expect our children to manage their own stress if they are raised in an environment where parents are constantly complaining about how stressed they are and blaming bad behavior on their stress.
If parents can show children that it is possible to deal with stress gracefully and productively, they will be inspired to do the same when they are faced with the same situations.