What is Stress?
When we think of stress we might think of the pressures of adult living – the pile of work that needs to get accomplished before an unrealistic deadline, struggling to pay too many bills with too little money, or stretching ourselves too thin as we care for the needs of others.
If we are asked about our children’s stress, we might acknowledge that they have pressure as well. They have to deal with the challenges of maintaining friendships, dealing with academic expectations, and coping with adults who seem to always be telling them what to do.
Would you be surprised to hear that stress can also come from unexpected places? Our environment can cause us stress. Some people are more sensitive to sounds and light than others. Others are sensitive to the feeling of the clothes that they may be wearing. Our bodies themselves can cause us stress. If we haven’t had enough sleep, enough to eat (or the right kinds of things to eat), or enough exercise we can easily feel out of sorts. If we are suffering from any sort of ailment, pain, or physical discomfort that can cause us stress. Spending too much time interacting with a screen and not enough time interacting with people or nature can cause us stress. If we are worried about something that may or may not happen, that also can be a source of stress.
What Happens When Your Child is Stressed?
When we are experiencing stress, our bodies think we are under attack. The same defenses that help us if we are in a situation of true danger kick into high gear. Our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol. Our instincts to fight, flee, or freeze kick in.
When a child is in this state, they may become hyper, manic, or unresponsive (not listening to what we are saying). The “misbehavior” that frequently results is a result of trying to unsuccessfully cope with the stress rather than a case of disobedience. When a child is in this state, they are focused on the basic task of survival. They cannot successfully learn or process information while in this state. The child’s ability to process speech is reduced. They cannot practice self-control. While all children can be a victim of stress, those on the autism spectrum, have ADHD, or have experienced any sort of trauma are particularly vulnerable.
How to Help Your Child Cope with Stress
The steps for helping both adults and children deal with stress are the same. According to Dr. Stuart Shanker, author of Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, there are five steps:
- Read the signs and reframe the behavior
- Identify the stressors
- Reduce the stress
- Become aware of when you are overstressed
- Figure out what helps you calm, rest, and recover
Surprisingly, the first step to help our children manage stress is to remain calm ourselves. This is much easier said than done. Dealing with a child that is out of control is inherently stressful. Our children are deeply connected to how we are feeling. If we respond to their stress with more stress, the cycle simply gets more vicious. The opposite is also true. If we are under a great deal of stress, our children can feel that and will respond by being stressed themselves. We need to do some work on ourselves before we can help our children.
That means being aware of the things that cause us stress and finding some way to minimize them. While we cannot necessarily remove the sources of our adult stress, we can minimize those that we do have some control over. We can make a concerted effort to calm ourselves through whatever healthy means helps us to do that. We might need to spend some time in prayer or meditation. We might need to have a snack if we are hungry. We might need to find some way to take a short nap if we are suffering from sleep-deprivation (I know that isn’t always possible – sometimes taking a drink with some caffeine is the next best option). We might need to take a walk or do a few minutes working out with an online video.
To help our children deal with stress more effectively, we need to pay attention to what is causing them stress. Is it a sensory issue such as uncomfortable clothing, background noise, or a food that they don’t like? Did your child sleep well? Are they hungry? Do they need some exercise and fresh air? Have they been going from activity to activity without any downtime? Does a particular school subject push them over the edge? Different children respond differently to different stimuli. Once we have figured out what the trigger is, we can work to minimize it.
We also need to figure out what calms our child. Children are calmed by different activities. Some may feel most calm after exercising. Others may need some quiet time to read or play by themselves.
We can help our child be aware of what is causing his or her stress and what they can do to calm themselves. Babies and young children need us to manage their stress for them. As they grow, they need to learn how to manage their own stress. We can help them do this by walking them through the process. We may need to tell them, “You are feeling bad because you didn’t eat breakfast. If you have some food, you will feel better,” or “You are getting worked up because you are playing that video game. You need to take a break and go outside for a while.” (Some children’s brains react negatively to any screen time. As the adult, you may need to make the difficult decision to have no screen time for your child if this is the case.)
What happens if, despite our best efforts, our child has a total stress-related meltdown? We need to respond with calm. We need to help the child feel safe. The child, at a primitive instinctual level, feels threatened. We need to help soothe them. With time and consistent practice, the child will learn how to better manage his or her stress level and these stress-related meltdowns should reduce in number.