“A man who suffers or stresses before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary.” – Seneca
Just as we, as adults, experience stress and emotional tension from both internal and external experiences, so do children. The content of children’s worries may look a bit different from ours, but those worries are often rooted in similar core beliefs and fears that we experience as adults. Children may witness you and your partner arguing at home, and feel afraid about what this means, if it’s their “fault,” or if they might lose one of you somehow. They may experience stress at school, worries about being bullied, having friends, or doing well in their classes.
In case there was any doubt about the reality that children experience emotional distress, consider the following basic statistics:
- More than 160,000 children skip school every day due to fear of being bullied
- 77% of children are bullied (physically, mentally, or emotionally), but only 10% tell their parents
- At any given time, 1 in 33 children and 1 in 8 adolescents may be experiencing clinical depression
- Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds and the 6th leading cause of death for 5-15 year olds
Children learn how to identity, manage, and respond to their emotions through the way in which they witness you handle your own emotions (social learning theory) and through their repetitive interactions with you. Take a moment to slow down and reflect on what messages you may be (perhaps unintentionally) sending your children about what stress “means” and how to deal with emotional stress when it arises. Being more mindful in your daily interactions with your children may not only help you be more attuned to your own emotional expressions, but also more attuned to your children’s well-being.
Identify Signs of Stress in Children & Teens
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests the following 5 tips to help identify signs of stress in children and teens:
(1) Watch out for negative changes in behavior
Children and adolescents may have difficulty identifying and vocalizing times when they are under stress. As a mindfully attuned parent, you can be vigilant for noteworthy negative changes in your child’s behavior. Common behavioral changes to be aware of include:
- Withdrawing from activities that your child used to enjoy
- Acting uncharacteristically irritable or moody
- Complaining more than usual about school or friends
- Eating or sleeping too much or too little
- Excessive hostility toward or avoidance of family members
Negative behaviors don’t necessarily mean that your child is under severe stress, but negative changes in behavior are almost always a clear sign that something is wrong.
(2) “Feeling sick” may be a manifestation of stress
Emotional distress can manifest itself outwardly through physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches. Notice if your child seems to want to stay home from school often or makes frequent visits to the school nurse. Be sure to rule out physical problems with a trip to your physician. If your child is given a clean bill of health and the physical complaints persist or seem to increase during certain times (e.g., before a big test), this may be a sign that a deeper level of emotional distress is occurring.
(3) Be mindful of how your child interacts with others
It is possible for your child to act one way at home and quite differently in other settings (e.g., at school or with friends). While on many levels it is not unusual at all (and healthy) to show different sides of ourselves in different situations, this may become problematic if your child is acting out in unhealthy/destructive ways when he or she is not around you. You can be vigilant to this possibility by having open lines of communication with other parents, school administrators, teachers, and leaders of extra-curricular activities.
(4) Listen and translate
Children generally don’t have the same understanding of “stress” that we do as adults, which may result in children trying to express their experience of distress to you by using language that makes sense to them. For example, your child may try to express their stress to you by using words like mad, scared, annoyed, or worried. It is not uncommon for children and adolescents to outwardly express their stress by making self-deprecating statements like “no one likes me,” “this is stupid,” or “nothing is any fun.” When you develop a mindfully attuned presence to your child’s communication strategies, you can begin the process of making sense of what he or she is trying to tell you and how you can most effectively respond.
(5) Seek support
If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing significant stress, you don’t need to feel alone in the process of understanding what may be going on and how to help your child. Explore the mental health resources available in your community. There are psychologists and other mental health professionals who have specialized training in identifying and treating child and adolescent emotional, mental, and behavioral issues. Many of these mental health professionals may be skilled in offering you specific strategies that you can implement with your child to help alleviate suffering.
Help Children Become Mindful of Emotions
In her book “The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety, ” child psychologist and UCLA professor, Dr. Charlotte Reznick, shares tips on how to help children become more mindful of their emotional states. Just a few of many strategies are listed here:
Try teaching your child to use deep diaphragmatic breathing to help them calm down and focus. Show your child how to place their hands gently on their stomach and visualize a balloon slowly filling up with air with each deep breath in. This mindful breathing technique can help your child deescalate and recenter in the present moment.
Discover your special place:
You can teach your child how visualize a special and safe place in their minds that they can “go to” when they are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or unsure. Create as much detail as possible and reassure your child this place exists within them at all times. Perhaps this place looks like a castle, outer space, or a garden. The idea is that this special place is safe, secure, and comforting.
Use color for healing:
Children can use color to describe their emotions and reduce emotional suffering. When it’s difficult to verbalize what an emotion looks like or feels like, describing the emotion through color and drawing can be a way to express and process the emotional experience.
Help Teens Deal with Stress
- Learn practical coping skills (distress tolerance)
- Practice regular self-care
- Learn to decrease negative self-talk
- Develop healthy assertiveness and conflict resolution skills
- Rehearse and practice situations that typically create stress
- Learn relaxation and mindfulness exercises
As you develop mindfulness within yourself, you may become increasing attuned to your child’s emotional state and be better equipped to respond more effectively. Remember, children notice the way that you handle your own emotions and interact with others. The notion of “do as I say, not as I do” may allow you to feel off the hook in this respect, but it is most likely an illusion. Your children internalize aspects of you and your interactions with them. Try to be mindful of the ways that you show your children how to handle emotional distress and be prepared to effectively support them during difficult times.
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American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-children.aspx
Tartakovsky, M. (2012). 9 Tools to Help Kids Cope Creatively with Stress.Psych Central. Retrieved on March 25, 2012, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/03/23/9-tools-to-help-kids-cope-creatively-with-stress/
Featured image: A little worried by allspice1 / CC BY-ND 2.0