TFK Time to Talk: Helping your child manage stress
Do you ever reminisce about childhood and the memorable experiences it entailed?
Odds are you primarily remember the good times. As adults, it’s easy to wish you could go back to those “good ol’ days.” The stress you feel now makes childhood stressors seem insignificant or easy to handle. However, the stress was far from inconsequential at the time.
The 2013 Stress in America Survey from the American Psychological Association shows many teens believe their stress levels during the school year exceed what they believe to be healthy. It can lead to emotional and physical symptoms, including neglecting responsibilities, sleep disruption, or irritability and anger.
You can help your child manage their stress, and it all comes down to communication.
Do’s and Don’ts for communicating
Dr. Sean Ackerman, SSM Health psychiatrist, has several reminders about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to communicating with a stressful child.
Listen, listen, listen — This has the double benefit of allowing a child to process their emotions while also allowing the parent to really know what’s going on.
Model stress management — Communicating by taking care of yourself can be much more effective than telling your child what to do. Do you make time for exercise? Do you have coping mechanisms to deal with stress? If you do, your child will probably pick up these great habits from you.
Have dinner as a family — There is research that shows regular family meals are associated with good mental health outcomes for children. It also provides a routine environment where you can listen.
Overreact — Unnecessarily high emotional expressivity will only exacerbate your child’s stress.
Give too much advice to a teenager – Instead, listen first. At some point, most teenagers will either come up with their own solution or ask for advice. Wait for that moment when possible.
Seek out resources for your child
Stress is essentially fear. That’s why it’s really important for a child to find activities he or she can enjoy. They will help the child overcome fears.
Ideal activities promote physical movement, social interaction or creativity. Dr. Ackerman says these “wellness” activities can provide the essentials of stress prevention. “When a child builds strength through involvement in sports, music, or the arts, they build resilience they can draw upon in the face of fear,” notes Dr. Ackerman.
There are also a variety of coping mechanisms a child can learn to deal with stress. Mindfulness and other breathing techniques are increasingly being put into school curricula. Not all kids need these, but parents can explore what works, and even learn the techniques themselves.
If further help is needed, a great place to start is with a psychotherapist or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
“CBT is great for helping kids and their families learn really specific skills to attack stress,” says Dr. Ackerman. It focuses on a person’s thoughts, and how unhealthy feelings can lead to self-destructive behavior.
NAMI Dane County has more information on psychotherapy and CBT on its website.
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