Life can be stressful. As adults, we are faced with multiple sources of stress everyday. Without the occurrence of a traumatic event we often overlook the presence of stress in children’s lives. However, children do experience stress, sometimes on a daily basis. School, alone, presents an environment conducive for stress by combining the pressure to consistently achieve academically with the pressure of developing and maintaining social relationships. Children’s experience of stress is just as relevant and possibly more impactful than it is for adults because they are at a stage in their development when they may internalize their feelings and behaviors that are a result of stress as core flaws in their personality or character. As parents and educators it is important that we teach children to recognize, minimize and proactively manage their stress in order to empower them to live more fulfilling and meaningful lives. Here are 5 ways to help children manage stress.
Teach them to Ground Themselves
Children should have something that they do that brings them a feeling of peace and joy and helps them feel like their best selves. Something they do for no other reason then the fact that they love it. If they don’t already have that, then make discovering that “thing” your first priority. It doesn’t have to be something complicated or profound. Simply, make sure it makes them happy. Allow them to do this activity often and accommodate this activity in their schedule consistently. Some stress is unavoidable. Help them discover some balance and a way to always re-ground themselves in joy.
Allow them to Be Happy for No Reason at All
I was thirty years old before I realized that most of the things that I stressed about on a daily basis weren’t actually important to me at all. For most people, we are constantly striving for some form of happiness. Children find happiness everyday, even in the smallest moments. They don’t have to earn it, prepare for it, outline it or construct detailed plans. As we get older we tend to complicate the concept of happiness and it becomes some illusive feeling at the end of hard work and a coordinated strategy. When we speak of getting an education, performing well in school, participating in extracurricular sports and clubs, going to college, getting a good job and all of the other practical behaviors of contributing members of society, we are simply speaking of our different formulas for happiness. Happiness doesn’t require a formula. Let them be happy for no reason at all. Celebrate who they are, not only what they accomplish. Don’t unconsciously hijack their happiness by attaching it to an external source of value. The stress of chasing perfection in order to earn happiness is enough to break anyone.
Unplug them Regularly
The millennial generation has more daily access to technology than any generation before them. In particular, social media has expanded their social circle and its reach and influence far beyond what we dealt with at their age. They are constantly and continuously plugged into their social life with a never-ending stream of information. That comes with both benefits and disadvantages. Most of all, it comes in the form of daily hand held distraction. While it may seem purely leisurely when kids scroll through their phone constantly, there is actually pressure and stress related to a persistent need to stay in the “know” and engage others. Most of them are unable to disconnect on their own. Unplug them regularly. My children are required to hand me their phones, tablets, watches (and any other form of communication with the outside world) within ten minutes of getting home from school. I don’t return them until homework is completed, chores are done and they have given themselves an additional hour to decompress. It certainly wasn’t a rule that was warmly welcomed or initially appreciated. However, they very quickly learned three things:
1.) You can be incredibly productive when you eliminate distractions.
2.) Having daily time to yourself is necessary to organize your thoughts and emotions
3.) There is a somewhat unexplainable ease that comes with being occasionally
Eliminate the Language of Failure
One of the greatest disservices that we do our children and ourselves is to frame life in terms of successes or failures. Even worse is attaching the concept of happiness to success, which eliminates the possibility of happiness within our failures. Life is a journey filled with lots of lessons, mistakes, re-direction, victories and disappointments. Happiness lives within all of that. Liberate your children from the constant fear of failure and the stress that accompanies that fear. You can empower them to consistently grow, even from their mistakes, because their mistakes won’t be internalized as failure. Change the language around success and failure, both yours and theirs. For example, instead of encouraging them to make good grades, encourage them to learn new things constantly. Support them in investigating their most random fascinations. Education extends far beyond report cards. It is the exploration of life and there is no failure in exploration. Develop a language that frames their lives in terms of learning experiences. When children aren’t in fear of being defined by failures they are less inclined to succumb to higher levels of stress and anxiety.
Know When they NEED you to Step In
They may not ask for help and they may not even want it but there may come a time when they need you to step in and help them regain a sense of control. It is healthy to let your children self-manage certain areas of their life. Having a sense of autonomy is a valuable part of our development. Yet, life can become overwhelming quickly. Errors and mistakes can feel devastating to children. They often misinterpret setbacks as failures instead of redirection. A recurring feeling of failure can be detrimental to their sense of self-worth. Pay attention to possible symptoms of stress. This includes (but is not limited to) loss of appetite, emotional outburst, withdrawing from family, moodiness, headaches, and frequent stomach aches. Children often don’t know that they are stressed out. Use language they understand. Ask them what they have been spending most of their time on and what they have been thinking about a lot. Journaling is a highly effective way for children to express themselves. For younger children, or children less inclined to journal, you can create a “vent book” to write words that describe their feelings or complain about things that they may not be “allowed” to normally complain about. Doing something as simple as writing down things they wish they didn’t have to do can give you a sense of the stress in their lives. When it appears that they are overwhelmed, give them a day off. It may be a day off from school or a day of pampering. Allow them to reset and then discuss ways in which you are going to help them eliminate or readjust the way they are handling particular stressors in their life. Children (and even adults) don’t always know when it is time to ask for help so be attentive and step in to help when necessary.