Manage Your Child’s Stress

How can you help your children deal with stress?
By Glynis Horning

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When Cape Town businesswoman and single mom Tracy, 35, announced that she was moving her daughter from a small community school to a larger school, she began noticing her daughter “wasn’t her usual self”.
The effervescent 11-year-old wasn’t sleeping well, and began comfort eating, then experiencing thinning hair. “She kept scratching her head, as though things were literally getting under her skin.” Tracy recognised the signs of stress. “It seemed crazy for a child so young,” she says. But like most children today, her daughter was dealing with a demanding school curriculum, exam-style assessments unlike any we faced at that age, and extramurals that she loved but that filled most afternoons. “A couple of girls were also bullying her, and as a working parent, I wasn’t as available for her as I’d have liked,” Tracy adds. “With all that, the prospect of moving school seemed too much.”
She responded by enrolling her daughter in a stress management course. “It was amazing the difference it made just learning to breathe deeply and reconnect with herself when she felt under pressure; to visualise a stressful situation away in a bubble.” The girl’s sleep, hair and eating problems subsided, and she made the transition to her new school smoothly. “She’s been accepted, made friends, and received a glowing term report,” says Tracy. “I just wish I’d looked into the whole stress question earlier.”
Few parents do. Most of us seek guidance only once there’s a problem, reports Michelle Schoon, who runs Stress Free Kids SA in Cape Town. “And there are so many sources (of stress) today.”
Sources of stress
Research suggests that certain children may be naturally more susceptible to stress through an inherited high anxiety trait in their personality, but even for them much depends on how they’re raised to respond to pressure in life. Ironically, parents can exert considerable pressure themselve if they’re anxious, distant or over-demanding, or expose their children to problems outside their control. “Today the most common reason primary school children give for worrying is their parents – arguing, leaving home, or complaining about money troubles,” says Schoon.
Their second biggest source of worry is bullying. Marilu Murray, a trauma counsellor with the Teddy Bear Clinic for abused children in Johannesburg, reports that bullying is on the rise, with children increasingly using online social networks because they allow anonymity. Childline receives numerous calls about bullying, says Joan van Niekerk, the organisation’s advocacy and training manager. Most are from girls, who reach out more readily for help than boys. Tracy’s daughter experienced bullying when other girls ignored her, giggled when she walked by or spread rumours about her.
As children approach their teens, however, pressure comes increasingly from inside themselves as they strive to fit in socially and advance academically. Parents make this worse when they live out their own fears or live their fantasies through their children by piling on extramurals and pushing them to succeed. “Most parents just want their children to have opportunities they themselves didn’t have,” says Pretoria counselling psychologist Elise Fourie. “But in some cases, I think narcissism plays a role, and parents hope to prove what good parents they are.” We grow anxious about our children’s performance, nagging and using fear of failure to motivate, instead of allowing them to learn from mistakes and showing them how to deal with these as positive growth experiences. This breeds anxiety, anger and resentment in children – they can fear being rejected if they don’t live up to our expectations, or just lose interest and refuse to compete. Overly involved parenting and micromanaging communicates a sense of inadequacy to a child, says Durban child and educational psychologist Dr Caron Bustin. “It encourages dependency and the child doesn’t learn to take ownership of his or her own pursuits.” The bottom line is that we live in a highly competitive society, she concludes. “This generation is more over-scheduled than any other, and the effect of raised levels of stress hormones can be considerable.”
Effects of stress
Stress triggers the body to release adrenalin and cortisone as part of its fight-or-flight survival mechanism. But when the stress continues and becomes chronic, constantly raised levels of these hormones can lower immunity. They can cause headaches and digestive disorders, asthma and allergies, and have been linked to heart problems and certain cancers.
Equally, worrying are the psychological costs of stress. It can cause depression, even in primary school children, and lead to an escape in substance abuse, promiscuity, breakdowns and childhood suicide. Nearly one in 10 deaths of young South Africans are the result of suicide, and one in three patients hospitalised after attempting suicide are in their teens or younger, says Durban-based world suicide expert Lourens Schlebusch, author of Mind Shift: Stress Management and Your Health (University Press).
“Children don’t have the same tools for regulating stress as adults and experience burnout and exhaustion when it’s prolonged,” says Bustin. Those who are over-scheduled are constantly under the spotlight, expected to perform and compared to other children. Chronic stress has been linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and in the case of extreme stress, such as from lasting separation and loss, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or witnessing violence (all too prevalent in South Africa today), studies indicate the brain itself can be affected. Researchers at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in the US, for example, found children aged seven to 13 with post-traumatic stress disorder and high levels of cortisol showed a decrease in the size of their hippocampus, the part of the brain used for memory processing and emotion.
Helping them cope
It’s essential for today’s parents to be aware of the impact of stress, and recognise the signs in our children, so that we can take action early (see “stress alert”). We especially need to watch our motives and ourselves, and rein ourselves in if we start going too far. “Children need to be stimulated and be given skills so they can develop and find self-confidence and fulfilment in life, but we do more harm than good when we push them too hard to do too much,” says Cape Town clinical psychologist Thabile Zondi-Rees. Children need time with their family, and time playing with friends. “Play is their natural way of de-stressing, working through past experiences and planning future ones,” says Bustin. But more than anything, children need time for themselves. This is how they connect with their feelings, find perspective and develop their imagination and taste. “When you see your child ‘doing nothing’, whether she’s sitting on the front steps, seeming to stare into space, or re-reading a comic book for the hundredth time, let her be,” says US psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Perseus). “She’s just taking a little time out of her busy life to have a childhood.”
We also need to be role models for our children by balancing work, exercise, healthy eating and relaxation in our own lives, and participating happily, not obsessively, says Fourie. We need to help them select a realistic number of activities for themselves and set realistic goals. One physical and one creative extramural is a healthy mix, and they should be things your child truly enjoys and can succeed at. Encourage them to commit to these so they learn that effort brings fulfilment, says Fourie. But if they try their best and don’t enjoy it, allow them to quit. “Learning to recognise that something isn’t working for you, and to say no, is also a valuable life lesson.”
Finally, coach them in some simple coping mechanisms for when they’re stressed – deep breathing, visualization or going for a run.
Stress alert
If your child shows these signs, encourage them to talk about possible worries. If they won’t open up, talk to their teachers or a professional counsellor – don’t ignore them.
  • Mood swings
  • Tiredness
  • Tearfulness
  • Clinginess
  • Withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Bad behaviour
  • Loss of interest
  • Drop in marks
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Regression (bed-wetting, thumb-sucking)
  • New habits (hair-twirling, leg-bouncing)
  • Stomachache
Stress triggers
Some children thrive on a busy schedule but others can break under it. It depends on their personality, motivation and stage of development. Watch these common stress points:
Preschoolers: separating from parents; extramurals that expose them to competition before they’re ready
Primary schoolers: unstructured classrooms; unclear or unrealistic expectations; fear of failure; first play dates and first sleepovers
High schoolers: school work; peer pressure and bullying
All ages: monitor children’s exposure to violence on TV and to adult discussions that could cause worry (about crime or money problems). Discuss what they see and hear to help them understand, and offer reassurance. Most importantly, make time to be with them each day so they know you are interested and available. Being able to express their feelings, exercising regularly (to release feel-good hormones) and eating nutritiously are all solid stress busters. 

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