It seems that today's youths suffer from more stress than we remember as children, but that really shouldn't be a surprise. Parents tend to over-schedule their kids so that they don't miss any opportunities. Education is more competitive as reliance on scholarships becomes more important for many families. Terrorism over the past few years has changed our way of life; news reports tend to focus repetitively on graphic events, and access to news -- both rumor and fact -- leaves little room for escape.
Add these modern-day stressors to normal family situations, friendships, early puppy love, losses and other disappointments and our youth has to overcome more obstacles than ever before. During these stressful years, parents need to reassure their children that love and family security is not arbitrary; young children also fear the loss of care by parents if there is a significant crisis and need to know there is a chain of support if needed. Parents can remove unnecessary stressful situations from their everyday life and be an example of how to cope in healthy ways. The adage that "children learn what they live" is evident in how they react to tension and normal and abnormal strife. When parents who are faced with stressors react with anger, withdrawal or reliance on alcohol and drugs, they send a message to their children -- and it is not a good one.
Unfortunately, we can't change the world, but we can help our kids by teaching them coping skills and preparing them to face life's challenges. Families need to schedule downtime now and then -- even popular fun activities may not allow children to just "slow down" and breathe. Children (and adults) need time to literally catch their breath, let the body rest and take time to replenish energy and receive necessary nourishment. Nourishment should come in the various forms of food, sleep, exercise, spiritual/meditative time, friendship and emotional support. A healthy diet and sufficient sleep helps keep the body well. Even overly active children may not be getting the physical exercise their bodies need to grow and be strong. Healthy strength and stretching exercises should be encouraged. Children also need to know that people are allowed to make mistakes or not succeed at everything; not succeeding is NOT failure.
Never underestimate or dismiss a child's feelings. The younger the child the smaller his or her world is, and every supposed threat to that world is therefore magnified. What may seem minor to an adult can seem a major crisis to a child. Encourage conversation when your children have been exposed to bad news; use discussion openers that require more than one-word responses, and don't belittle fears or tears. Let your children know that you understand how they feel and maybe even relate without making yourself the spotlight. Avoid overprotecting your children from news reports, but do watch with them and discuss what they've seen. If a child has questions, answer them honestly, but don't provide an info-dump if it wasn't asked for. Even if there is a crisis, if your children don't appear to be negatively affected, don't insist that they feel scared if they don't seem to.
Pediatrician Michelle L. Bailey of Duke University School of Medicine says that common signs of stress in a child might include headaches, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, stomachaches, fatigue, anxiety, social isolation, withdrawal from activities, mood swings, emotional outbursts, aggression and trouble concentrating. She recommends mindfulness-based stress reduction and relaxation techniques, including visualization and breathing exercises in her book "Parenting Your Stressed Child."
If you are worried about your children's reaction to stress, you should reach out to school counselors, clergy, pediatricians and even other parents. There are also professional sites ready to help; many can point you to local resources in the U.S.:
--Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990
--Crisis Call Center/Suicide Prevention: 800-273-TALK (1-888-628-9454 for Spanish-speaking callers)
--Youth Mental Health Line: 888-568-1112
--Child-Help USA: 800-422-4453 (24 hour toll free) Coping With Stress
--National Hopeline Network: 800-SUICIDE (784-2433)/800-442-HOPE (4673)
--Thursday's Child National Youth Advocacy Hotline: 800-USA-KIDS (800-872-5437)
--The Boys Town National Hotline serving at-risk children and families: 800-448-3000
--Kids Help Phone: 800-668-6868 (Canada)