Whether a child is stressed by everyday demands or an unexpected change, parents play a critical role in creating balance and modeling healthy coping. Stress to some degree can be healthy. It alerts us to danger, motivates us to take action, and encourages us to work through difficult situations. When children are challenged by something and works through it, they are building coping muscles.
For example, when your child is learning new material at school or having a disagreement with a friend, he or she may have a mixture of emotions. If you provide both comfort and encouragement, your child will feel a sense of accomplishment after finally mastering that math equation or resolving that disagreement. Having appropriate expectations, offering comfort, and challenging children to work out problems create the perfect climate for growth.
Children also experience stress when faced with situations not in their control, such as divorce, moving, deployment, loss of a job, or an ill family member. When dealing with changes and uncertainties, your child needs you to be a foundation for safety and security and to be present and engaged. Although it is difficult to watch your child struggle, simply being with your child during times of stress can help make it more manageable for him or her.
Stress becomes distress when demands and pressures overwhelm children’s capacity to cope, and they do not have a trusted adult to buffer that stress. When a child turns to a parent for support and is ignored, criticized, or punished, the child may experience high levels of distress.
Not having an adult to help mitigate stressful situations leaves a child vulnerable to unhealthy coping. When children do not have an opportunity to strengthen their coping muscles, they are at a greater risk for anxiety, depression, and aggression when faced with subsequent life challenges.
Tips for Dealing with Kids’ Stress
Search for Solutions Together
Here are some ways to provide both comfort and an opportunity to learn:
- Know that some stress is okay. It builds coping. Don’t take over every time your child gets frustrated or apprehensive.
- Know that all behavior is communication. Children show us with behavior what they cannot express in words. Watch for symptoms of stress like withdrawal or aggression.
- Maintain routines. Predictability helps a child feel safe and reduces stress.
- Model a calm response to stressful situations by taking a deep breath and keeping your composure.
- Give your child age-appropriate information about stressful situations affecting your family or community. Be sure to listen and support problem solving.
- Allow your child to work through a range of emotions, if necessary. Assure her that what she is feeling is okay and manageable.
- Don’t ignore or minimize your child’s struggles. Search for solutions together. Avoid criticism or punishment.
- Connect with your child. Redirect or correct his behavior by showing him what to do or by helping him troubleshoot potential solutions to a challenging situation.
- Model healthy eating and exercise and how to balance work and play.
Michele Tryon, CCLS, is the community outreach coordinator and parent educator for CHKD.
To learn more parenting strategies, attend the Independent School Fair at Virginia Wesleyan University on Sat., Sept. 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Parents will have the opportunity to meet with representatives from local VAIS-accredited independent schools and attend free workshops focused on helping your child enjoy a healthy life and investing in your child’s education. Learn more at VAIS.org/HRSchoolFair.