Kids are still learning about the world and their place in it. They’re still unsure of so much, which can create an undercurrent of anxiety in their lives. As parents we want to help them, read on to find out how.
Do you remember being a kid and playing with your siblings and friends, using your imaginations to create the most wonderful games?
Do you also remember the stress you felt when your best friend didn’t want to play with you anymore?
How about the excitement of having a sleep over at your friend’s house, only to be overcome with anxiety at bedtime as you realise you have to sleep in an unfamiliar bedroom.
Stress isn’t something that only adults experience. It’s important to remember that while our kids may not experience the same kind of stress triggers as us, they do experience pressures that causes them to feel stressed.
Kids and Stress
Kids are still learning about the world and their place in it. They are yet to master how to deal with difficult situations and relationship challenges. They are still unsure of so much, which can create an undercurrent of anxiety in their lives.
Some Kids Stress Triggers:
Separation from parents: first day of school, school camp, sleepovers, babysitters.
Feelings: feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions, being unable to express them, expressing them inappropriately.
Independence & Responsibility: being expected to be a ‘big kid’ now, or the opposite where kids want more independence but aren’t given the chance.
Not being given a choice, or a voice: when because they are ‘just kids’ their opinion isn’t considered valid.
Changes to the routine: going on holiday, changing schools, new teachers, parents returning to work, younger sibling is born.
Fears: nightmares, the dark or monsters, scary stories told at school, when a pet or grandparent dies, when a family member is dealing with chronic illness, of starting school, of making new friends.
Friendship challenges: making new friends, playing fair, being bullied, teased or left out, managing being shy or bossy, being ‘dropped’ from the group.
Peer pressure: to wear certain brands, to own certain toys, to behave a certain way, to eat certain food, to speak a certain way, to ‘not be a baby’: don’t believe in santa, easter bunny, tooth fairy etc.
Academic pressure: exams, pop-quiz, understanding concepts, learning to read, write and count.
Too many extra-curricular activities: not enough downtime to relax or just play, being too tired after school, having to squeeze homework in too, when succeeding at a hobby becomes more important than fun.
Hearing about natural disasters: learning about them at school or in the news, or being involved in one.
Illness or injury: to themselves or a family member.
Observing parents behaviour: hearing their worries and arguments, witnessing or experiencing violence, fighting with parents and siblings.
When Stress is Chronic
Every time kids experience a moment of stress their Fight or Flight Response is activated. Multiple stresses dotted throughout their day mean this stress response can be chronically activated, which is so damaging to their little bodies.
As quoted in Dr Bruce Lipton’s book “The Biology of Belief”, the science is showing how childhood stress not only negatively affects kids in the moment, but later in their lives too.
“Children who develop chronic stress behaviours are more likely to experience learning impairment and psychological dysfunctions, such as anxiety and mood disorders later in life.”
Just like in adults, the Fight or Flight Response creates physical changes in kids bodies.
Fight or Flight Response in Kids:
Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase, pumping blood and oxygen to muscles, and away from internal organs. Without adequate blood supply, internal organs can’t perform at their optimal function.
Blood begins to thicken in preparation for any wounds, but chronically this can create unwanted blood clots in the body.
Hormone levels and blood sugar surges to provide an instant boost of energy. Unfortunately this also adversely affects other bodily processes needed for optimal health.
Muscles tense in anticipation of fighting or fleeing and over time can cause tightness and discomfort in the muscles. Pain sensations become intensified in tight muscles.
Functions that aren’t vital to immediate survival are slowed (such as the immune system, digestion and growth.) Over time this leads to frequent illness with slow recovery, stomach troubles, poor growth and wounds that take a long time to heal.
Paying attention to our children will help us notice when they may be experiencing ongoing stress, and enable us to support them better. The only way to turn the Fight or Flight Response off is to turn the Relaxation Response on.
The Relaxation Response
Like the Fight or Flight Response, the Relaxation Response creates a cascade of physiological changes once activated. But the Relaxation Response requires a conscious effort to activate. It elicits the opposite physiological changes to Fight or Flight: heart rate slows, respiratory rate slows, muscles relax, organs and systems operate as they’re supposed to during normal physiological function. This state can be described as one of deep relaxation.
Helping Kids to Manage Stress
Turning on the Relaxation Response is simple and enjoyable. The first step is to better manage stress, and kids may need our help with this.
We Can Help Our Kids By:
Understanding how stress may be affecting our child physically, emotionally and behaviourally.
Ensuring our kids get adequate sleep and nutrition.
Spending quality time with our kids purely having fun.
Talking with our kids and actively listening to what they have to share.
Teaching our kids to recognise what stress feels like in the body so they may respond sooner.
Encouraging our kids to recognise what events are creating stress for them.
Teaching our kids the tools they need to better navigate difficult situations and relationship challenges.
Problem solving with our kids to find ways to avoid or minimise stressful situations wherever possible.
Empowering our kids with self-help techniques that activate the Relaxation Response.
Turning on the Relaxation Response
There are many enjoyable ways to turn on the Relaxation Response, find one that your child really resonates with.
Some Examples Are:
Listening to you read them a story
As I see it, helping our kids learn to deal with stress now is giving them an incredible gift for their future. They will grow up understanding stress and how to better manage it. Knowing how to turn on the Relaxation Response they will experience better health. By openly sharing their emotions and experiences with us they learn to communicate and develop healthy relationships.
Imagine how they will respond to the world with this calm, empowered mindset. I have great hope for the future as I imagine what incredible adults they will become!
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