Kids and Stress

Kids and Stress – Leaning to Thrive and not Just Survive 

As most adults know, stress is a normal part of daily life. There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t have to deal with some type of stress. Stress can challenge us and motivate us (Positive stressors), but it can also cause us to fight or flight (negative stressors) as adrenaline is secreted for a quick response to stress and causes our heart rate and blood pressure to increase. If the stress is long term, Cortisol is secreted which can last for hours and days if the stress continues.

Kids and adults respond to stress differently. Kids will have headaches, crying outbursts, clenching of teeth, stomachaches and toilet accidents. Adults will be moody and may be depressed, have sleeping problems and turn to drinking and overeating. It should be noted that if a child is under 10 yrs of age that the symptoms described might be more intense since the younger the child the less they are able to cope with the stressor.

It should be noted, that often it isn’t the event that causes the stress, but our “perception” of it and then how we react to the stress. It is for this reason that we help our kids learn early on how to “interpret the stressor and then have a plan to respond to it.

Parents many times will be the creator of the stress situation. For example, our expectations for the child in when their school work should be done (time stressor), how they should perform in a sport they are participating in (performance stressor), or the impact on the child of parents arguing with each other (emotional stress). Other stressors examples might be filling the child’s schedule without their input and not setting boundaries for use of electronic media.

So how can we help our kids learn about stress and then help them build resilience in coping with it?

First, always set realistic expectations for your child whether it relates to school, sports, or free time activities. Your child should have a say in the goals that are being set and be able to modify them if they can’t be met or changed to challenge them more if they are found to be to easy.

Next, let them know that problems or difficulties are both normal and temporary. Kids need to learn to ask for help and know they have a support system to help them buffer the stress. Remember though, that you will be there as a guide and not a problem solver. Your child must learn how to solve their problems so they can grow and have that sense of accomplishment.

Next, try to anticipate stress situations by talking about birth of a sibling, what does it mean to “fail” at a sport or spelling a word at school, and how to respond to bullies at school. By having frank discussions before hand, your child be more prepared to know how to respond in a more controlled manner which should bring better outcomes.

Finally, the more activities the family can do as a family, the more your child will learn they are not alone. There is no more intense feelings of distress than thinking you are all alone. Parents need to take to heart what George Bernard Shaw said. “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” Let your child explore and then sit back and watch then succeed.

Remember, as a parent, you are not alone and if you need help or guidance with this process, Family Therapy, is a very good way to help support your efforts in stress reduction.

Kenda L. Smith & Philip B. Smith
Marriage & Family Therapy Interns
Supervised by Laura Carr, LMFT (MFC 38400)