Stress-busters for your kids

By Drum Digital
26 April 2014

You might think your children couldn’t possibly have anything to stress about. But childhood is a time of firsts and that is often quite scary. Here’s how to help your child deal with stress.

Kids don’t bills to pay, car troubles to sort out, work deadlines to meet, a mother-in-law to put up with. What could possibly be stressful about childhood?

The answer is plenty. Childhood is a time of firsts - from the first day of school to the first kiss of adolescence - and the first of anything is always a little scary. But as well as the normal trials and tribulations of growing up kids often have to pick their way through minefields of mayhem on the road to adulthood.

Family conflict, divorce, changing schools, moving house, the death of a loved one or treasured pet, peer pressure, crime and violence can turn their world upside down and banish the carefree days of childhood.

There are five-year-olds with ulcers, Grade 2 children with eating disorders and teenagers suffering from depression.

But there are things you can do to help your child cope. The secret is being tuned in to them so you can detect the signs they're not coping .

An eight-year-old won't say: "I feel overwhelmed" - he's more likely to say: "My tummy hurts." Some children cry, become aggressive, talk back or become irritable when they're stressed so don't be too quick to put their behaviour down to cheekiness or acting up.

Stress can also affect their health. Asthma, hay fever, migraines and gastrointestinal illnesses such as spastic colon, irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcer can all be caused - or worsened - by stress.

Here are some ways to help your kids cope with modern life.

Don't dismiss their worries

You may think you're doing a child a favour by making light of her problems but try to take her seriously - if you don't she'll stop talking to you and bottle things up.

"Let your children know you're available to talk and when they open up encourage them to discuss their  worries," says Cape Town psychologist Pandy Neser.

"Their emotions deserve to be acknowledged and addressed in a loving, comforting way." You may not have a good explanation for something troubling her but simply listening and giving her a chance to say what she's thinking may be just what she needs.

Try to spend time alone with your child every day so he'll feel comfortable about opening up.

Don't badger him to talk about his feelings though just let him know you're there for him.

Coping with crime

The idea of violence terrifies children,shattering the sense of order, routineand predictability that makes them feelsafe.

Sadly in South Africa crime andviolence are part of everyday life.Even if your family hasn't been victimizedyour kids are bound to knowsomeone who's been targeted atschool, they'll have read horror storiesin the papers, seen incidents on TV orsomeone in your area will have beenattacked or burgled.

Pretending it doesn't affect you as an adult won't work. Discuss the situation as a family and encourage everyone to talk about how they feel.

Make sure you stay in control so they can see you're capable of keeping calm amid the chaos.

"By admitting your fears and showing them you can handle them you send the message they too can overcome their fears," says Margery Rosen, author of the book Childhood Revealed: Expressing Pain, Discovery and Hope.

Put a practical system in place that makes them feel safer. Try not to leave them at home for long periods even if you feel they're old enough – a 16-year-old is likely to be as terrified of being home alone as a six-year-old. If you can afford it secure your home with burglar bars, alarms and panic buttons and reassure them help is only a phone call away.

Put problems in perspective

Speak to them on their level, Margery says. If your four-year-old is afraid a tornado will strike the house say: "Will a zebra walk into the living room? Probably not, right? Well, it's the same with a tornado - it probably won't come here."

If a seven-year-old is stressing about her father's plane trip you can say: "You fell off your bike last week and that was a bad thing. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn't ride your bike. It's the same with a plane - okay, so sometimes they crash but most take off and land safely.

"Also remind your children we've learned a lot about how to make the world and our homes and neighbourhoods safe," Margery adds. "Bring their concerns home by discussing safety in the house, at school, in your community. Kids need to learn from parents how to handle fear."

Help them have fun

Children who don't have closefriendships are at risk of developingstress-related problems, says clinicalpsychologist Sabine Hack.Encourage them to make friends byarranging play dates, sleepovers andother fun activities. If your child is shyand withdrawn help him sing le outclassmates with similar interests andencourage him to approach the child.

You could also invite the child around with his mother the first few times to help break the ice.

Include fun and laughter in your daily routine, Sabine says – childhood should be about having fun, not stressing about exams, peer pressure, death and disaster. Pick light-hearted subjects to discuss over the dinner table, tell funny stories and bring out the photo album and reminisce about family holidays.

Let your children take turns to pick an activity they enjoy at weekends. Knowing he's chosen a fun activity will boost his self-esteem and take his mind off his worries.

Ease up on the pressure

Don't overload your kids with extramural activities - if they don't have enough time to do their homework, play and relax they'll start to feel stressed and anxious. If they have a particular ta lent, encourage it without putting too much pressure on them.

"Children need time to just be children," says childcare expert Marina Petropulos. Discuss your child's extramural programme with him and come to a mutual agreement about what he should do.

Don't push him into doing something if he can't do it well he might feel he's disappointing you and this wil l add to his stress level. Listen to your kids.

Try these stress-busters

Teaching your child relaxation techniques can help him manage his stress, says child and family counselor Dr Amie Gordon-Langbein.

Here are some exercises to try:

• Tell your child to lie down on the floor and make a tight fist, tightening his arm muscles until they feel like a rubber band about to snap. Then tell him to open his hands and wiggle his fingers until they feel totally limp. Move on to the rest of the body, tightening and releasing the muscles of the face and neck down to the feet and toes. Play soothing music and speak in a calm, peaceful way.

• Sit your child in a chair and tell her to put her hands on her chest and take a deep breath. Tell her to pretend her body is like a building and on the first breath she's filling the first floor with air, then blowing it out. On the second breath she's filling the second floor and so on until she gets to the attic. By repeating this several times she can calm herself down. She can do this in the classroom when she's feeling nervous about an oral or exam.

How to spot stress in your child

• Regressive behaviour in younger children such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking or stuttering.

• Headaches, stomach aches, nausea or nightmares in schoolgoing children.

• Having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.

• Becoming fearful, clingy and anxious about leaving parents.

• Inability to concentrate or loss of interest in schoolwork.

• Withdrawing from peers and family.

• Being irrationally irritable or disobedient.

• Developing eating disorders - either not eating, overeating or throwing up after meals.

• High-risk behaviour such as drugs or alcohol abuse.

-  Nicola Whitfield

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