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I’ve got so many problems!” my ten-year-old grumbled with a heavy sigh. He was all worked up about his project team’s failure to collaborate well.
I couldn’t help but smile to myself and I was tempted to reply, “You think you’ve got problems now, wait about 20 years and let’s talk again!” For adults, it’s so easy to dismiss our children when they talk about their worries, as theirs seem less important than our own grown-up woes.
All human beings experience stress, regardless of age. We are all familiar with that feeling of being overwhelmed physically, emotionally and mentally. And, according to experts, our bodies’ reaction to stress is relatively the same: increased heart rate, rising blood pressure and the release of certain stress hormones. The difference lies, however, in how each individual quickly returns to homeostasis, the equilibrium state where all systems go back to normal after a reaction to the stressor. It is this skill of going back to a balanced state using positive strategies that allows us to overcome stress.
Key to helping our children develop this skill is understanding that our biological systems, including our coping mechanisms, are established in the early years of life and that they are highly influenced by our interactions with adults who care for us.
When our young children talk about the strain they are under, it’s crucial that we acknowledge it and not treat it as trivial. Just because our children are dealing with seemingly mundane issues doesn’t make the stress they feel any less real than ours as adults.
Really listen as your child tells you about his day, and validate his feelings of disappointment, fatigue or pressure by relating stories of times you felt the same way, either as a child or as an adult. On the other hand, if your child is not ready to talk about what’s causing him stress, tell him that you notice something is bothering him and you are ready to listen when he is ready to share.
Help your child develop relaxation skills. Keep in mind that quiet time is as important as active play, and you can develop the habit of “downtime” as early as infancy. For a few minutes every day, lie or sit down with your child and just listen to soothing music or the sounds around you or within you, such as the sound of your own breathing. Children can even begin to learn to quiet the mind by meditating.
Do not underestimate the power of touch. Aside from plenty of hugs, give your baby a gentle massage or your child a back rub regularly. My husband often makes bedtime stories and cuddles extra-special by throwing in a back-massage treat, which our children are always delighted to receive.
As with any good habit we try to teach our kids, modelling is fundamental. We have to demonstrate positive coping strategies ourselves, such as keeping calm in stressful moments, engaging in regular physical activities and creative outlets, and getting sufficient sleep.
Despite our fear of our child feeling any kind of pain, it’s important to see stress as part of growth. It’s when we are under pressure that our body and mind get the extra adrenaline to push ourselves a bit more and to rise up to challenges. Enduring and persevering through stressors early in life – like the first day in a new school, getting an immunisation, or dealing with difficult classmates – will help them not only to survive, but to thrive in the stressful world of adulthood.