I recently saw an 8-year-old girl who came in with stomach pain. It had started about 3 weeks before our visit and seemed to be at the beginning of the day. She was fine on weekends and had no other symptoms.
Her mother was at wits’ end. She had tried changing her daughter’s diet several times, but it didn’t help. When I talked to the girl a bit more, I found out that she had recently moved to a new school. Her parents had divorced that summer and her mom did not have a job.
Just like her mom, the girl was stressed.
Her mom was really surprised. We talked about ways to reduce stress levels at home, such as spending more time together, having downtime and trying mindfulness techniques. A few weeks later, the girl’s stomach aches were gone and she seemed much happier.
Stressful situations are difficult for everyone. Parents may not realize that their stress impacts their kids, too. Children see how their parents are acting and absorb that stress.
We recently surveyed 432 parents of grade school children. The majority of the parents reported high stress levels for themselves, and the majority of children had physical and behavioral signs of stress. These included stomach aches, headaches, crying, whining and being argumentative. Even more eye-opening, parents didn’t report that their kids were that stressed. They weren’t recognizing the signs.
Why is stress a problem? It’s been associated with many physical ailments, including headaches, fatigue, stomach upset and sleep problems. Long term, it can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Stress in children and teens can also cause anxiety, which can lead to problems making friends and impact academic performance.
So how can we help our kids feel less stress? Here are some ideas:
- Have your child listen to soft music. Music lowers the heart rate of premature infants, lessens the feeling of pain for emergency room patients, and reduces anxiety in patients before surgery.
- Exercise with your child. Moving our bodies helps release endorphins, the ‘feel good hormones’ which can counteract stress.
- Make sure your child sleeps well. Not getting enough sleep can make your child cranky and may also increase anxiety.
- Take time to relax. Think about all the things you are trying to do today. Are there some that can wait? Can your partner do something?
Also, don’t forget the importance of talking to your kids. Talk to them when they want to talk, not necessarily when you do. Put down your smartphone and chat with them at the coffee shop, while grocery shopping or during carpool. Don’t react strongly if your child says something that surprises you. Start a conversation with something that you’ve been thinking about or something that happened to you. This can be a softer and easier way to engage your child than asking a direct question.
You might also try mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you deal with emotions by taking a step back and observing them. Mindfulness has roots in meditation. Although it may seem foreign and hard to do, it’s really not with a little practice. Simply put, it is being more aware of what you are feeling in a situation or in a particular moment.
For example, the other day my 9-year-old son told me — from the back of the car — that someone in his class was ‘sexting’. I was able to recognize my immediate anxiety and ignore those feelings. Instead, I calmly asked him to tell me more about that. Children also can learn how to deal with stress at home and school through this technique. Schools across the country, in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Massachusetts, are adding mindfulness techniques to their curriculums. Just learning how to take a deep breath, step back and ‘observe’ the moment can go a long way to reduce stress.
There is not much we can do to change stressors in our life. What we can do is help our children find ways to cope. Don’t treat it as another item on your infinite list of things to do. Just ‘being’ with your kids in the present moment can help buffer that stress. It will help our kids be happy and healthy now and in the future.