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Stress or Distressed?

These tension-taming tactics can help your child stay calm amidst the chaos.

All kids feel anxious from time to time. And who can blame them? From the pressure to succeed at an earlier age, to jam-packed weekdays and weekends filled with homework, sports practices, music lessons, playdates, birthday parties and other extracurricular activities, it’s easy to feel frazzled.

“The problem is, with so much stimulation, kids are often more ‘on’ than off,” says Kristen Race, Ph.D., author of Mindful Parenting. “And our brains haven’t evolved at the same rate as our environment.” It’s a vicious cycle. The more the stress response gets triggered - when the brain’s limbic system floods with chemicals, our hearts pound faster and our muscles tense - the more sensitive the brain becomes to it. As a result, feeling stressed can become your child’s go-to response to  not just life-threatening events, like the threat of an oncoming car, as it was intended, but everyday life, such as being called on in class, a pop quiz or trying out for the travel soccer team.

Your child’s brain - on stress

Being in a chronic state of fight or flight can influence your child’s mood and behavior, their ability to form relationships with others and just enjoy being a kid. It can also affect your child’s intellectual potential. “The stress response can inhibit the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain children rely on to learn in the classroom,” says Race.
Still, tests, the pressure to achieve, the latest technology, social media and extracurricular activities aren’t going away.

“There’s a lot we can’t do about the society our kids are growing up in,” says Race. “But we can teach kids to be more resilient to the stressors modern life presents.”

These tension-taming tactics can help your child stay calm amidst the chaos:

SuccessRx: Structure in downtime. Having little to no unstructured, self-directed time may be the norm these days. But many kids would benefit from having opportunities to do nothing much. “Kids need more downtime than adults,” says David J. Schonfeld, M.D., pediatrician-in-chief at pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine. From a child’s perspective, lack of downtime “can feel like it’s 10 days before Christmas and you haven’t done your shopping, sent out your cards or put up the tree,” he says.

Taking a breather gives kids a stress outlet, the latitude to develop their creative side and learn to become problem-solvers. After all, when children engage in free play, they call the shots, make up the rules for their games, set the boundaries and adapt to changing situations. It may also help kids and teens learn to connect with others. Conversely, “structured activities are like going to a movie. You’re socializing with other people, but you don’t really have to talk,” says  Dr. Schonfeld.

He suggests quarantining at least one day each week that’s free of outside events, including outings on the weekends such as visiting an amusement park. “Many parents equate quality time with doing something special. But when you add pleasurable activities to an already full schedule, it’s exhausting,” he says. “Carve out time to just be together, talk and do simple things at home.”

How much you put the brakes on your child’s schedule can depend on their temperament. Some kids can naturally handle more without going into overload. “Every child is different,” says Tanya Remer Altmann, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls. “But when I hear moms say things like, ‘My daughter has a playdate, then I’m taking her to gymnastics, and then she’s starting her homework,’ I think, Whoa! That’s way too much.’ I recommend no more than one activity per day after school.” Dr. Race takes a similar tact. She suggests limiting after-school activities to two per week, such as soccer and dance, or Boy Scouts and football, especially for children age 10 and under.

SuccessRx: Heed your child’s stress signals. Even after factoring in downtime, stay attuned to signs that your child is overscheduled or under too much pressure from school, friends or other sources. Children react to stress differently, but there are telltale signs. “Young children who feel overwhelmed may have trouble sleeping, find it difficult to separate from parents or feel reluctant to go to school,” says David Fassler, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont School of Medicine. They may also be tired, anxious, moody or not feel energetic or enthusiastic about activities that should be fun, like going to a birthday party.

School-age kids may also try to avoid an overwhelming activity by procrastinating or losing key pieces of equipment, such as their soccer cleats, so they can get out of going. They can also experience physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches.

Pre-adolescents and teens have a greater repertoire for expressing themselves, including telling you, “Mom, I’m so overwhelmed,” but their clues can also be indirect. They may become angry, irritable or weepy. “They may start fighting with parents or siblings, or have problems at school or with their friends,” says Dr. Fassler.

Being aware of your child’s stress signals can help them learn to manage their feelings. Encourage your child to let you know when they feel overwhelmed and brainstorm possible solutions together, which might mean taking a break or lightening their load, for example, by dropping an extracurricular activity, participating in a recreational rather than a competitive sport or transferring to a less challenging class in school.

Also, mention your own stress-management tactics. If you typically complete work projects a few days before the deadline to avoid last-minute pressure, for example, say so when your child has homework projects due. “Kids can learn to manage their situations to avoid feeling overwhelmed and they’ll take their cues from you,” says Dr. Fassler.

SuccessRx: Take personal time-outs. Similarly, take a look at your own lifestyle. Are you modeling calm? Signs you might not be: You’re constantly doing something or rushing from your job to home and back again. Over-scheduled kids tend to have over-scheduled parents and stress has a trickledown effect. “Even babies can pick up on mommy’s non-verbal communication,” says Race. “It’s how we learn empathy.” Taking time to do what you want rather than what’s expected of you sets a healthy example, whether it’s exercising, hanging out with your family, meditating, practicing yoga or  whatever it takes to nurture and soothe yourself. “You have to manage your own stress before your kids can manage their own,” says Race.

SuccessRx: Emphasize effort, not grades. Many  kids put a lot of academic pressure on themselves. “Adolescents are especially quick to think, ‘If I don’t get an A on this, I’m going to fail everything,’” says Adelle Cadieux, PsyD., a pediatric psychologist at Helen De Vos Children’s Hospital. Parents can buy into it too, equating lesser grades, especially in high school, with a teen’s prospects for college.

But the fight or flight mode isn’t conducive to academic success. To help kids stay calm, and do the best they can, don’t focus on grades. “Praise your child’s effort, perseverance and progress as opposed to the outcome,” says Dr. Cadieux. The lesson? “Your child can’t always get an A, but he can learn that working hard is important.”

Sandra is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition,  parenting and consumer issues.

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