By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
Recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) released results of a survey on stress levels in America (see https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/stress-report.pdf to view the full report). According to the survey, adolescents reported stress levels during the school year that surpassed those of adults. The teens reported symptoms of stress including irritability, anger, anxiety, nervousness, and lying awake at night. School was cited as the most common source of stress, along with stress about getting into college or deciding what to do after high school, and stress related to their family’s financial circumstances. The teens who reported the most stress also reported eating more, sleeping less, and exercising less than teens who reported lower stress levels.
Also discourage a “victim mentality” by gently pointing out the options and choices available to your child at any given point.
The APA survey brought to light the difference between adults and teens in perception of the impact of stress. Adults tend to recognize the importance of coping with stress, although many report they don’t do an effective job of stress management. Adolescents, on the other hand, seem unaware of the negative impact of stress on their physical and mental health. Thus, parents appear to be in the position of ensuring their children learn about the nature of stress and acquire effective stress management strategies. These are three approaches that parents can utilize to assist children with stress management.
Teach about the nature of stress.
Educate your children about the negative impact of too much stress on physical and mental health. For instance, physically, too much stress can lead to headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and illness. Emotionally, too much stress can result in irritability, anxiety, anger, withdrawal, and increased vulnerability to mental illness. While in some situations a certain amount of stress can enhance performance, it is often the case that stress erodes concentration and detracts from performance. Tell your children that even though stress is inevitable, it is possible to develop skills for coping with and managing the stress in their lives.
Start with what has worked for you.
Reflect on strategies you use to cope with stress and share them with your children. If you meet with a therapist each week while your children are at school, tell them this is one way you manage stress. Your children see you exercise but will not realize you do so for stress management unless you tell them. If you wake up early to meditate while your children are sleeping, tell them about your practice and why you do it. If you decided to change from one job to another to reduce stress, share the reasons for the change. You can also tell your children the story of your “journey” in stress management. For example, tell them how you came to realize that walking three miles daily helps you maintain your equilibrium. Through explicit communication about your strategies for handling stress, you are transmitting your value of stress management and modeling healthy choices for your children.
Help your child develop effective coping skills.
Because your child may not recognize stress, help him or her develop awareness through observing “You seem stressed—what’s going on?” Invite your child to talk about sources of stress, listening without judgment. Offer to help your child develop an approach for coping with stress such as getting more sleep or regular exercise. Perhaps your child has taken on too many activities and would benefit from doing less. Teach the value of setting limits and saying “no” when to do so would result in greater equilibrium. Maybe your child has become myopic about a situation and would benefit from a broader perspective which you can provide. Discourage any inclinations to view having too much stress as a “status symbol” entitling your child to be self-absorbed and irritable. Also discourage a “victim mentality” by gently pointing out the options and choices available to your child at any given point. Remind your child no one is “perfect” in dealing with stress, but rather that we are all “works in progress” in this regard.
As indicated by the APA survey results, stress is pervasive in modern life for adults and children alike. Even though we cannot eliminate the stress in our children’s lives, we can work to ensure they learn ways to manage stress while still living at home, thus equipping them with some of the skills necessary for living healthy lives.