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Stress No More: A Parent's Guide on How to Have Anxiety Free Children

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Stress » Featured Article

By Dr. Dahlia Mann

Dr. Dahlia MannWhen Max started kindergarten, he began to have trouble falling asleep at night. He often complained that his stomach hurt during the day. His parents attributed his behavior to irritability. But in fact, Max was showing the classic symptoms of stress.

A five year old exhibiting stress? The idea runs counter to the popular conception of kindergarten as a time of fun and games. But in fact, children today do experience stress at a very early age.

Why so much stress? Think about it from a child's perspective. Children today are carefully taught not to talk to strangers and about "good touching" and "bad touching." A child's activities are often organized on an hourly calendar because "it's not safe" to simply send children out to play. Parents are even uncomfortable letting children walk around the block unsupervised.

This alone would tend to create stress in children who, by nature, clamor for freedom. But along with a loss of freedom comes a barrage of upsetting information. Children at an early age begin hearing about and seeing world disasters as they are instantly beamed into the home. Worse, parents often have no time to process their own anxiety to decide what is appropriate to tell children.

Children today also grow up with helmets, safety latches and car seats, all of which are useful, but tend to communicate the message that "if we are careful, we can control our environment," an idea that is stress producing in itself.

But even in a world filled with stress, you don't have to produce anxiety-ridden children. You can help reduce stress in your home by doing some of the following:

Set realistic goals and schedules. Running from your child's play dates to her karate lessons to her dance class and back may make a young child feel like she is on a treadmill, even though these activities are fun. For a child of 3-5 yrs. old, one activity a week is probably enough and one or two play dates a week is also the limit for a child of this age. Build time into the schedule for relaxation and free play and rest (even if she no longer naps). If you are picking her up after a full day of kindergarten and possibly an after school program, allow her to lead the discussion or ride home quietly - questions and interest can feel stressful when you're tired. Children often need time to unwind and the ride home is a good opportunity. Create time around dinner or bedtime to chat about the day.

Routine creates safety. Routine and rituals give children a sense of safety and reduces uncertainty. When there is a crisis at home or in the world it offers a sense of continuity and control. Keeping up with a bedtime story and the nightly routine can be especially reassuring during such times.

Developing coping strategies. Coping with stress requires having some control over the stressful event. Life always presents difficulties and challenges and a parent's job is not to solve but help their child develop coping strategies. For example, when Max wakes up during the night and says "I'm scared of the monsters in my dream." Often a parent's first response, is to reassure and say "it's just a dream and the monster won't hurt you." That communicates that we as parents are here for you so you are safe. However, if you suggest to Max, "why don't you try to see if the monster wants to play" you offer the opportunity for Max to take charge. It is also a vote of confidence in his ability to handle the situation.

Olivia comes home complaining that the teacher was "mean." Pause and consider she may simply be venting so listen and acknowledge her feelings. Next, you might ask if she has a plan or if she needs some help solving the problem. Not jumping in too quickly with sympathy, solutions or "I'll talk to the teacher" allows Olivia to think about what she can do. If she still wants help brainstorm together and let her make the final decision.

Max and Olivia are given the opportunity to problem solve and cope with stressful situations. Their parents contain their own anxiety and are available without rushing in to solve the problem. This attitude facilitates their child's confidence and helps them manage their fears and anxiety.

About the Author...

Dr. Dahlia Mann is a licensed psychologist and marriage & family therapist in Millburn/Springfield New Jersey specializing in couples and families. She also offers parenting workshops and consultations.

Last Update: 4/29/2010

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