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Kids and Stress: Finding the Balance

November, 2011

In fast-paced city living, it’s not uncommon for a seemingly usual day to suddenly flood with stressors: that stain on the shirt needs cleaning, the last-minute permission slip needs signing and the gas tank needs filling only minutes before an engagement. The constant pressures from society, work, school, friends and family may seem limitless, but it’s critical that parents find positive ways to manage their stress. It can be the key for improving the health and quality of life for not only parents, but for their kids too.

Whether they are aware of it or not, parents are constantly setting an example for their children. Penny Wynne Cole, a therapist and family counselor at Care for Children Services, says kids use their parents as a model even at a subconscious level, often mimicking  attitudes and making life decisions based off the actions of their parents.

So if parents are showing signs of stress in their lives, whether it’s through behaviors that can be the source of stress, such as keeping a disorganized living space; or behaviors that are a result of stress, such as irritability or overeating, they stand the chance of their children acting the same way. To prevent this, Cole advises parents to consider what’s causing the stress and to take steps to either alter their response to the stress or change the troublesome situation that is the source of it. 

Cole says that often, poor attitudes regarding daily pressures help fuel an endless cycle of stress. For instance, it is common for people to simply disregard stress as either temporary or an unavoidable fact of life, and they may also resort to unhealthy coping habits, such as smoking, drinking, sleeping too much or too little, over-eating or under-eating or lashing out at others.

If these habits sound familiar, it may be time to consider some alternatives for dealing with those moments where the strain is simply too much. Parents –and kids – can begin by trying one of six options for managing stress that won’t lead to unhealthy behaviors:

1. Avoid excess stress

At first, it may seem that your ever-increasing workload is inevitable, but that’s because you may have neglected to consider that sometimes, saying “no” is acceptable. Next time you’re friend asks you for that favor that could push you over your limit, politely decline and say that you are just too busy. Other ways to avoid stress include taking an alternative route to work or school if you know the traffic on your usual route is too congested, reducing your weekly schedule to only include more manageable tasks and avoiding discussing topics that agitate you.

2. Modify the situation

Sometimes these things simply can’t be avoided. That’s why, if appropriate, you should express how you feel about a bothersome situation. If your partner’s dishes are piling up, find a polite, but assertive, way to say you’ve had enough. If the source of your stress is work-related, you can benefit from reassessing how to better manage your time so that tasks are prioritized and completed on time.

3. Adapt to the stressor

Your partner may not want to budge about the dishes or your workload may be set. While it’s easy to get frustrated, you may be better off deciding what it is that you gain from getting angry in the short term, and if it’s little to nothing, then change your expectations..

4. If you can’t change it, accept it

Similar to adaptation, acceptance means you have to remain optimistic, and forgive and forget. This strategy can be difficult, so you shouldn’t hesitate to seek out a friend or a professional who can help you work through the pressure. Nevertheless, it can be a chance for you to reflect on the decisions that could be causing the stress and learn how to not make the same mistakes in the future.

5. Take a break to have fun

While it may be easy to turn to harmful ways to manage stress, it’s better to try to squeeze some healthy alternatives into your schedule. Listening to music, watching a sitcom, playing with your pet, phoning a friend, going for a walk and taking a long bath are just some of the ways to lighten your mood and de-stress your day. Learning how to laugh at yourself can help too – laughing is said to be linked to positive thoughts, which produces stress-fighting neuropeptides in your body.

6. Develop a healthy daily regimen

The life you lead in between the stressful times can make a big difference in how you manage the pressure. Regular exercise, steering clear of excessive amounts of sugar and caffeine, staying away from alcohol, cigarettes and drugs and sleeping eight hours can boost your mood and give you more energy to deal with the toughest parts of the day.

As parents implement these strategies, they should also learn to recognize when their children are exhibiting symptoms of stress, as their kids may not have the language to express themselves. Cole says kids who are feeling too much pressure might show it by being either regressive or aggressive. Regressive behaviors include thumb sucking and bed wetting, while aggressive behaviors include tantrums in an 8-year-old or uncontrollable crying in a 3-year-old.

Maintaining good communication with your children can help relieve some of these negative reactions to stress. Parents should let their kids know that they can talk to them and should provide them with the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. Telling children’s stories with messages about how to deal with stress is one way to achieve this goal.

“It’s helpful to use language like, ‘having butterflies in your stomach’ and give them awareness of their own bodies and their own reactions so that they can come to you and say that their heart’s been racing or they’re having nightmares and can’t sleep,” Cole says. “Then you can deal with it.”

Once parents have recognized that it’s happening, it’s important to find practical ways of managing it, because a child might not have the ability to do it on their own.

“When your kid is exhibiting stress symptoms or behaviors, it’s important to cut out a lot of the things on their plate,” Cole says. “Slow things down and make sure that your home environment is stress free.”

At this point, the strategies for managing your own stress and managing your children’s stress overlap. Make time for fun and relaxation, have dinner as a family and schedule a story at bedtime for the younger ones. Take it a step further, and help your kids seek out outlets for creativity. Playing music, joining a drama troupe or doing arts and crafts are just some ways to do this and can make a big difference in a child’s life.

Cole admits that today’s highly competitive work and educational world often make it challenging for parents to find time for kids to be creative.

“I think it’s actually more important to have fun,” she said. “Try to find a balance between the two.” 



By Jessica Rapp




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