Dr. Marlene Maheu 
Article Title
5 Ways to Help: Stress and Anxiety in Children 
Posted Date
p align="left">Difficult times lead many parents to ask how to help their children be more resilient to anxiety and stress. Children anxiety and stress have never been as closely linked as they are now. Childhood used to be carefree and joyous time. No more, not for the majority. Children are bombarded daily with television and newspapers, serving up the most morbid of news with what sometimes seems to relish on the side. You are lucky if you can watch the evening news without exposing your child to a series of stories fully prepared with bloody photos and clips of tearful family members who have suffered one form or loss or another. Today, all too many parents are deeply upset about a sick or aging loved one; friends or family fighting in foreign wars; wounded veterans coming home after spending months in the hospital; local stores closing their doors and going bankrupt; crashing real estate, stock market and other significant investments; unstable retirement plans; unaffordable health care needs; possible or real job loss; looming foreclosure; or being evicted from a dearly loved home. If one or more of these catastrophic events isn't happening in your home, it most likely is happening in your neighborhood ... or to a child who goes to school with your child.

Adults are having great difficulty containing their own emotions when they are around each other, and particularly when they are home, and no one else is around. Caught up in their own drama, adults at home or at a friend's house can underestimate how much a child picks up about something being terribly wrong. It is especially difficult to be aware of the minds and hearts of little ones listening from the top of the stairs; teens who act as if nothing bothers them; or college students who are away at school - but panicked as they watch a steady stream of classmates get sent home due to tuition payments that never arrive. There are several things that parents can do to ward off the build-up of negative emotions in children and teens. This article will take a look at anxiety from an historical perspective, then focus on practical ways to prevent as well as dissipate anxiety when it is unavoidable.

Stress & anxiety in children

First, let's look at some of the research. Scientists have been conducting research with thousands of children and college students and found that stress and anxiety have increased substantially since the 1950's. In fact, one study found that anxiety has increased so much that typical school children during the 1980's reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950's. Researchers have known for a long time that anxiety in children can lead to depression. "... cases of depression will continue to increase in the coming decades, as anxiety tends to predispose people to depression," says psychologist and study author Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. of Case Western Reserve University. Alcohol and drug abuse are likely to increase as well, because anxiety usually precedes the onset of substance abuse. There are also implications for physical health. Research has also found that anxious people have a higher mortality rate, probably because anxiety has been linked to higher occurrences of asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease and coronary heart disease.

What can a parent do when a child is often upset?

When you notice that your child is more upset than usual, action is needed. Organizing action is best, that is, actions that establish or return the family to routines. Regular meal times, regular homework time, regular bedtime, regular weekend activities. If Tuesday night is when you eat spaghetti or watch a favorite television show together, then keep to that schedule as much as possible. Make sure promises are kept, with little things as well as big things. "I'll be in to read that story in 5 minutes" needs to be an accurate promise, and not just stalling with the hopes she'll fall asleep. If you must accommodate an unexpected demand in the evening, try to make it happen before or after the bedtime routine, and not in the middle of it. Assuming the child is upset for a valid reason, a parent's "consistent and predictable" behavior is one of the best defenses against a child's accumulating the type of stress that can ultimately lead to physical disorders. Consistent and predictable can be as straightforward as the parent sitting down with a child in their special chair, or putting homework aside for 10 minutes every evening and rubbing your child's head , back or feet. Let them return the favor if they want. Physical contact of a gentle and reassuring nature can go a long way toward communicating your presence and your affection. Turn off the 5 o'clock news and chat about what your child did in school today. You might learn that they heard rumors that need dispelling. Worse yet, you might hear that they discussed the economic meltdown and your child needs comforting. Remind them frequently that no matter what, you have each other and everything will be ok. As a country, we've weathered wars and economic downturns and it's always worked out ok. If you belong to a religious group, bring your children to services routinely. If you have friends or relatives they enjoy, step up your visits. Get into a regular pattern with social activities. You probably already have a standard approach to reacting to your child's upset. Keep reading to see how you might improve it.

What should I do when I "lose it" in front of my child?

When a parent's actions get unpredictable, children's internal alarm bells start ringing. Their hearts pump faster, their hearing and vision get more acute and they are on red alert for the next unexpected thing. They will either act up and divert attention away from someone else in the home, or they will quietly disappear. For example, if a parent is raising their voice, banging doors, throwing things, cursing, you will typically see pets and children head for dark corners. But internally, their alarm bells are likely to be ringing for hours. They are likely to have elevated blood pressure, stomach aches, head aches, a sense of dread and impending doom. Even for less intense emotional reactions, children often can experience alarm. They can panic at overhearing your conversation about a problem you're having at work, or how angry you are with your spouse. If your own emotional breakdown is the cause of your child's upset, calm yourself down, then go find your child. Assure them that you are ok and that they will be ok too. Explain you had a momentary "cry" and now you are feeling better. Assure them you will figure out a way for everyone to be ok. Check in with them again at bedtime and then again the next morning. Let them know you are keeping an eye on them and have their welfare in mind. Use these moments to reassure your child that you will always be their parent, you will always be a family, and they will always have a "home," no matter where they live. "We may lose this house, but we will always have a 'home.'"

Drawing a clear distinction between feelings and thoughts is another way to reassure your child. Teach them that emotions may temporarily rule the show every now and then, but that the most important decisions are often made with a little feeling and a lot of thought. Map decisions on paper ahead of time and show them the paper that has your plan, or your list of priorities. Trace what comes first, then second and so forth. For example, kids often get a great sense of relief to know that they are at the top of the list of importance in your life. Put your health at the top, because without that, you are of limited use to protect them. Show them where they are in line of importance. Give them examples, like if they got hurt, you'd leave your job and find them and bring them to the doctor, so they come before your job. Depending on their ages, if they were sick, you'd stay home from other activities. Place your spouse, job, church, spirituality, extended family, etc. Then ask them to draw their own pictures of who and what is important in their life. Talk to them about their choices and a few weeks later, ask them if they'd still make the same choices today as they did a few weeks ago. Whenever and however you can, let them see that thinking is logical, has reasons, and rules your life, not momentary emotional outbursts. Take extra steps at bedtime to re-assure them and send them off to sleep with good images. Parents can make a very big difference in the anxiety of their children if they can take those few minutes before sleep to remind the child they will always be loved and protected, no matter what happens.

How else you can help

If your child or teen is upset about what they saw on television, heard in school, or down the street, assure them that no matter what, your family is there and they are safe. Other people may come and go, but you are going to stay with them. If you choose to watch upsetting television news together, for example, put your arm around your child and say re-assuring things, such as, "Even though things may seem bad around the world, we are safe here. I am here and you know I will always protect you." Even in traumatic situations, such as when your house is being lost to foreclosure, parents can be mindful of how their telephone conversation, dinner talk and casual chat with friends, family and neighbors can easily be overheard and needlessly distress a child. Parents can take extra steps, as often as possible, to confine their outrage and upset to times and locations where vulnerable children do not get exposed to the parent's most raw emotions.

How to deal with extended family upset

During difficult times, extended families might need to help each other be mindful of their indirect effect upon each other and their children. If you see a relative expressing emotions that seem to frighten a child, find a way, perhaps at another time, to let that relative know that "Billy seemed really scared when you were so upset last week." Even if that parent gets defensive and says, "Yeah, well, Billy is just going to have to realize that life is not always so easy...." Agree with that adult about life not being easy, but perhaps mention that you've recently read information that shows that kids just aren't wired to be able to handle consistent bad news. Their "internal emotional cushions" are just not well developed until adulthood. Your relative may not be too pleased to hear from you, but if you don't take some heat to help that child, who else will? As described in the research cited above, if a young nervous system is bombarded with too many upsetting messages early on, the child can grow up to have excessively strong nervous system reactions without due cause as an adult, much like a child exposed to sexuality prematurely can have excessive nervous system reactions to healthy adult sexuality. Such children then are more prone to a wide range of physical illnesses, including depression and drug and alcohol dependency. Research has clearly shown that growing to be emotionally strong (resilient) isn't a matter of toughening up a child by exposing them to consistent anxiety-producing messages. It's exposing them to life's challenges slowly, bit by bit, and checking in to see how they are doing with each exposure.

5 important steps you can take

The principles to raising children during stressful times might include:

1. Shield your child from overly harsh conditions, that is, excessive emotional expression, otherwise known as adult "melt-downs."

2. Make sure your child is getting plenty of good healthy food and exercise.

  • While they may get junk food at school, rid your home of such foods as much as possible.
  • Have weekly junk-food raids and throw out chips, cookies, candy etc. that get brought in by various factions.
  • After dinner, bundle up and take an evening walk with your child. Keep the conversation "positive" on your end, point out the beautiful sunset, talk about natural forces and make comparisons to how storms clear up and then the sun comes out.
  • If they bring up concerns, ask questions first to understand them (crucial), then address their concern (not yours). Then ask them to summarize what you've discussed so you can be sure you know the conclusions they are taking to bed.
3. While parental arguments are likely to be increased during stressful times, let your children see both sides.
  • If you've shown them your angry side, be sure to show how to make peace and resume your loving, caring ways with your partner.
  • If you can't find resolution with your partner, have the courage to see a counselor, a spiritual adviser, or a family elder and ask for direction.
  • Above all, put aside your pride, get help to make peace in your home and show your children that stress does not need to result in weeks of a parent sleeping on the sofa.
4. No matter what - do not pull children into disagreements with other parent(s).
  • Let them be children and stay out of it until the issue is resolved.
  • If they try to step in (and they usually will), politely ask them to let the adults resolve it with statements such as, "We'll let you know when we need your help. Right now, this is an adult issue and we will figure it out. You'll be the first to know what we decide."
  • If the issue involves them, well - that's a whole different matter. Bedtime might be such an issue, or a curfew and school performance.
  • One way to calm things down with children is to slow them down. Getting input on paper helps slow things down. Get your children's ideas and suggestions in writing. It will lower the noise level in the room, which will help calm everyone.
  • Writing will force everyone to focus, which pulls energy into thinking rather than just feeling. Writing will help kids get clear in their mind, practice their language skills and be more realistic than when they are allowed to shout out their emotional desires.
  • Adults then can gather all written proposals, review them carefully, and keep plenty of time to "decide."
  • When you decide, let them win the smaller issues and make sure you win the larger issues. Conceding with smaller issues lets them know that they have a voice, they can exert personal power and have some control over some things. More control leads to less anxiety. If they get to eat corn instead of green beans, what do you care?
  • Meanwhile, continue with the daily or evening routine and schedule a time to resume talks about the anxiety-producing topic.
5. If your children get exposed to adult outbursts of emotion, explicit television-based emotion, or other unpredictable triggers for excessive nervous system reactivity, do what you can to come back around and "cover them."
  • Cover your children with consistent daily and bedtime routines that include soothing and comforting statements.
  • Mention your concern and love for them, and remind them that they can count on you even if you too, are frightened.
  • Most of all, they need to know that you are there, they can hang onto you, and you will protect them. Your presence is crucial, whether it is your physical or simply your emotional focus on them.
No matter what is happening, even if you are forced to only speak to them through a telephone or internet connection at bedtime, you can "cover your children" with your time, attention and affection.
Dr. Marlene M. Maheu, a Licensed Psychologist, is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of one of the largest self-help & psychology portals, SelfhelpMagazine. More articles from this author are available at Original article link: 
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