Ordinary events starting school, going to parties can cause stress in children

August 27, 1993|By Barbara F. Meltz | Barbara F. Meltz,Boston Globe

When parents think of events that might be stressful for our children, we tend to mention divorce, illness or death in the family, a parent out of work, a move.

But when psychologist Antoinette Saunders asks children what they think of as stressful, the answers are very different: getting along with a sibling, taking a test, going to a birthday party, the start of school.

The difference between the lists highlights the problem many parents have when it comes to helping their children cope with the inevitable stresses we all experience: For children, stress is not only the high-impact, life-shaping events, but also the everyday stuff of life.

"Children feel safest and most comfortable when there is routine and familiarity. Whatever changes that, whatever is out of the ordinary in any way, is potentially stressful for them," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Mary Lynn Dell.

For young kids, that could be almost anything, from rearranging the bedroom furniture to a new baby sitter.

But stress is relative. Taking a test is not as traumatic as being told your parents are getting a divorce. And not all stress is bad. A 7-year-old who studies for a spelling test is motivated by positive stress that challenges and pushes him.

Parents should begin paying attention to the stress in their children's lives beginning in the preschool years, says Ms. Saunders, clinical director of Capable Kid Counseling Centers in the Chicago area and co-author of "The Stress-Proof Child" (New American Library).

Every child has a different threshold for stress, of course, and knowing your child's is important. Faced with the beginning of the school year, for instance, one child may be energized and excited while another, even another child in the same family, falls apart.

The signs of stress in a child are not very different from those in an adult, says Ms. Saunders. There are physical symptoms -- headaches, stomachaches, inability to sleep or eat -- and behavioral ones: A child who is normally cooperative suddenly isn't, a typically withdrawn child becomes belligerent. Some children lose a skill they had mastered: They no longer feed themselves or they start wetting the bed.

"Parents need to realize that these physical complaints are real. The child really is hurting," says Ms. Dell, an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Emory University's Egleston Children's Hospital.

Since a child's feeling good about himself is the best buffer against stress, parents always need to pay attention to the fundamentals that contribute to positive self-esteem: listening and communicating with their children, showing affection and love. When you sense, however, your child is under more than the usual stress, there are some more things you need to do:

* Be sympathetic and non-judgmental. Ms. Dell urges parents to refrain from saying such things as, "You're being silly, this isn't a big deal," or, "Just stop it!" She says, "If you minimize the source of stress, you minimize your child as a person, because to her, it isn't minimal."

Her advice is to validate a child's feelings by saying something like, "I understand how you can feel that way."

* Be available to talk. Talking in itself can be a good outlet for any age child, says Lawrence Shapiro, president of the Center for Applied Psychology in King of Prussia, Pa. And, he says: "The more they can talk, the more likely they are to develop their own solution to the issue."

* Protect your child from unnecessary stress. "It's not necessary to feel paralyzed by all the things in the world that can cause stress to your child," says Ms. Dell. But you should try to shield them as much as possible from worries that clearly belong to adults -- finances, job issues. "Be aware of the stress a child has naturally and of ways you might unnaturally be adding to it," says Mr. Shapiro.

* Anticipate stress in your child's life. The worst stress is unexpected stress, according to Mr. Shapiro. Whatever

preparation you can give your child in advance becomes a coping mechanism. " 'Remember last year at the end of school, you were so worried about the summer and what you would do and how you would be bored and miss your friends? Let's try to make some plans now for seeing some school friends over the summer.' "

Mr. Shapiro urges parents to help children 6 and older recognize and label stress.

"They should know stress is in everyone's life," he says. "That it is often good and stimulates you to perform better, but it can also be bad, and make you feel uncomfortable."

One way to explain stress to a young child is to give her a piece of molding clay and ask her to roll it into a thin snake and stretch it. Then, Mr. Shapiro says, you can explain:

"The clay gets thinner and thinner and then breaks. When people are under too much stress, they are like clay: They get stretched so much, they break inside. But if you recognize you are under stress, you can help yourself before that happens."

Of all the relaxation techniques available, Ms. Saunders' is the most appealing. She tells children to breathe through the imaginary holes in the bottom of their feet:

"Take a deep, deep breath all the way from those holes in your feet and draw it up through your legs and your tummy and then push it out your mouth."

Ms. Saunders says children as young as 4 can do this. She also tells parents to model it. "If you're in the middle of something that is stressing you, say aloud so your child hears you: 'I need to calm down and breathe through the holes in the bottom of my feet.' "

Deep breathing helps a child relax, which in turn helps him feel less out of control, emotionally and physically.

When it comes to stress, says Ms. Saunders, that's like giving a child a suit of armor.

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