Updated: May 8
By: Kimberly Harrison, Ph.D
Our world has become increasingly stressful, and children are experiencing more anxiety than ever. Children and teens are over-scheduled, expected to perform at peak capacity most of the time, and are surrounded by seemingly perfect people, places and things.
The baseline for children’s overall stress level is often high, then when an unexpected event such as a thunderstorm or pop quiz occurs, they panic. How can parents help keep the threshold for stress low and expectations for performance realistic?
Everyone has the capacity to handle some stress, and in fact, a small amount of stress is helpful to create motivation and energy to do the things that need to be done in a day. Without some stress most people would not get out of bed in the morning. Our reservoir for stress could be compared to a bathtub: it can have a standard water level, you can even add to that level, but at some point, if too much water is added the tub will overflow. Anxiety and panic can occur when our “stress tub” overflows. Therefore, it is important to drain some of our stress on a daily basis so we don’t emotionally overflow.
Anxiety is different from stress. With anxiety, our brains react to something which appears to be a threat and then our bodies produce an overflow of adrenaline. This physiological response sends us into fight, flight or freeze mode. Common ways these features show up in children include tantrums or meltdowns (fight), procrastination or avoidance (flight), or mind going blank (freeze). If one or more of these types of behavior occur on a regular basis your child might have an anxiety disorder which will likely respond to treatment by a professional. If these behaviors only occur occasionally, then improvement can be experienced with a stress reduction plan.
An effective stress management program has several components. First, make sure your child is not over-scheduled. Today we have structured programs for just about everything, and this creates an atmosphere of “have to” instead of “want to.” A little bit of structured activity after school is OK, but children need free time to play, independently explore hobbies, and relax. Downtime is necessary for life balance. A general rule is no more than 2 after school classes per semester, including sports.
Next, allow your child to experiment with activities and don’t require perfection. In fact, celebrate mistakes. We live in a world where everything has become polished – stores are immaculate, computer-generated fonts make all written materials look pristine, and photographs are posed and designed for broadcast on social media. These factors have generated unrealistic expectations for perfectionism, and when children can’t live up to the “standards” they have a sense of failure. Share your mistakes with your children or model how you made something special out of something messy. Put their not-so-great
art on the refrigerator. Celebrate effort not always the result.
Finally, help your child develop resilience. Being able to adapt to the ups and downs of life, learning to self-manage fears, and experiencing failure creates strength. When parents “rescue” their children from failure or fears then children don’t develop healthy coping mechanisms. Then when a similar situation occurs children become overly stressed and then anxious. Children easily develop out-of-control fears, such as sleeping alone in their bed, or speaking to adults, when parents overly accommodate. You can help by talking with your child about the fear, empathize with their feelings, and then provide encouragement in their ability to handle the task at hand. The key is to provide emotional support without enabling.
To start, try a few simple changes to see if they help. If you want to customize a plan, a parenting consultation with one of our clinicians might be helpful. You’ve got this!