June 21, 2016

Helping children cope with stress

By Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools

With constant, around-the-clock coverage of the awful events that unfolded in Orlando last weekend, it is not unusual for children to show signs of stress. Stress is the reaction of our minds and bodies to unsettling experiences. Too much stress can have negative consequences and can even make us ill. For this reason, the things that cause stress in children should be taken seriously before they are able to cause harm.

What are the signs of a distressed child? Anger, aggressiveness, anxiety, crankiness, bedwetting, crying too easily, overeating, increased clumsiness, hair twisting, teeth clenching, fighting with other children, or withdrawing from them, or failing at school, are all on the list.

Causes of stress can lurk anywhere: Pressure from home or school; being too busy with over-loaded schedules; family changes such as divorce or remarriage; feeling unloved or misunderstood; unsettling events elsewhere in the world can also trigger stress in children.

It’s important to remember that children cannot analyze and control stress-causing events as well as adults can. They need guidance from adults.

Family support is a vital antidote to stress, so be sure to relax and talk together. Curb access to violent TV shows and movies. Keep daily life calm. Pets are often a good buffer and an emotional refuge. Relaxed parents, who cope positively with their own stress, pass on these skills to children.

It also helps to maintain a network of friends and activities outside the home. The support and acceptance plays a very helpful role.

Children also cope better with stress in their lives when they don’t feel helpless. So teach them how to care for themselves and take on family responsibilities as they grow. Show them to balance chores and play. Help them plan schedules that are tenable. Show them the importance of adequate rest and proper nutrition. All these precautions help prevent stress from erupting in the first place.

Encourage your children to ask for help when they need it, analyze their problems as they arise, and plan their alternatives for coping.

It’s been demonstrated that children who enjoy learning have good defenses against stress, so encourage your children to keep their minds sharp, even while school is out for the summer. But remember that too much academic pressure is a chief cause of childhood stress, so don’t go overboard.

If your child is having persistent problems handling stress, don’t hesitate to contact a professional for help. These professionals are trained at mixing coping skills like group discussions, role-playing, films, and problem-solving exercises. There’s an old adage: “If you see something, say something.” It is as important that we abide by that maxim—both at home and in the school or workplace.