by Lori Lite
as seen in USA Today
“Your daughter knows about terrorist attacks and school shootings. She talks about it more than you are comfortable with. . . . Is she becoming the nervous type or is this simply a symptom of stress?”
Your child is having another melt down in the middle of your kitchen. You were just about to implement your highly developed multi-tasking skills of starting dinner while cleaning up this morning’s breakfast crumbs and arranging car pool for tomorrow. The phone rings and caller ID lets you know that it’s your teenager’s teacher. Your six year old is sitting at the table crying and screaming for no apparent reason. He is refusing to do his homework and has ripped the paper to shreds. His nails are bitten and he has announced that he isn’t going to school tomorrow.
Most of us don’t have to imagine this scene. It hits close to home for most American families. How do you handle this scenario? Do you scream and threaten him? Do you put him in time out? Do you secretly wonder if Ritalin would help? Do you bribe him with ice cream or do you decide he is having a cranky day… again?
Parents and educators are not accustomed to recognizing signs of stress in children. We are most frequently conditioned to think that the child is seeking attention, being difficult, on the verge of being sick or just plain tired. If an adult displayed any of these behaviors there would be an understanding that they are sick and tired of their hectic demanding schedules. They themselves might declare that they are “stressed out”. An adult may realize that they need a vacation, a glass of wine or a yoga class. Children do not have the luxury of scheduling their own vacations or yoga classes. Children generally do not even have access to the words “stressed out” to place on the way they feel. We’ve taught them what a headache and stomachache feels like. We’ve shown them how to remedy these symptoms with over the counter medication. We’ve pointed out when they are tired, hungry or cranky. They know where the snack cabinet is and how to reach their most desired delicacies on the top shelf. But how many of us have introduced the words or feelings of being “stressed out” to children? Are we prepared to help children conquer fear?
Penn State Children’s Hospital/Pediatric Trauma Program lists some of the feelings of the stressed child as being agitated, overactive, confused, afraid, angry, sad, anxious or withdrawn. Parents are alerted to look for signs that might indicate a child is under stress, particularly after a traumatic event. A child’s preoccupation with the traumatic event, withdrawal from family and friends, sleep disturbances and physical complaints can all be indicators of stress or even Post Traumatic Stress. PTSD is the delayed onset of stress after exposure to a traumatic event. This delayed reaction can show itself one month after the trauma and can last several years following. PTSD has primarily been associated with soldiers that have experienced combat. However, an article ran in Child Magazine November, 1999 states that “the number of children affected is staggering. Every year at least 3 million children show signs of PTSD”. Current estimates are vague but with 8,500 children having to be evacuated in response to the attack on NY and millions more being exposed to traumatic images of 9/11 it is safe to say that we are dealing with the greatest mental health crisis our nation has ever seen.
The seriousness of meeting our children’s mental health needs is evident. Only one month after 9/11 Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Louise Slaughter presented the Protecting America’s Children Against Terrorism Act. In this proposal they expressed a concern for being able to provide “mental health services for children, teachers and child care providers to respond to the mental health needs resulting from a terrorist attack.”
As a parent or educator it is important to identify symptoms of stress. This is a difficult task. Many of the indicators are emotions and behaviors families experience throughout the week. “Stress and Your Child”, an article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics points out that “Many parents believe that their school-age children are unaware of the stresses around them and are somehow immune to them. Yet children are very sensitive to the changes around them.” Change whether it is positive or negative has an impact on children. Change rates a high stress score on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. This evaluation has been used as a stress measurement tool since it was first published in 1967 in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research by Dr’s. Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. It assigns point values to different life events and changes. A higher score indicates a higher level of stress. The point system is an excellent aid in measuring the powerful impact change has on the human being. A child that is experiencing change in acceptance by peers is given a life change value of 67. The same child welcoming the birth of a brother or sister is assigned 50 points. Both events warrant high numbers thus making us aware that change whether it is positive or negative still registers as stress.
Dr. Steven Glicksman a child and adolescent psychologist in Manhattan states that “children are very vulnerable to stress.” Stress for a child can be as simple as arriving at school to find a substitute has filled in for their absentee teacher or as complex as being exposed to a violent or traumatic event.
How might the emotions of stress look when it is expressed by your child?
- Your child seems jumpy and anxious. He asks a lot of questions and expresses his worries about tomorrow. He is concerned about happenings he has no control over and has overheard radio and TV news events. He is aware of terrorist attacks and school shootings. He talks about it more than you are comfortable with. Does this mean he knows too much? Is he watching age appropriate television? Is he becoming the nervous type or is this a symptom of stress?
- Your happy, enthusiastic child seems down in the dumps. He is unusually quiet, withdrawn and isn’t interested in playing with his best friend. His energy level is low and he says that nothing is hurting or bothering him. Is he going through a stage? Is he becoming anti-social? Can he be depressed or is this a symptom of stress?
- You brag to your friends that your child is a great sleeper. You are sure it is due to the clouds you painted on his ceiling and the Feng Shui approved placement of his bed. However, he has recently been having trouble getting to sleep. During the night he has started having nightmares and wakes up frequently. Does he have an overactive imagination? Is he eating too much sugar? Has his bed suddenly become uncomfortable or is this a symptom of stress?
Stress shows up differently for each individual and can be difficult to detect. There are variables to consider such as age, family stability and coping skills. The arrival of a new teacher mid-year might create anguish and stress for a 5 year old where as a 13 year old might welcome the new possibilities. Stress is not actually something that happens to us. It is the degree to which we let an event affect us. It is the way that we react to the event. Stress is an accepted way of life in today’s society. According to Dr. Benson’s national bestselling book, “The Relaxation Response” 60 to 90 % of visits to the doctor’s office are related to stress. Researchers with The Mind Body Medical Institute have studied and documented the effects of stress on our brains and bodies. From the monitoring of blood lactate levels to the easily measured heart and respiratory rate the scientific community has proven that stress although intangible is powerful and harmful to humans. Stress has been named a contributing culprit to everything from high blood pressure to depression.
Adults, usually after years of experiencing the ill effects of stress find the motivation to seek out stress relief. Everyone from baby boomers to young mothers to corporate executives and athletes are anxiously looking for ways to remain healthy. Through the use of stress reduction techniques adults are trying to reclaim their health, their sense of well being and their own inner peace. The age old practice of meditation is experiencing a resurgence. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi connected with the rock and roll crowd through his association with the Beatles thirty years ago bringing non-religious transcendental meditation to the western world. Richard Gere’s alliance with the Dalai Lama has given Buddhism celebrity status. Madonna has achieved personal transformation and enlightenment with the help of her private yoga instructor and Kabalah studies. Oprah has empowered millions by exposing her viewers to many self management tools including meditation, visualizations and affirmations. Society has been exposed to the Eastern way of achieving wellness, tranquility and serenity. Stress management, hatha and raja yoga, massages, holistic healing, visualizations and affirmations have entered the American mainstream.
Today’s children are stressed out and can obviously benefit from stress relief. The world that we knew as children has dramatically changed. Children are spending extended time in school and structured settings such as daycare. More children are being raised in a single parent home. Many households have two working parents to make ends meet. The media has bombarded our children with complicated and often traumatizing information. We are raising the first generation of children to have experienced homeland terrorism. Our own achievement oriented style of parenting has created overly scheduled days for us and our children. Down time for most families is a vague memory. Let’s counteract these stressors by raising a generation of children that can self manage stress. It’s time to empower our children by giving them the tools to de-stress.
Some schools are experimenting with introducing meditation to their students in a classroom setting. In Silver Spring, Maryland the Chelsea School has introduced transcendental meditation to its students in a classroom setting. The children close their eyes and silently recite a mantra, word or phrase. Students at the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit meditate twice a day. Reports from children who have worked with meditation have shown that they are happier, more alert and less frustrated. My own students have told me that they “feel calm and focused”.
A few deep breaths and a few minutes of visualizing had a teenager saying “I never felt anything like this in my entire life.” This boy went on to improve his hockey game using visualization techniques. I asked another student of mine when he thought he could use these techniques. With innate wisdom he stated “when someone at school bothers me I could take a deep breath to calm down instead of hitting him.” These students have implemented life long skills of relaxation and self management. They have become active participants in creating their own healthy, peaceful lives. Imagine teachers teaching a group of students who are able to harness and manage their own energy. Imagine how these concepts could revolutionize the educational system.
The Mental Health Association recommends counteracting stress by maintaining a positive outlook, focusing on activities that take your mind off your worries and taking time to relax. As a young mother raising 3 children I learned just how hard it was to implement these suggestions. My husband was working long stressful hours and I was dealing with a child that was chronically ill and hyperactive. I didn’t have the time, money or stamina to attend relaxation classes. My ongoing symptoms of weight loss, gastritis, chronic fatigue and involuntary breath holding alerted a concerned relative. The very thought of fitting tranquility into my life caused me to hold my breath. She took one look at me and decided to intervene. An appointment was arranged for me to meet a stress consultant she was working with. This meeting changed my life. I learned that by simply adding deep belly breathing, affirmations and visualizations to my life I could counteract the harmful effects stress was having on my body and mind. I started practicing breath awareness throughout the day. I paid attention to my breath as I did the dishes, sat in my car, and interacted with my children. I even occasionally locked myself in my room for 3 minutes of breathing. I was breathing out the sound of “aaahhhh” and I experimented with positive self-talk or affirmations. My children laughed as I spoke out loud, “I am calm, I am relaxed.” The laughter alone provided much needed stress relief for my family.
The techniques were working so well for me I knew the same techniques would work for my children. At that time my 4 year old son was taking 2 hours every night to settle down to sleep. I developed 4 stories designed to entertain my children while at the same time introducing them to life long stress-management skills. The first story I created was A Boy and a Bear. I watched my young son follow along as he put his hands on his belly and learned diaphragmatic breathing. My daughter’s stress had expressed itself as night terrors. With the help of repeating positive statements with the animals of the forest in my story The Affirmation Web her night terrors subsided. The gratification of watching my own family benefit by introducing relaxation/meditation techniques to our lives inspired me to continue creating stories to help other parents looking for a way to help their children.
Imagine reading a book to your child that shows him how to manage his own energy, stress and anxiety. Imagine feeling the ripple effect of calmness as it makes its way through your family. Imagine your joy as you watch your child’s self-esteem grow with each affirmation. You will be inspired to see how easy it is for your child to apply breathing, visualizations, affirmations and muscular relaxation to his life. I believe that children have the ability to be active participants in creating their own healthy, heart driven, peaceful lives. Children want to feel calm and in control of their minds and bodies. Next time you notice that you or your child are under stress take a moment to breathe, affirm or visualize and get ready to feel good!
Stress Free Kids founder Lori Lite has created a line of books and CDs designed to help children, teens, and adults decrease stress, anxiety, and anger. Ms. Lite’s books, CDs, and lesson plans are considered a resource for parents, psychologists, therapists, child life specialists, teachers, and yoga instructors. Lori is a certified children’s meditation facilitator and Sears’ Manage My Life parenting expert. For more information visit Stress Free Kids and for daily advice follow Lori on Twitter and Facebook .