Not only are our children faced with more stress than were previous generations, say experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics, but rises in both divorce rates and double-income families mean kids have fewer support systems. Even if you're not always with them, you can help your children gather the tools for handling stress effectively.
According to Bettie B. Youngs, PhD, EdD, developmental psychologist in Del Mar, California, and co-editor of A Taste-Berry Teen's Guide to Managing the Stress and Pressures of Life (Health Communications, 2002), the first step in helping your kids deal with stress is taking them seriously. Many parents dismiss their child's behavioral changes as "just a phase," Youngs says, when in fact, parents should explore the possibility of stress-related issues.
Children begin to feel stress at about age 10. "That's when they begin to worry: 'Were those kids on the bus talking about me?' 'Was Dad mad at me last night?'" says Youngs. Telltale signs of anxiety include trouble sleeping, changed appetite, and aggressive behavior. If you suspect your child is stressed, take a look at her schedule. Is she involved in too much? Is she feeling overwhelmed? Activities that require constant concentration and ones that force youngsters to compete can cause stress over time. "Sports are wonderful," says Youngs, "but parents need to make sure there's more to it than just winning. Make sure your kids are having fun, too."
Allow for adequate downtime, as well—and that doesn't mean increased minutes in front of the television. Spend quality time with your child shooting hoops, playing a board game, or painting a picture. Then start a conversation about what may be bothering her. "Never say, 'I have 10 minutes before I have to leave for work, tell me what's wrong,'" says Youngs. "Begin with the hands-on activity before you start asking questions. Create that bond so your child feels she can safely share a deep, dark secret with you."
You may wonder if it's OK to be stressed in front of your kids. It is, as long as you model effective coping strategies. "If you walk through the door snarling after a long day at the office," advises Youngs, "say, 'I'm so stressed out; let's go for a walk,' or, 'I really need 10 minutes to myself right now.'" By setting that example, you're teaching that everyone feels stress, but it's something that can be managed.