Dear Stress, Let's break up
Helping kids cope with stress
As adults, we can probably recall the top five most stressful moments in our lives as being times of conflict, loss or when we’re expected to perform at very high levels. School is where children experience many of these things for the first time.
Moving to a new school or class, fighting with friends, taking tests and exams, worrying about how you measure up in your class and social group, and wondering if certain teachers like you, all contribute to a child’s overall stress levels.
To add to the misery, some children (and adults) have hyperactive nervous systems. They experience more anxiety than the average person and struggle to maintain the composure they need to function optimally. For these children and their parents, it doesn’t help to throw around terms like ‘resilience’ as if they’re doomed to living in a cave and avoiding all contact with the outside world. No, resilience includes endurance, bounceback, flexibility, adaptability and experience that requires many years to develop. Yet regardless of resilience, everyone experiences stress.
As adults, experience has taught us how to manage stress more effectively. We’ve also learnt that we can (and do) survive despite the heart palpitations and sweaty brow.
The big question is, ‘How do we help our kids manage better?’
Year 12s are currently facing a tsunami of stress. They have a line of assignments longer than your shopping list, followed by arduous QCS exams and major subject exams, plus they face the expectation of producing content that is virtually publishing-standard and worthy of peer review!
To top it off, it is also around now that many have to fill in application forms for next year’s uni courses…based on a range of possible academic outcomes that have not yet been determined. (Could we add anything more stress-inducing than forcing them to make major life choices?) Oh, and did I mention they’re still dealing with everyday angst-ridden teenage stuff?
The pressure is intense. It’s not surprising that some buckle under it. Many of us have done the same at some point or another.
However, as all parents know, anxiety exists in every age group. In Prep,
children are introduced to new things every day. In Year 3, students encounter their first NAPLAN tests. In Year 6, students face the transition to secondary school. In Year 8 and 9, students feel underprepared for the strange adolescent world they’ve suddenly entered.
So what can we do to help children who are experiencing significant anxiety?
Tips for reducing anxiety
1. Routine matters. It is no secret that a key component to stress is change. Look at the variables in your child’s life. Which ones can you eliminate during stressful periods? As much as possible, lock down meal times, bed times, exercise time, study spaces and transport to and from school. Just for this period of time, avoid inviting people into your child’s life who may bring chaos and havoc with them. If you can keep the ‘foundations’ nice and stable, your child will have a greater ability to focus and unlock the creative and cognitive functions required to get through.
2. Ensure enough good sleep! Experts say that if sleep is cut short, the body and mind doesn’t complete all of the phases required for memory consolidation, the release of the correct hormones and muscle repair. The child wakes up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions and engage fully in school and social activities. The National Sleep Foundation provides a good guide for the sleep requirements per night of children as they grow older. Preschool children (3-5 years) require 10-13 hours. School age children (6-13 years) require 9-11 hours. Teenagers ((14-17 years) require 8-10 hours.
3. Set aside 15 minutes of ‘worry time’ a day. Encourage your child to think of worry as an activity (just like any other activity) instead of an all-consuming state of mind. As wacky as it sounds, get them to write down anxious thoughts as they occur during the day, but allocate a 15 minute period for ‘worry time’ when they can focus on their concerns. This works particularly well with young children and can give them a tool to keep overwhelming thoughts in check.
4. Swap unhelpful thoughts for more helpful ones. Be aware of your child’s negative thought patterns and help them change. A habit of thinking “I’m hopeless” or “I’ll never get this done” develops negative brain patterns much like tyre tracks digging into the surface of a dirt road. Help your child realise that sometimes they say “I can’t” purely out of habit. Encourage them to give things a go but also prompt them to observe how they feel. Once it’s all over, point out what they’ve accomplished and that, despite their fear, they have made it through. (MindAid Coping Keys are small, portable PVC cards on a key ring that can be used to remind people of healthy thought patterns.)
5. Finally, create schedules. This is particularly vital to the success of Year 11 and 12 students facing the monumental task of studying for exams and completing assignments. Help your teenager apply judgement in prioritising the most urgent and important tasks and staying one step ahead in the game. Less important jobs should always go on the backburner and tasks should be completed within reasonable time frames. If your child has fallen behind (a common experience for students who often face competing priorities) encourage them to put in a big effort and get back on track. Facilitate this by giving them the space and time they need, feeding them with healthy food and making sure they are consuming plenty of water to avoid mind sluggishness. Encourage them to allocate short breaks for getting outside (blue sky always helps), exercising, and resting following periods of concerted effort, but stick to the schedule as much as possible. Most importantly help them to keep the finish line in sight.
Tight schedules, conflicting and competing tasks, new people and encounters, changes that are beyond our control ... School can be stressful. It is also the perfect training ground for life. As parents and teachers, it's our job to give children the tools they need in order to manage their stress and become functioning, positive and responsible adults.