Happy New Year! Unfortunately, this new year brings a good deal of stress with it for both caregivers and children. The ongoing pandemic, transitions after the holidays, and the pressure to start a new, healthy year can pile on and make it anything but a refreshing start to 2022. As parents, we want to absorb our kids’ stress so they don’t feel it, which of course, can make us more stressed. As much as we try to protect them, our kids might be feeling the weight of the world. The good news is that, with some new habits around stress management and a gentle commitment to mindfulness, you and your kids can manage stress and your overall mental health.
Stress in kids
Stress in adults is something we’re all familiar with, right? When we’re stressed, we have somatic complaints like headaches, muscle tension, heartburn, or indigestion. We might feel fatigued but be unable to sleep, leaving us frazzled, and unable to concentrate. While these indicators might show up in our children, there are other ways kids show stress that might surprise you.
A stressed child of any age might display the following:
- Increased activity, appearing hyperactive or decreased activity, appearing sluggish
- New physical “quirks” like hair twirling, thumb sucking, nail biting, or nose picking
- Lying, bullying, being defiant
- Tantruming more than usual or over smaller stressors
- Clinging to you or needing more attention than usual
- Sudden fears like of the dark, strangers, or monsters
- Hoarding items that seem insignificant to them
- Somatic complaints: stomach ache, headache
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Sleep problems: difficulty falling or staying asleep, sleeping more than usual, nightmares, bedwetting
Some of these, like big behavior changes or bad stomach aches, might ring alarm bells right away, but some, like a kid picking their nose, might not strike you as being a sign of stress. Kids self-soothe in all kinds of ways, though, and recognizing when something is “off” about your child’s behavior is the first step in getting them help.
Name the feeling
If you suspect your child is feeling stressed, it’s important to acknowledge and name the feeling, not ignore it and hope it goes away. Kids, even young children, are good at hiding their feelings when they think adults don’t want to hear them.
You can approach naming a feeling in several ways:
- Modeling: You can name your feeling, which shows your vulnerability which gives kids the vocabulary to name their feelings and assign meaning to the feeling words.
- Use a bigger vocabulary: avoid the general “mad” or “sad,” and help kids distinguish and get to know what other feelings “feel” like in their body. So, instead of “mad,” talk about how you feel “frustrated” in your fists and jaw when things don’t go your way.
- Curiosity: You can show curiosity about your child’s new behavior. Say something like, “I see you biting on your fingernail. Sometimes when we feel scared or overwhelmed we bite our fingernails. Is something bothering you?”
Both children and adults can benefit from the stress-reducing power of belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing. Here’s how to teach your child belly breaths:
You can help your child develop the skill of diaphragmatic breathing by teaching them to breathe in a way that pushes their belly out when they breathe in and flattens their belly as they blow the air out. Tell your child to blow their belly up like a balloon as they breathe in and let the air out of the balloon as they breathe out.
Note: Many children believe taking a deep breath involves raising their shoulders up to their ears to "show you" how big their breath is. Let your child do this the first time they try diaphragmatic breathing and then ask, "Do you breathe with your shoulders?" When they say no, demonstrate how to keep your body relaxed while filling up your "balloon," focusing only on the breath.
- Slow Inhale
Often kids are coached to take "deep" breaths when, in reality, we are trying to coach them to take slow breaths since it is possible to take quick deep breaths.
Encourage your child to slow their breath down when they breathe in and out. Kids typically need cues to slow their breath. Count during their inhale so they can hear the difference between a slow and fast breath. Intentionally taking slow, steady breaths sends a signal to the brain that it is okay to return to a resting state.
- Long Exhale
Remember that last time you got startled. Did you take a quick breath in? While inhaling is a stress response, exhaling is a relaxation response. That's why we sigh when we're relieved.
Encourage your child to take a big, slow breath in but do not overlook the importance of taking a slow, long breath out as well. To get the full relaxing benefit of deep breathing, a slow, long exhale must follow a deep breath in.
Children learn best through play. Once you and your child know how to breathe with your bellies, you’re ready to play around with taking deep breaths. Some activities on the Wondergrade app that are designed to help caregivers and kids de-stress and use their belly breaths include:
- Flower Breaths: Engage your imagination by picturing brightly colored flowers while you take some deep breaths.
- Hot Cocoa Breaths: Pretend to cool down a steaming cup of cocoa while taking long, slow breaths.
- Tummy Breaths: Grab a favorite stuffy and watch your belly rise and fall with your big, slow belly breaths.
- And lots more!
During this “unprecedented time,” everyone is feeling stressed and anxious. Modeling self-compassion, treating yourself with care and understanding when confronted with a personal failure or feelings of inadequacy, will help your child feel less isolated in their moment of stress and will help foster empathy. Practicing self-compassion with yourself and encouraging your child to show themselves self-compassion will help build resilience and skills that will help them their entire lives.
Sadly, stress is part of life, but teaching your child how to name, manage, and lessen stress is a gift they will use forever.