How to Help Children Manage Stress
Guest post by Mary Muhs
It seems as though children are growing up faster today than ever before. In the past, children spent large amounts of free time outside playing with neighborhood friends. They would have arrived home messy and dirty; evidence of a hard day’s joyful work. Kindergarten was a child’s first school experience learning to read and enjoy learning.
Within the past several decades, the amount of free time children have has diminished, and hours of neighborhood games have diminished to a half-hour play date. The pressures at school have grown as well, with academic goals being achieved earlier and earlier in a child’s educational career.
Do not forget the challenges children face being members of their own families. Divorce, economic changes, world safety, television, friendships, deaths, illness, peer pressure, and lack of nutrition all can contribute to stress in a child’s world. Additionally, a child may feel pressure to be the best—even while they are still learning a task—and the pressures and competition may be too much to handle. Believe it or not, children are stressed and it seems to earlier in life. How can parents help bring childhood back to their children? Allow childhood to come back to the children through these steps.
1) Remember what it was like to be a child. Parents can think back and remember when neighborhoods were friendly places and children played outdoors until the sky turned dark. Remember the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings experienced. Write down memories and share them with children. Tell stories of games, friends, and joy.
2) Provide opportunities for uninterrupted play time. According to early childhood development theorist, Jean Piaget, children need time to interact with their environment and the people around them. Time should be uninterrupted and unplanned. This means parents should offer a safe place with materials and experiences which children can choose and manipulate by themselves or with friends. (Television and video games do not count as uninterrupted play as they are typically solitary events.)
By interacting with their environment through play, children learn how the world works, even being able to work through problems without judgment or fear of failure. When a child’s whole day is planned ahead and all activities are monitored or directed, children cannot work through everyday situations and try new roles freely.
3) Create “white space” in a child’s day. Parents may say that time for uninterrupted play is not possible. After arriving home from their early childhood program or school, the nighttime routine includes homework, sports practice, dinner, bath time, and then bed time. The play time is sometimes limited to weekends; but even still schedules are chock-full of sports games, errands to run, chores for finish and family events to attend. However; everyone needs downtime, or “white space” in their lives. White space gives children time to breathe, time to wonder and time to dream. It means nothing is scheduled or expected.
Although everyone, including parents need “white space” to feel calm and collected, children need it even more than adults. Children have not yet established coping mechanisms for a stress. This time allows children to relax and work through their emotions.
4) Model appropriate stress management techniques. Providing appropriate stress management techniques provides a good model to follow as a child. Parents are a child’s first and most important teacher. When children see parents stressed out, they often replicate that feeling. Parents may feel that they have shielded their children from the stress of family life, however; children are intuitive. They see, hear, and feel without being able to comprehend or constructively express their thoughts.
Challenging behaviors can emerge when children experience stress and do not know how to show it in any other way. Parents must place an importance on showing children how to express stress without anger, physical aggression, or yelling. Problem solving techniques work well with preschool children who are able to share in the conversation and offer support.
5) Enjoy “real time”. Be authentic and present with children. Whether as a parent or important adult, enjoying “real time” with a child shows respect and understanding of a child’s situation. It is often said that quality time is more important than the quantity of time spent with children.
What is quality time? Is quality time a shopping trip to the grocery store? Is quality time watching a movie together? Either can be quality time, if the adult is completely present with the child. Listen, talk, ask questions, share stories, and show appreciation for the child.
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