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The problem with stress

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

As adults, we often fail to recognise the magnitude of stress in our children’s lives. They're children right, what do they have to be stressed about? But, just like us, children experience stress and when we take a minute to think about it, it becomes clear that their stress can stem from many places.

We live in a World in which we are all under pressure. And that's no different for the little people around us. They have huge access to information and more exposure to opinion than ever before. There is regular talk of death and pandemics. Of war and destruction. It might be that they are struggling to understand their feelings. They could be dreading exams or feel uncertain in their friendship group. Perhaps they feel unsettled at home, or unsure how to deal with crowds after months of isolation. So, this is a gentle reminder to just check in every so often and tune into the fact that like you, children are human. Like you, they feel. Like you, they think.

What happens when we get stressed?

When an individual’s stress response is activated, a hormone called Cortisol is produced, and this is true in both adults and children. Whilst some exposure to Cortisol is good, too much can overwhelm our system, which can in turn cause problems including; a reduced appetite, headaches, mental fatigue and sleeplessness and emotional overwhelm.

Stress in children has been a hot research topic in recent years with a number of articles being published in the world's of Science and Psychology. Findings include evidence showing that those children who were classified as highly stressed had difficulty with tests as their short-term memory was impaired. The same children also had a propensity to age faster on a cellular level. What this has started to demonstrate is that prolonged exposure to stress can have a negative impact on a child’s neurological development.

Further research has shown that stressed children are more prone to bed wetting, nightmares and illness. As parents, we know life can have ups and downs and we can’t possibly control everything that goes on around them by filtering all that they see and hear. But, we can help them to cope with stress. To give them the tools and techniques to enable them to deal with stressful situations.

How do we educate on stress management?

I’m thinking that this might be an opportunity to connect with our ability to role model. As parents, caregivers and educators, we cannot stop stress appearing, and it would be unrealistic to allow children to think that stressful situations don’t exist. But it would be a positive move to work with children to help them recognise their emotions, to label their feelings and to understand their triggers. To try and get alongside them and to encourage them to use their power and to breathe.

One of the best ways to do that is to take our own advice and try and manage how we as adults handle stress. Of course, there will be days when we are irritable or craving a glass of wine before Midday, but it’s worth trying to remember that children watch everything. The way we talk and how we move. How we express joy and sadness. How we manage feelings, and also, how we deal with stress. That doesn't mean that we need to be perfect, as that sets an unrealistic expectation but being mindful of our own routine can really help children to internalise ways in which to regulate their stress responses.

Survival tips for managing stress in children and adults

  • When things get too much, breathe. Your breath is your best friend and the way in which you breathe has an impact on the physiological reactions in your body. Therefore, by breathing deeply and slowly you increase the chances of finding your body’s relaxation mode.

  • Get outside. Nature has an incredible ability to heal. Just stopping, stepping out and taking a walk, being mindful of your surroundings can really help dampen down stress responses.

  • Write down any stress triggers. It doesn’t mean that they will go away, but it will make you or your child aware of situations or emotions that trigger stress.

  • Exercise. It’s been demonstrated time and time again that exercise, in a way that is enjoyable to the individual produces much needed happy hormones. It might be hard to get going, but the feeling post workout is well worth it.

  • Create and make something. Whether it’s a picture, a cake or a flower arrangement. As long as it’s something you or your child enjoys that’s all that matters. Getting into creative mode takes our minds elsewhere and therefore hinders the production of cortisol.

  • Try and limit information overload. It’s very easy to become obsessed with what’s happening in the local, national or international environment. Try and control exposure to news stories and to the opinions surrounding them. Instead, catch up with brief summaries and interpret them to children in a way that feels appropriate to you.

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