Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Helping Kids Deal with Everyday Stress

Millie writes:

School’s back in session with a vengeance at our house. Both our high-schoolers are taking heavy academic loads and come dragging into the house about 4 every afternoon with the will to live drained right out of them – a situation that is not helped by the ensuing hours of homework. By the time I get my hands on them they’re pretty much sleep-deprived zombies, and it’s hard to get any work out of sleep-deprived zombies; not to mention the fact that even low-level stress like this will disrupt their sleep cycles, make them more susceptible to colds and other infections and make them feel sad, angry and frustrated.

Any mother of teenagers can tell you that this is not how you want yours to feel. Here’s how I help them combat it:

Shorten the chore list during the school year
. Kids in high school especially need their down-time. This is not to say that they shouldn’t do anything around the house, they certainly should; just keep it simple and repetitive, like taking out the garbage, doing the dishes or washing the car.

Enforce bedtime. Kids need more sleep than they think they do, but they may not realize that they’re dragging because they’re just plain pooped. Choose a bedtime that works for your family and stick to it. Even kids in middle and high school need an end time, though you may decide not to tuck your 17-year-old into bed at 9 every night; establish a cut-off time for phone calls, text messaging and gaming. Remove cell phones, computers or gaming systems from the bedroom if you have to.

3 squares a day, plus snacks. You may not have much control over what your child eats when he’s at school, but you can influence what’s available at home. No matter how rushed your mornings, your child should eat breakfast; whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, a glass of milk and a banana works just fine. Eat dinner together every single night at around the same time; having the home schedule be somewhat predictable helps support a kid who feels like everything else is coming at him too fast. Provide mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks, as well; sneak in a bit of protein or a piece of fruit for a nutritional boost.

. DON’T insist they do jumping jacks or hit the gym, but DO come up with a way for them to burn off a little of that stress with physical activity. Ask them along on a bike ride or send them outside to shoot a few hoops outside the garage; even walking the dog will get them moving. Make it fun, though, or it will add to the stress load by providing yet another “To Do” to their lists. That is especially important if one of their stressors is being on a sports team!

Listen. When your child is mentally sorting and trying to make sense of his world, he needs a sounding board. That can and should be a service you provide. You don’t have to solve his problems for him; you just need to listen and offer tea and sympathy. Perhaps the two of you can brainstorm solutions, but he will feel better just knowing you are there to support him.

Take it easy. People under stress are emotionally ill. If your kid has the mood version of a nasty head cold, dial his life back a notch to the days when things were simpler for him. Serve soothing “nursery” food like creamy macaroni and cheese. Leave books like Where’s Waldo or the I Spy series around so he can rest his mind a bit and still earn tiny “successes” by finding the hidden pictures. If your kid usually takes showers, draw him a warm bath and add bubbles or food coloring; it’s also fun to float some orange peel or flowers in the water, but be sure you take them out before you drain the tub! Offer to massage his shoulders with peppermint-scented rub, or brush her hair if it relaxes her.

Teach. They may think the LAST thing they need when they’re already stressed out is more instruction, but if you can teach them a few simple stress-management techniques it will do them a world of good. Sometimes just TELLING someone that the smell of lavender induces calm will be enough to make a believer out of them, and there are hundreds of books and websites available to teach you how to meditate or do guided visualization with a child. You might even convince them to take a yoga class with you.

Children can have a hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, so help them gain some perspective on their problems by teaching them to deal with stress while they're young. Don’t make a big deal out of babying your baby; just sneak in a few of these ideas to nourish his soul and let him know he’s loved.

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