October 21, 2020

“She is having headaches and she is nauseous every morning before school. At night, she has trouble sleeping and comes into my room at night. I’m worried.” 

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Doctors all over the country are seeing more and more patients coming in with complaints of headaches, stomach aches, and difficulty sleeping. While of course it’s always important to discuss any new symptom with your physician, many of these physical complaints can be due to stress. 

Stress by definition is a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation. -Webster’s Dictionary 

It’s no surprise that we are stressed. There have been so many changes in how we live and these changes have happened so quickly. Change is a cause of stress, good or bad. Kids and teens have experienced a lot of these changes too. They too are feeling stressed  and often their stress manifests itself in physical complaints. In general, kids and teens are not very good at expressing their emotions. (some adults aren’t either!) Unfortunately, not talking about what you’re worried about doesn’t make it go away and in fact talking is a wonderful way to relieve stress. 

So what can you do? Understanding that there are some things under your control and some things that aren’t is a start. There are simply some things that you can’t do anything about. Focusing your thoughts and feelings on these things is not only hurting you but it results in physical and chemical changes in your body that are not healthy. 

So, like everything, recognizing these symptoms as stress induced is a great place to start. Our minds and our bodies are one. Our thoughts affect our bodies, whether we realize it or not. It’s no secret that when we think about something that scares us or worries us, our heart rate goes up and even our breathing gets faster. Sometimes our hands get clammy, cold and sweaty. These physical symptoms are easy to recognize and usually they are unwelcome. People desperately try to find ways to make it stop!

Let’s face it, no one likes to feel out of control and our natural instinct is to just make it stop. When it comes to your kids, you might be inclined to say things like, “Oh, relax, you’re fine, it’s nothing!” or “It’s not that big of a deal!” Making dismissive statements like this, doesn’t make stress and anxiety go away, In fact it usually makes the other person even more anxious. Try instead to acknowledge their feelings and validate their concerns.

So what CAN you do to help? There is a lot you can do! First let’s take a look at how stress can present in kids. In kids and teens, stress can present with changes in eating, changes in sleeping, anger issues or lashing out, poor performance in school or behavioral changes. 

As parents your instinct may be to respond with anger and frustration, which I guarantee will not work. Anger is usually an emotion that comes from a lack of control. If you begin seeing these behaviors as a cry for help, rather than defiance, you can start helping them understand how to cope with stress when it arises.

If you shift your thinking and try to approach these symptoms with empathy, you can begin to help your child deal with these feelings of overwhelm that they are having a hard time with. Teaching kids how to handle stress in positive, productive ways is essential. Just like we teach kids to brush their teeth, eat healthy, and exercise to keep their bodies healthy, we also have to teach them ways to keep their minds healthy.

The easiest way to teach stress management to kids is through modeling. Kids are always paying attention to how you respond to stress. Are you yelling? Are you crying? Are you saying things like, “I can’t sleep, I’m going to take a sleeping pill” or “I’ve gained so much weight, I just can’t stop eating because I’m so stressed out at work”. Instead try saying things like, “I had a rough day today, I think I’m going to go for a run.” or “I’m really tired today, it was a rough day, so I think I’m going to go to bed early.” Crying and feeling sad are okay too. Some days are just hard!

Admitting to kids that you’re human and that some days are just hard, helps them to understand that this is just a part of life and everyone feels these feelings. It also sends them the message that we have choices and tools that we can use to help ourselves when we feel this way. 

Let’s take a look at some evidence-based ways that we can manage stress. 

  • SLEEP! – This underutilized tool is one of the most important ways that we can help our physical and mental health. You need to make sleep a priority. Going to bed around the same time every night and avoiding the use of electronics at least one hour before bed can help your quality of sleep (blue light decreases melatonin levels). Sleeping at least 9-12 hours for kids 6-12 and 8-10 hours for teens is the recommendation.
  • Turn off notifications and limit News – It’s hard to get anything done these days without your phone sending you a notification about new news or a new email or a new ad or sale. Taking the time to turn off unnecessary notifications is imperative for your mental health. Otherwise, you’re giving your phone permission to distract you from actually living! There are few things that are so important that they can’t wait for you to check on it when you have time. Time is our most valuable gift. This is especially true when you are spending time with your kids. Giving your full attention, without your phone, sends them the message that they are important and that their thoughts matter to you. 
  • Exercise!- Exercising is our most underutilized tool for managing stress. Teaching kids that going for a walk, playing or going on a run are great ways to deal with stress is the beginning of teaching healthy coping skills.
  • Writing – Writing down our feelings and expressing gratitude (real gratitude) is a practice that we really need to do more of. With the increase in technology, few of us sit down to write anymore. Studies show that writing down our feelings, journaling and expressing gratitude helps our anxiety levels and our overall sense of well-being. Encourage your kids to keep a journal or write down their thoughts when they are stressed or having trouble sleeping. They can even crumple it up when they’re done if they’re worried someone will read it. The important thing is to get those thoughts out of your head!

Finally, the MOST important thing you can do as a parent is to take care of yourself. Never make excuses for taking ten minutes to yourself or for spending time doing something you love to do. We want kids to grow up understanding that being an adult doesn’t mean the end of doing the things you love! Instead, we continue to grow and evolve and that’s truly what life is all about. 

“Self-care is giving the world the best of you, instead of what’s left of you.”- Katie Reed

Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.

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