One of the greatest things parents and caregivers can do for children is to help them manage stress. That doesn’t mean bubble-wrapping our kids so they never experience any stress. It means helping them understand, cope with and recover from the inevitable, normal stresses of childhood. It also means reducing unhelpful, avoidable sources of stress when possible. What’s more, one of the most important ways children learn to deal with stress is by having us help them with it. Here are some things you can do:
Relationships with parents are a child’s single most important way of coping with and recovering from stress. So the time you can give children, along with all the things you do to build and maintain that relationship, protects them against the negative impacts of stress.
In order for children to learn to comfort themselves and recover from stress, they need to have the experience of being comforted and helped to recover from stress. Physical contact is a great stress reliever for young kids. Research shows that loving touch helps babies and toddlers build the brain pathways that will help them cope with stress throughout their lives.
Prevent and reduce stress in your child’s environment
We can’t take away all of a child’s stress. But if your child seems stressed out — whiny, clinging, irritable or prone to tantrums — it’s a good idea to think about what you can do to reduce possible sources of stress at home.
Tune into what stresses your child
If certain situations or kinds of stimulation seem to stress your child, take it seriously. Reduce or avoid the stress when possible. But also try to help your child find ways to gradually learn to deal with stresses and challenges that are normal and unavoidable.
Don’t forget the basics
Physical activity: One part of stress is physical — feeling tense and revved up inside. Going for a walk or bike ride, skipping, or dancing to music releases brain chemicals that help children feel less tense and anxious. Unstructured play, including outdoor play and play with friends, also helps children relax and feel good inside.
Good basic “care and feeding”
A stable home environment is an important stress buffer for children. Comfortable daily routines help a child’s world feel predictable and safe. Getting enough rest and eating a healthy diet also improve the ability of children’s internal systems to deal with stress.
Some stress is caused by specific problems. Solve the problem, and that particular source of stress goes away. It takes a long time for children to learn to solve problems on their own. But if you help them problem solve regularly, your children will gradually learn an important skill that will help them manage stress for their whole lives. Problem solving during a crisis seldom works well with children. Kids (and adults) do their best problem solving when they are calm and able to think clearly.
Watch your own stress level
Adult stress affects children. That doesn’t mean every bit of stress you feel will harm your children. But managing your own stress will: protect your kids from one source of unhelpful stress (over-stressed parents), model good stress management and help you be the kind of parent you want to be.
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