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Children and Stress

Children and Stress: The Effects of Stress on Children

Excerpted from Children and Stress: A handbook for parents, teachers, and therapists 
By Marty Loy, PhD

Stressed child

Stressed child

A child’s age, personality, and coping skills affect how he or she will deal with stress and react to it. The type of stress, its duration, and its intensity will determine how taxing it is. Support from family and friends and, in some instances, teachers and professional counselors can—if available in sufficient amount and quality—enhance skills and help the child gain perspective. Some research suggests that stress in children has a synergistic rather than a cumulative effect, multiplying the negative effects of stress by as much as four times with each added stressor present in a child’s life.

Children and Stress: Short-term effects

One of the first indicators of stress in children is changes in behavior. Such changes may include anger, backtalk, fighting, hitting, bullying, teasing, and increased hostility toward siblings, family, or peers. Parents and teachers may notice communication problems, decreased concentration, compulsiveness, depression or general sadness, withdrawal, friendship problems, or resistance toward school attendance.

Stress can show Stressed childimmediate effects through a wide range of emotions. Some children become easily tearful, whiny, anxious, demanding, distrustful, fearful, and nervous. Some have mood swings or express feelings of being lonely or unloved. Physical symptoms may include complaints of upset stomach, headache, or sore throat. Episodes of vomiting, loss of appetite, or a frequent need to urinate may be observed. A variety of unusual physical behaviors such as fidgeting, stuttering, tremors, or shaking legs may arise from stress. Colds and other viral illnesses can be a sign of a stress weakened immune system.

When under stress, some older children revert to behaviors characteristic of younger children, such as baby talk, thumb-sucking, nose-picking, or wetting clothing. Stressed children may bite their nails or bite, twirl, pull or suck their hair. Parents should also be aware of changes in sleep behaviors such as insomnia, extended sleep periods, fear of the dark, bad dreams, or bed wetting; or changes in eating patterns such as increased or decreased consumption of food or an increased interest in junk food.

Reverting to tantrums

Reverting to tantrums

Overt signs of stress are also common and are sometimes described as “calls for help.” Examples include self-induced sickness or threats of suicide. Those affected with the good little girl syndrome do everything they are asked; on the opposite extreme, rebels may break all the rules or take part in high-risk behaviors, such as the use of drugs or alcohol, shoplifting, or skipping school.

Specific reactions are highly individual to the child. One might get a stomachache and cry, while another might become irritable and angry. Stress symptoms in some children happen immediately after the stressful event, while in others reactions may not show up for several days. Some children communicate their thoughts and feelings readily, while others have difficulty naming their feelings. They may use general terms or vague statements, such as “I’m worried,” or “I have butterflies in my stomach.” Some—typically younger children—may show anger only briefly while others—usually older—demonstrate longer-lasting effects, holding on to their feelings of anger, disillusionment, distrust, and low self-esteem for weeks, months, or even years.

Children and Stress: Long-term Effects

Recent research on childhood stress has contributed to a growing understanding of the long-term physical and emotional consequences of mismanaged stress. Stress can impair a child’s self-image, self-confidence, self-esteem, academic performance, and social skills. Stress also plays a role in a child’s tolerance and self-control. Childhood stress can increase long-term social anxiety and insecurity; it can contribute to substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and suicide.stressed child sad (2)

Unidentified and untreated stress in children contributes to physical problems ranging from lowered immune function and migraine headaches to obesity, type II diabetes, respiratory-tract illness, asthma, and several psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, and developmental delays both physical and emotional.
Some evidence suggests that many long-term consequences persist well into adulthood. They may manifest themselves in a range of adult emotional and physical problems such as insecurity, low self-confidence, social anxieties, poor self-esteem, substance abuse, and depression. Stress may influence everything from physical health and memory to social competence, marital success, and academic and socioeconomic attainment.

Children can appear outwardly resilient to the immediate effects of stress but, if the timing of the stress is during a critical period of personality development, they can carry the long-term effects with them for the rest of their lives. Many studies link trauma and chronic stress with poor physical and mental health over the long-term.

Marty Loy

Author Marty Loy

Marty Loy PhD: Dr. Loy is professor of Health Promotion and is the Dean of Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. He teaches and publishes in the areas of stress management, learning, and childhood grief and loss. Marty won the University Excellence in Teaching Award in 2001. He currently serves as the President for the Board of Directors of the National Wellness Institute.

Marty and his wife, Becky Loy, founded Camp Hope, a camp for grieving children in 1986. Becky is the president and camp director. Camp Hope has served as a model for similar camps nationally. The Loys were one of three national recipients of the 2007 Champions of Children Award sponsored by Johnson & Johnson in recognition of their work with grieving children. Learn more about Camp Hope at www.camphopeforkids.org.

Marty, originally from Spring Green, earned his doctorate in education administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master’s in education counseling from UW-Oshkosh, and a bachelor’s from UW-Madison.

Manage kids’ extracurricular activities to lower family stress

Remember when after-school activities were typically neighborhood kids playing whichever game with no adult supervision until their mothers called them for dinner?

Today it’s different: kids are enrolled in any and all classes they – or you the parent – have an interest in to provide those sweet darlings with skill building activities. Since most are after school, everyone hits the race-track to fit everything in.

Extracurricular activities are great as long as they don’t turn from an enjoyable challenge to stress. So limit activities, even if that means just one activity per season.

Extracurricular activities certainly benefit children. They:

  • Build self-esteem;
  • Help kids make new friends;
  • Teach them how to be team players;
  • Improve school performance;
  • And importantly, keep kids from becoming inactive TV watchers and video game players, packing on the pounds as the sedentary years march by;

Consider these ideas to create a healthy lineup of activities for your kids, which will also help avoid burnout for all. Since you’re the parent and in charge (you are in charge, right?) make sure their schedule works for you, too.

1. Help your kids prioritize and choose activities that match their interests versus doing anything that looks exciting. Mostly, let them choose their own activities since pressuring them into something YOU’RE interested in may create tension.

Your answers to these questions can help decide which activities to sign up for. Is the activity:

  • Meaningful? Would it be beneficial to your child now or later?
  • Interesting to your child?
  • Within your time and resources?
  • Located in an area that fits your schedule?

2. Insist on one family day per week with no outside activities to build family time and to avoid burnout.

3. Start slow with new activities and encourage personal responsibility in choosing what to do. Instead of automatically buying the best equipment for a new endeavor simply because your son’s interested in the activity, require that he commit to a full class or season before upgrading the equipment. Have him demonstrate he’ll stick with it. This also keeps him from irresponsibly jumping in and out of activities willy-nilly.

4. Reduce commute time by choosing classes close by when possible, arranging carpooling where possible and running errands in that part of town when you drive.

5. Keep all kids’ commitments on a family calendar posted where all can see. List who’s doing what, where, when and how they’re getting there.

6. Look for signs of boredom and stress: does he procrastinate on practicing or even attending? Does he worry excessively about it? Find out why. Speak with his instructor to gain additional insight into the worth of the activity for him.

7. Adapt involvements as your children mature to accommodate increased commitments elsewhere.

Kids, like adults, can’t do it all; that’s why prioritizing is important. And never underestimate the importance of kids playing with kids with no supervision. It offers skills supervised activities don’t. And, not every moment of their “free time” needs to be scheduled.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at wholeperson.com.

Children need hope and optimism to deal with stress

Pessimistic people get depressed much more often

No matter how wonderful and stable a child’s life may seem, she still has stress: rejection by friends, difficulty with homework, dealing with a bully. Your children need to know that when they experience these set-backs, life’s not over; tomorrow is another day.

Children need hope and optimism to be resilient to stress and to persist in dealing with life’s inevitable ups and downs. The more realistically optimistic your children, the better they’ll deal with stress – usually.

Optimism is the fourth component your children’s Stress Safety Net, which helps them feel safe, secure and loved. This gives them the foundation to better handle stress throughout their lives.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a highly respected researcher in the field of cognitive psychology, has found in more than 1,000 studies involving more than a half-million children and adults, pessimistic people do worse than optimistic people in three ways, they:

  • Get depressed much more often;
  • Achieve less at school, on the job and in sports;
  • Their physical health is worse;

With today’s depression rate ten times that of the 1950s, anything that can fight depression is vitally important, which optimism does.

However, sometimes pessimism is the more appropriate response. When the consequences are high that an optimistic view is wrong, it’s better to go with a pessimistic perception. For example, an optimistic perception of cheating on a test would be, “I won’t get caught.” If the consequences of being caught are too great, then the pessimistic, “I’ll get caught,” is the better way to go.

To help your children become more optimistic teach them the connection between their thoughts, feelings and behavior; what they think about a stressor determines how they feel emotionally about it, which determines how they react to it. Teach them that all-or-nothing words like always, never, everyone, no one, are indicators they’re probably thinking pessimistically and adding unnecessary stress to difficult situations.

For example, your daughter’s very interested in the boy who’s approaching her in the hall. She’s thinking, “He’ll never notice me because I’m always so boring.” She feels anxious, worthless and pessimistic.

Teach her, however, that she’s not feeling these emotions because he ignores her but rather because of what she’s telling herself about this possibility. Teach her to change what she thinks in order to change how she feels and responds.

She could think more optimistically, “Here he comes. He hasn’t noticed me before but maybe I can engage him in conversation. He won’t notice me unless I assertive myself.”

Obviously, he still may have no interest but – and this is a huge but – she can limit the damage by spinning it more optimistically. Understanding she feels rotten because she tells herself rotten things about herself teaches her to change what she thinks to something like, “It’s his loss.”

Many adults never learn that their feelings are determined by what they say to themselves. They never learn to take charge of their thinking. Instead, give your kids the gift of optimism with this self-empowering and stress reducing understanding.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.

Teach your positive values to help your kids with their stress

The world is full of stress and it’s your responsibility to teach your children how to handle it.

To help you create a relationship that encourages your children to be open to your advice, create a Stress Safety Net (SSN) for your kids so they can feel safe, secure and loved. In recent weeks, I’ve covered two of the six components of the SSN:

  1. Parents as role models;
  2. Unconditional love;

Today we’ll consider teaching your children your positive values.

A positive value is a belief that produces corresponding behaviors that serve both the practitioner and those on the receiving end of their value-guided behavior. So honesty is good for the honest person and for those around her.

Values define you. They serve as a road map in deciding how to handle situations and to live authentically. For example, you’ve taught your daughter to respect others, which includes not harassing anyone. When her friends bully another child your daughter doesn’t participate and may even tell her friends to stop. Conversely, going against a held value would create stress for your daughter.

If your kids don’t learn their values from you, from whom will they?

To teach your positive values, identify a stressful situation in which your child is involved. Which values would be help him handle the situation? If he’s deciding upon which college to attend would encouraging values like curiosity and open-mindedness be potentially helpful?

Next, teach your values through these five steps:

  1. Role model the value yourself. The biggest teacher of your values is how you live your life. If you value privacy and get upset when your child walks into your room unannounced, how can he learn this value if you walk into his room unannounced?
  2. State your value frequently. When appropriate explain your value, whether during a conversation or a TV show. My father often said in response to certain situations, “There’s nothing worse than a liar.” To this day honesty is one of my strongest values.
  3. Praise your child when she abides by a value, especially in a tough situation like a friend pressuring her to cheat and she says “no.” Praise her courage (another value) for doing something unpopular.
  4. Discuss positive and negative consequences of living and not living by certain values. Positive consequences of being curious might include learning more, making life more interesting and fun, having friends who are also curious. On the down side, too much curiosity might find you poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Identifying both positive and negative consequences of a value helps define which limits might be wise to impose.
  5. Be honest about your lapses living up to your own values. Like the father who admitted to his kids that he isn’t always completely honest with his own mother when she asks him if he’s busy. Minimize your kids’ cynicism by admitting and explaining your lapses.

Values serve as anchors in this stormy world. Give your children positive ones to navigate successfully.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.

Assure kids of your love and support

To build your children’s Stress Safety Net (SSN) the second [see the first here] and most important component is your unconditional love: to love them without condition. It’s the thread that holds everything together.

Unconditional love doesn’t require you to always approve of their behavior; you love them in spite of it. You’re there for them, yet won’t necessarily rescue them from foolish behavior. You can apply consequences to their misbehavior, even punish them, and still love them.

Todd stood by his teenage son who repeatedly got into trouble with the law. Each time he received a call from the police, he’d go through the process without rescuing him and assuring him of his love while his son faced the consequences. Eventually, his son got involved in sports and slowly straightened himself out. He even thanked Todd for making him take responsibility for his own behavior while still supporting him.

Unconditional love requires connecting with your kids regularly, lovingly, playfully, and much more often than not, positively. This allows you to survive the normal, uncomfortable connections.

Keep in mind, if your kids don’t connect with you positively, they’ll connect with you negatively; chronic fighting and clinging are examples.

A young single mother of two small children felt drained most of the time working a full-time job and managing the home front all alone. When home she raced around trying to get everything done. Her kids clung to her making it even more difficult. Someone advised her to spend an uninterrupted weekend hour with both of her kids doing fun things together. Much to her amazement, after a couple of weeks, her kids quit clinging to her the rest of the week. They’d been starved for her full attention. Once they received it they felt more secure and loved.

With all kids these moments are to create a trusting relationship. With older kids they’re also to know what’s going on in their lives. Peer pressure can get them into situations they’re unable to handle well. You must keep your eyes open to what your kids, their friends, and other kids in their age group are doing.

Whatever your child’s age, these connections don’t have to be time consuming; most take just minutes. Like reading your child a story after school, watching TV together, sitting together while you both do your “homework,” or daily exchanging hugs and kisses in the car.

All kids, regardless of their ages and resistance, need these special moments. Nurture them.

Unconditional love also requires being nonjudgmental. Judgments feel like you’re putting a condition on your love. As parents you want to help your children do well admonishing, “Don’t be a slob chewing with your mouth open.” “You’re too lazy about school work.”

Instead of labeling your child lazy or a slob, describe the behavior you want to change. “Chew with your mouth closed, please,” or “Set aside two hours to do homework when you get home.” Your kids respond better when you deliver it this way.

Next week we’ll cover teaching your children your positive values.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.

Parents role models for children’s behavior

Kids learn more from you, especially at earlier ages, than from any other source

Teaching kids how to manage their stress is a gift that will pay them dividends for the rest of their lives.

First build them a Stress Safety Net (SSN) so they can feel safe, secure and loved. This creates a springboard from which they can launch into their challenges and opportunities. The first component of this SSN is “Parents as Role Models,” (adapted from my audio program, “Teaching Kids how to Manage Stress.”)

Parents are their children’s number one role models. Kids learn more from you, especially at earlier ages, than from any other source. What has your own stress management style taught your children, who learn from both your effective and ineffective strategies? How you communicate, manage your emotions and handle conflicts teach your children something.

To become conscious of what you’re teaching your kids, ask yourself, “Is how I’m handling this stressful situation how I want to teach my kids to handle similar situations?” If not, you need to learn to better handle it yourself. You cannot teach what you don’t understand, so learn and practice stress reduction skills for yourself. Your children will learn from your example.

An essential tool to improve what you model is to understand that the role you play with your children largely dictates their role in reaction to you. A change in your role almost always brings about a change in your child’s behavior. For example, if you constantly remind your kids to do their homework – the reminder role – they’ll react by taking on the role of forgetful or dutiful child perhaps. If you’re not happy with the forgetful role you may nag that child to remind her to do her homework. But your reminder role keeps her in her forgetful role!

The point? To get a different outcome with her change the role you’re playing: stop reminding. Identify and announce a different role that would encourage her to take more responsibility like the supportive role. Only step in to help her with homework when she asks. This new role requires you to stop reminding her. If she chooses to forget she’ll pay the consequences. She’ll probably blame you for her own forgetfulness but don’t get hooked by that. One day she’ll figure out that you truly have stopped reminding leaving her to remind herself.

In situations that your kids aren’t handling well figure out if the role you’re playing makes you part of the solution or part of the problem. If part of the problem, which other role could you play to encourage your kids to handle the situation more responsibly? If your child has been accused of stealing again and you normally play the protector role shielding them from consequences by denying their culpability, could you take on the investigator role instead and look for the facts before deciding how to handle it?

Understanding that the roles you play actually set the stage for your kids’ behavior opens up entirely new options in changing yourself in hopes of encouraging more responsible behavior from them.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.

Create a stress safety net for your kids

You can’t prevent your kids from experiencing stress (although many “helicopter parents” try their best) but there is much you can do to help them learn to handle it.

All kids need to feel safe, secure and loved. A 35-year study that followed 87 Harvard College men into middle age found the healthiest at age 55 were those who said their parents were the most caring. The young men who said their parents were less loving, and especially those who saw their parents as unjust, were most likely to have illnesses like heart disease and hypertension by age 55.

Parents are the main anchors in children’s lives. When kids feel cared for and loved, their moment-to-to-moment stress is reduced lowering their stress hormones thereby improving immune function, setting the stage for a healthier adulthood.

So, talk to your children. Find out if they feel loved. This isn’t about buying them stuff. It’s about accepting their perceptions of their relationship with you as the truth and acting in a way that your children may experience you as fair and loving.

Just as a trapeze artist can practice new moves with more confidence and less fear knowing there is a safety net below to catch her if she falls, so, too, can children take new risks, try new stress management behaviors, when they know they have a safety net to fall back on when something goes wrong.

Build a stress safety net for the kids in your life. There are six components (adapted from my audio program “Teaching Kids how to Manage Stress):

1. Parents as role models;

2. Unconditional love;

3. Values;

4. Hope and optimism;

5. Problem-solving;

6. Personal responsibility;

If you have a mostly loving relationship with your children you can begin immediately to teach them stress management skills.

However, if you have a distant and distrustful relationship, you’ll need to concentrate on establishing a loving and trusting one first, before they will be open to you teaching them the skills that will follow in future articles. Concentrate on creating the safety net for the next months. When more trust evolves, then you can teach them how to think and how to problem solve.

We don’t normally think about teaching someone how to think. Yet your stressors begin and end with your thoughts about them. Your thoughts represent your beliefs, the underlying source of much stress. Your thoughts trigger your emotional reactions, which dictate your behavioral reactions. For example, your 15-year-old is nervous about a Spanish test. He knows he’ll do terribly (his belief). He tells himself, “I’m so stupid. I’m going to flunk this test.” (Belief/perception communicated through his thoughts.) He feels great anxiety and fear (stress emotions) and feels sick to his stomach (the fight/flight hormones wreaking havoc on his body.)

As a parent how should you handle this? Tell him how smart he is? Confirm that he does poorly in Spanish? Over the following weeks we’ll explore how you can help him handle this and many other challenges.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach.

Children can overcome abuse, deal with trauma

Victims of sexual assault struggle

In recent articles (http://stressforsuccess.blogspot.com) I’ve covered how vulnerable children are lured into sex-trafficking due to their desperation. S/he’s:
· Likely running away from an abusive home, therefore homeless;
· Alone and frightened;
· Just a kid.
A seemingly protective man, and sometimes a woman, offers to protect them. What would you do?

Beyond predatory traffickers/pimps who are preying on vulnerable kids, there’s a sad reality that makes them more vulnerable to this nightmare: early and repetitive childhood sexual trauma.

Sexual abuse harms victims’ mental, emotional, spiritual and physical development. The following description is adapted from “Childhood and Adult Sexual Victimization” by Parson, Brett and Brett.

A victim of repetitive childhood sexual abuse undergoes damage to her still-developing personality. The abuse shatters her very spirit, which is much more difficult to heal than mental and physical damage.

“Mind, body, and spirit” implies that spirit is part of the total self. Rather, spirit permeates all. It represents her essence. It holds the fabric of the self together. Spirit:
· Provides her with a healthy self-centeredness: a sense of her unique self;
· Is the natural belief that her self is her priceless, personal possession, worthy of protection and respect;

Sexual assaults devastate his spirit and self-respect. His natural social tendencies are haunted by constant vulnerability, resulting in blameless availability for adult abuse. The child goes from being spirit-filled and alive to essence-defused and empty. The degraded self may be drained of most traces of feeling human.

Contributing immeasurably to the child’s helplessness is the blaming the child for the incest while the adult denies responsibility. The abuse is committed on someone who is least able to protect himself from immoral adult power.

After repetitive abuse the child’s changed view of self is the essence of his stress. He’s robbed of his free will, spontaneity, and autonomy. His patterns of perceiving, trusting, and acting are drastically altered based on many secrets too terrible to face. He’s forced into secrecy with threats of exposure, abandonment, fear of repeated sexual injuries, and further humiliation. He’s constantly wary around adults.

He’s forced to grow up fast, learning how to survive. To survive he navigates his dangerous terrain through hyper-vigilance to adult mood and behavioral cues of impending abuse. He maneuvers around them. He de-activates the mines before they explode through good behavior and an appeasing manner to avert adult depravity. Running away becomes a viable option.

His spirit dims; her laughter is extinguished. Their environment is a place where no joy, hope, and love are allowed to flourish. There’s only emotional and spiritual darkness, helplessness, and buried rage to be resurrected at a later time, and unleashed suddenly on unsuspecting targets, including the self.

They live in a persistent state of stress-induced burnout due to near-constant paranoid expectations of attacks. Being chronically revved-up is akin to living in an internal police state.

What’s profoundly remarkable is that these children find a way to survive. Their strength and ingenuity are integral parts of trauma therapy, which can help. To find trauma therapists in our area go to http://www.mhaswfl.org/.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, at https://wholeperson.com/x-selfhelp/selfhelp.html#Anchor-Let-11481.