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The following article was first published  by Emerald Coast Family Magazine,
Kidz on the Coast

by Joy Damen Makela

Uugghhh! There’s just not enough time in the day to finish what I need to finish! The grocery shopping needs to get done, the kids are pulling at me, and the laundry, bills,…does it ever end?! I’m STRESSED!!! Does this sound like a conversation you often have with yourself, your family, and/or your friends? I know I do. What exactly is stress and if we adults are feeling it and living with it, what do our children feel and live with?

Stress is the body’s natural reaction to a physical or emotional situation (or a combination of both) that causes the body to want to defend itself. All people have this natural response and this instinct works well in emergencies such as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car. In an emergency situation like this, our bodies kick in to “high gear” by increasing our heart rate and breathing. Unfortunately, people in non-emergency, stressful situations feel like this much of the time when just sitting still. When this happens, individuals (adults and children) have all this “bottled up” reactionary energy, nothing to do with it, and when it wears off, exhaustion sets in. So, do we just react this way when faced with an emergency or bad situation? Regrettably, the answer is no. Even positive events such as family gatherings, birthday parties, school functions, and vacations cause stress. I know, you’re saying to your self, VACATIONS? Yes, even our attempt to escape our day-to-day stress can cause stress on us as well as our children. These events put us in new, unfamiliar, and unpredictable situations with unclear expectations…all the ingredients for increasing STRESS.

Obviously, trying to avoid all stressors in life is unlikely; a certain amount of family stress brought on by life in general is inevitable. Families can develop appropriate and effective coping skills to manage “life” and some families do this very well. But what does a family look like and act like when they are under too much stress and are not managing well? Here is a list to help you recognize the symptoms:
► Sense of urgency
► Rushing from activity to activity and place to place
► Rushed meals
► No time to relax
► Explosive arguments (between parents, children,
     or both)
► Bickering
► Time and task communication instead of people and
     feeling conversations
► Using work as an escape from family
► Feeling guilty about the current family situation

Less stressed families make time to relax and enjoy one another. They communicate effectively and show their children how to set priorities, have reasonable expectations about their tasks, and turn to one another for and with support “when the going gets tough” instead of turning against one another.

I know, you’re saying to yourself “What does she mean stress in children? What in the world could they possibly have to worry about? They play and hang out with their friends. They have no jobs to fret over and no bills to pay.” Right? Well, not quite. Children have plenty of stressors like school performance, family discord, sibling spats, sports practices, homework, personal sickness, family illnesses, parental separation, parental work schedules, and the list goes on and on. Dr. Bonnie Benshoof, a psychologist at Bay Area Psychological Consultants, reminds us that it’s not always easy to recognize when your child is stressed out. She gives us  some physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms to look for in kids.
► Headaches
► Stomachaches or upset stomach
► Sleep problems and/or nightmares
► Bedwetting (new or persistent)
► Changes in eating habits with weight gain or loss
► physical symptoms with no physical  illnesses 
Emotional and Behavioral:
 ► Anxiety, worry, and inability to relax
 ► Fears (new or recurring such as fear of       
      being alone or fear of the dark)
 ► Increased attachment and clinginess to the
 ► Irritability, crying, whiny, and unable to
      control emotions
 ► Acting out, angry, aggressive and/or
      impulsive acts
 ► Regression to behaviors normally seen in
      younger children (in toileting or speech)
 ► Attention seeking behaviors
 ► Changes in academic performance
 ► Difficulty concentrating







Obviously, if the child is experiencing a stressful situation or undergoing a tough change he or she will likely show many of these signs of stress, but children with everyday stressors can display these symptoms when life is getting the best of them. That’s when we adults have to step in and help our children cope and handle their stress in healthy ways.

First and foremost, you need to examine your own stress level. If you are not caring for yourself, chances are you will be in no condition to care for others. Proper rest and good nutrition helps both adults and children handle day-to-day stress as well as major stressors when they creep (or even leap) at us. In addition to providing grown-ups with the energy, strength, and stamina needed to take on life, these activities afford adults an opportunity to model and reinforce good behaviors like participating in a daily exercise program and eating healthy meals and snacks. This shows kids that adults practice what they preach in not asking them to “do as I say not as I do”. Dr. Benshoof gives us more ways adults can help reduce children’s stress:

► Provide a safe, consistent, familiar home,
     routine, and rituals
► Be realistic about time frames and what
     needs to be completed
► Do away with the “superkid” and   
     “superparent” roles and the high
     expectations that come with them
► Spend calm, relaxing, quiet time
     with your child
► Use encouragement and affection to
     build up your child’s self-worth
► Listen to and reassure your child when he or
     she reports stressful events or feelings
► Rehearse stressful situations, if possible
     eliminating the unfamiliar, unpredictable,
     and unclear
► Teach and model good problem-solving
     skills by breaking big problems into smaller  
     solvable steps
► Practice relaxation techniques such as deep
     breathing, stretching, and meditation

Parents and caregivers should take on the role of “emotion coach” for children in helping them identify and develop their emotional competence. One way to help develop this emotional know-how is to label the feelings the child is expressing. Most children do not possess the language skills necessary to say, “Mom, we were in such a hurry this morning and I was arguing with my sister that I forgot my homework, then I got called on to answer a question in class that I didn’t know and my heart started beating faster and I couldn’t think and now I’m scared I’m going to get a bad grade in Social Studies and now I have to go to soccer practice and try to remember what we practiced last week and I’M STRESSED-OUT!” In our capacity as emotion coaches, we have to pick up on the signals the child is sending, ask the right questions, put the pieces together and say, “Wow, it sounds like you’re overwhelmed and worried about school”. This gives the child a name for what they are feeling so next time they feel this way they can hopefully tell us. Younger children may need a little more help in identifying and labeling their feelings. Adults can help by giving them “feeling faces” pictures they can relate to (www.feelingfacescards.com).

Remember that some stress in life is normal and unavoidable, don’t stress over the stress! You should let your child know it is OK to feel scared, lonely, angry, or worried and together you will handle it. Most adults have the necessary skills to deal with their family and child’s stress, but if your stress and/or your child’s stress is causing serious anxiety and significant functioning problems, you should seek professional attention.

About the author…
Joy Damen Makela is a Northwest Florida native who lives locally with her husband and three children. She is a psychology instructor at the University of West Florida and a registered mental health counselor intern.


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