Childhood stress: Arming kids with tools to problem-solve for life

For most people, childhood is fondly looked upon as a time of no worries and carefree days. But behind the façade of youth, stress can be lurking. The good thing is, you can help your children deal with life’s ups and downs, and also teach them coping strategies they can use now and into their future.
“Social pressures, school, divorce, family conflict …there are many things that can cause stress in a child’s life,” says Dr. Lila Amirali, a psychiatrist at The Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre. “And as a parent, it hurts to see your kids unhappy. But the best thing for parents to do in times of stress is to resist the urge to fix every problem. Instead, they should focus on helping kids grow into good problem-solvers.”
According to Dr. Amirali, if you notice your child is unhappy you should start with trying to help your child name the feeling he or she is experiencing and letting him/her know that you are interested in hearing about their concern. Be sympathetic and show you care and want to understand. You can also ask your child directly what is wrong listen calmly with the same amount of interest. Let your child’s concerns and feelings be heard and let him/her take their time.
“Also comment on what they say. This shows that you care and understand how they feel,” says Dr. Amirali. “You can say something like, ‘That must have been hard’ or ‘I understand why you would feel that way.’ Trying to understand your child by listening lets them know that you support him/her, which is important in times of stress.”
Encouraging and teaching kids to describe their feelings with words--for example, if they are frustrated--will contribute to developing their emotional awareness. This also helps reduce physical behaviours associated with stress, such as hitting or yelling. In addition, having your child think of some ideas on their own to help deal with the problem at hand will assist with building confidence in dealing with problems.
At the end of the day kids are still kids so the goal should be for them to get past the problem and have fun. Once the stress is addressed, try changing the topic and moving on to something more positive and relaxing. Getting your kids to do something to make them feel better should be the next goal rather than dwelling on the problem.
“When you can, it is good to limit stress in your child’s life,” says Dr. Amirali. “For example, if they are getting behind in their school work, look at the number of extracurricular activities they are involved in. Perhaps they are involved in too many. And remember, sometimes kids don’t feel like talking. In these cases, let your kids know you are available and stay close. Perhaps suggest an activity for the two of you to enjoy together. He/she may just need more time to open up.”