5 Ways To Build Your Child’s Resilience In An Anxious World

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash

This article originally appeared in the Parents section of cbc.ca on January 26, 2018.

It’s hard being a kid these days. The traditional pressure of academics, extracurricular activities and family dynamics are amplified with being connected 24/7. We are living in an anxious world and stress among children is estimated to have increased 45% over the past 30 years. The good news is that building emotional health and resiliency can help children concentrate, learn, interact more successfully and deal with other stressors they may face in their lives. Here are five strategies to help build your child’s resiliency based on The Psychology Foundation of Canada’s proven Kids Have Stress Too! program.

1. Learn about stress. Stress is a physical response to what is happening to us and what we are thinking about it, or it can be a response to just what we are thinking, period, with little connection to the real world. We now know what is happening chemically in the body when a person gets stressed. Your body and brain go into crisis mode — you start producing cortisol which activates your blood and oxygen supply. You might even start producing adrenaline which can give you an energy rush. But for the most part, the stress response doesn’t feel very good, especially for children who don’t have the experience to make sense of their feelings. When you understand and can recognize the stress response in your child, it will help you to understand what’s behind their behaviour and allow you to be less reactive and more thoughtful in how you respond. This will help you and  your child find more peaceful and constructive solutions to life’s problems.

2. Help them to identify their stress. Stress is part of everyday life and we all experience and react to it in different ways. Everyone is affected by stress, even children. We need to help our child become aware of when they are feeling stressed by helping them to identify and look at changes in themselves physically (tense muscles, headaches, stomach aches), mentally (poor concentration, forgetfulness, being irrational), emotionally (fear, anxiety, frustration) and behaviourally (whining, crying, fighting with others).

3. Encourage them to recognize, acknowledge and express their feelings appropriately. Young children don’t have the vocabulary to make sense of their feelings and need help learning how to handle their emotions in a healthy, productive way. Urge your child to express in their own words what is bothering them.

4. Identify stress-management strategies. There are a variety of approaches and strategies to help children deal with stress and not all children will respond to the same strategies. Here are a few to consider:

  • Prevention: Help your child pay attention to the basics — eating well, sleeping enough and sleeping well, getting enough exercise, socializing and enjoying life.
  • Symptom reduction: Identify ways to help your child calm down. Things like deep breathing, stretching and physical exercise may all be helpful.
  • Problem solving: Help your child generate alternative ways of imagining or responding to different situations.For example, if your child is being left out of a social gathering and is feeling abandoned by friends, you can come up with ways to divert their attention to fun activities they can do on their own or to other children who might be more open.
  • Adaptation responses: Help your child minimize the impact of stressors that cannot be eliminated, for example, things like visits to the dentist or doctor, illness or death of a loved one. You might encourage your child to bring their favourite music to listen to while at the dentist’s office, or a young child might be accompanied by a friend or stuffed animal. Children often handle difficult situations better when they are allowed to help — tasks like passing food around to the crowd at a funeral gathering — or when they are encouraged to express their feelings in a picture or letter.

5. Create a less stressful environment for your child. Children of all ages will benefit from a calmer, less stressful environment. Critically examine your child’s daily schedule and routines and take action to reduce the “trouble spots”.

Implementing these five strategies will help your child to identify and manage their stress but remember: not all stress is bad. Some stress is essential in motivating and invigorating us to perform at our best and to meet challenges. When taking an exam, playing in a sports competition or performing on stage, for instance, we want all our systems in gear and working for us. In fact, a life without stress would be very, very boring.