Clinical Therapist * Mental Health Specialist * Media Expert

MEETING CHILDHOOD STRESS HEAD ON

This generation is growing up in a fast-changing cultural ecosystem unlike any other. In what has been dubbed the age of anxiety, childhood stress has fast become front-of-mind for parents and teachers alike.

The latest national survey shows over 70 per cent of teachers name student stress as one of their top concerns in the classroom. But when it comes to stress, it is time to change the conversation. Instead of viewing stress as a potentially crippling obstacle, support children in the face of it, to help them see the benefits of facing their stressful challenges, empowering them with resiliency tools for life.

When it comes to childhood stress, there’s an appetite to place blame; school pressures, over-scheduling, overuse of technology, changing diets, lack of exercise, the death of free play, the list goes on. The truth is our culture is constantly changing. We have the choice to recalibrate our lifestyles and empower ourselves, and our children, with tools for resiliency or suffer the impact.

The neurobiology of stress is clear. Chronic pressure leads to a cascade of stress chemicals that in the long term wreaks havoc on the body and developing brain system. Unrelenting stress leads to increased cortisol, triggering stem cells to malfunction and cells in key areas responsible for memory and learning to become smaller. Simply coping in the classroom becomes a challenge. The physical impact also means more children are complaining of headaches and sleep problems than ever before, with almost half of all youth naming that they can’t sleep at night because of stress.

But, is all stress bad? At programs like Vancouver-based CHI Kids, children are learning that stress need not be a looming threat and can even have its benefits.

“We’re teaching kids how to face the symptoms of stress by helping them understand its benefits,” says Jill Schmidt, a CHI Kids teacher. “When kids learn that those scary symptoms can actually help them handle a crisis, get a task done quickly, motivate them and even help them meet their highest potential they become empowered.”

According to Schmidt, parents can easily incorporate the tools she uses at CHI Kids (play-based cognitive behavioural therapy) into home life. By doing so, children learn new ways to think and behave. Children discover a new way to be. It’s based on the premise that our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are interrelated, that by changing one, we can transform the other. Children are learning how to monitor and modify energy and information, including thought, sensory and emotion regulation, creating new governing pathways in the brain.

But parent involvement is key. Chi Kids teachers recommend that parents have conversations with their children to demystify stress. Instead of turning away from their fears, identifying symptoms such as what we call racing heart and monkey mind help children learn how those stress signals can help them decipher emotions, giving them the tools they need for a healthy body and mind. They can learn to soothe their internal storm with techniques like mindfulness meditation, imagery, progressive relaxation and other methods that by design calm their nervous system.

Many parents ask, “Are kids more stressed because we’re more stressed?” After all, we are the original ‘Generation Stressed’, with the latest national studies showing parents of school age kids to be the most stressed among us. Hard wired with neurons designed to match one another, our children are our most powerful mirrors, matching our states of mind and body.

“Children apply the tools for change far more consistently when their parents join in too,” says Schmidt.

Our kids are calling on us to show up in a playful, non-anxious and connected state of being. So when parents and kids de-stress together by writing their worries on sticky notes, building worry walls, or getting a move on with a little yoga or exercise, everyone benefits.

What’s the single most important thing a parent can do when their child is facing stress?  Be available with support, validate that feelings are meant to be felt, that underneath all that internal noise exists an authentic strength, and that they are deeply valued — no matter what.

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