Guiding your children through stress
Posted on 17 November 2015
As exams approach and school pressures mount, children stress and parents worry. We chat to CP de Jager, an educational and counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Emfuleni in Vanderbijlpark about how to manage your children’s stress and when it’s time to get professional assistance.
While stress is a natural part of life, both for parents and their children, it can become dangerous if not properly managed. ‘Stress can affect anyone who feels overwhelmed, even young children,’ says CP de Jager. ‘In nursery school, separation from parents can cause anxiety. As children get older, academic and social pressures – especially from trying to fit in – can create stress. Many kids are also too busy to play creatively or relax after school.’
Managing and preventing stress in children
Make sure your children aren’t overloaded with school and extramural activities, especially considering rising pressures such as excessive homework or upcoming exams. ‘Kids who complain about all their activities or refuse to go to them may be overscheduled,’ says CP. ‘Talk to your kids about how they feel about extracurricular activities – if they complain, discuss the pros and cons of stopping one activity. Otherwise explore ways to help manage your child’s time and responsibilities. Participating in well-organised activities is generally good for children though, and less active children could experience more stress and rejection in school.’ The ideal is creating a manageable balance.
It’s also important to consider your possible role in creating stress for your children. ‘Parents should watch how they argue with each other, discuss work troubles and express worry over things like finances when their kids are near. Children pick up on their parents’ anxieties and start to worry,’ CP cautions.
Exam time is always stressful. Kids need to know the value of being well prepared to prevent excessive stress. ‘Preparation doesn’t start two weeks before exams – preparation is right through the year,’ says CP. ‘I always tell learners that good year marks are like money in the bank! One of the best indications of stress is when marks are dropping.’
Not all stress is bad though, he argues. ‘Moderate amounts of pressure, exerted by teachers for example, can motivate children to keep up their marks and participate more extensively in class.’
When to consult a professional
Elevated stress levels among adults are common, yet adults are (theoretically) supposed to have more coping skills than children for managing stress. If your child is stressed, the following signs may indicate that they need to see a professional. ‘Sudden stressful events will accelerate your child’s breathing and heartbeat and can even increase blood pressure and muscle tension, causing stomach upsets or headaches,’ says CP. ‘As stress persists, your child may be more susceptible to illness and experience fatigue, nightmares, insomnia, tantrums, school failure or depression.’
While people experience depression in different ways, CP points out the following common symptoms:
• sadness that won’t go away
• ongoing boredom
• irritability or anxiety
• loss of interest in usual hobbies or activities
• loss of appetite
• irregular sleeping habits
• unexplained outbursts of yelling or crying
• reckless or risky behaviour such as alcohol abuse
• a drop in marks, truancy or bunking, dropping out of school
‘While everyone feels stressed sometimes, for people experiencing depression such feelings may be more severe or constant – they don’t go away over time and they’re not easily explainable,’ says CP. ‘If parents recognise any of these ongoing symptoms in their children, they should get professional help immediately.’