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Helping Children Cope with Stress ©

Dear Friends at Militarywives.com,
Remember when our biggest moral dilemma came at the end of Dr. Seuss's '50's classic, "The Cat in the Hat"? (Should we tell mom?) Well...times have changed. And anyone raising children anywhere today, especially in the military community, knows that Parenting--the process of providing safe passage for another human being from conception through adulthood in a 21st Century world, is not for the faint of heart. But you know what? Being a CHILD can be very stressful these days too...

SECURE YOUR OWN OXYGEN MASK BEFORE ATTEMPTING TO HELP OTHERS..
Children don't miss much. And the day-to-day stress experienced in their own worlds, as well as in the adults around them, takes a toll. The lazy pace, innocence and "free" time enjoyed by previous generations are all too rare, at least as we knew them. Our children's world is a wondrous...though sometimes frightening place. And the need for caring adults to listen,interpret and explain in appropriate and comforting ways, is one of the greatest challenges to any military parent. Family arguments, financial pressure, hectic pace, adult depression or substance abuse, world events,even entertainment...are all processed through the filter of a child's perspective. The nightly news reminds us all too frequently of the fragility of the human spirit, but also of its extraordinary resilience, potential to process... and to heal. And the possibilities before us for technology in daily living, enhanced human potential, medical research and space exploration promise knowledge and opportunities beyond even our bravest dreams. So on the road to creating healthy ways to cope with your own stress in an ever-changing world...don't forget to fasten your kids' seatbelts too.

BACK TO (...OR INTO A NEW) SCHOOL
Among military families, one thing is for certain: "Change" is part of family life. Adaptability, a sense of adventure and the comfort of family and friends are what get us all through times of unexpected...or undesired change. Relocation, moving, deployments, new homes, schools, friends...sometimes languages and cultures...are, of course, opportunities for growth and broadening horizons, but challenge everything in us that sometimes just longs for "Home". The advent of the www, email and various means of communication make the distances much shorter than before, but change can be unsettling for everyone, at any age. Young children 's expressive language regarding their observations and sensory experiences may be limited to dreams, drawings, tears and tantrums or in some cases, bedwetting. We need to be watching and listening, and opening doors to conversation, and touching base with teachers for ways to ease transitions. Ask your child' s teacher, or a children' s librarian for "ice-breaker" books. (e.g. For young children missing someone who must travel far away? "The Great Big Elephant & The Very Small Elephant" by Barbara Seuling is really wonderful. Or a little one who feels too small to help with family projects? Alan Arkin (Yup. THAT Alan Arkin.) wrote the empowering fantasy, "Tony's Hard Work Day" for his own youngest son who was feeling a little too "little". Relocating? Moving and change in general are usually not among people's favorite things to do. There are many great children's books and writers, but again-- Judith Viorst hit a bulls-eye with, "Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move!"

8 WAYS TO REDUCE STRESS IN YOUNG CHILDREN
  1. Make daily quiet time alone with each child. (hint:You will likely not "find" it...so you will probably need to "make" this time.) Sacred--No Interruptions. Offer time to talk about how things are going, to ask, tell, discuss. Set the stage for later years, when it may be very difficult to pry that door open from either side. A few quiet minutes for airing little worries can prevent them from growing into big ones.
  2. Whenever your child wants to talk about "stuff", be ready to really listen...between the words and without judgement. If it's not a good time, schedule a "date" for an hour or two later. Be prepared for anything ...and not necessarily being able to fix it. Sometimes just expressing our worries has a way of dissipating them.
  3. Share some of your own 'stress successes' to demonstrate that everyone experiences.. and copes with.. stress. e.g."Today I was so frustrated in a long line at the bank, so you know what I did? I opened my wallet and looked at your picture from the picnic last summer and it cheered me right up! Then I remembered how much fun that picnic was and how hard we all laughed! Would you like to go on a picnic this weekend?" Or,"Last night I had a little trouble sleeping myself, so I turned on the light and read for a few minutes until I got drowsy and fell right back to sleep."
  4. Encourage drawing, story-telling, creative play and physical activities that are healthy, readily available ways to discharge anxiety.
  5. Make it your business to monitor and restrict your children 's TV, movie, music and Internet exposure. Their psychological safety is as much our responsibility as ,say, fire-prevention.
  6. Always remember how naturally intuitive children are. Even when you think they don't understand the stress in the household, your own life, etc., they are likely sensing on levels they may not be able to discuss. I think there really is no such thing as hiding a serious problem from children ...only TRYing to hide one. It is not necessary, nor fair, nor wise to share some adult problems with kids, but just be aware that they probably sense when things are not right, and be on the lookout for their need for reassurance or to ask questions.
  7. Having spent many years working with children and their families, my own personal thought on "having a bad day" is that very,very few entire days, from-start-to-finish, are completely and irreparably BAD. Remind kids that they may be having a really bad HOUR...or a really tough MORNING...but somewhere in this day some nice things will happen too. Then count them.. Perspective is an invaluable asset, and a wonderful gift to your children.
  8. Remember: Much of how we cope with stress was learned watching our parents. (e.g.shouting, drinking, smoking, slamming doors, isolation, violence.) Try taking a walk, talking things over, meditation, getting hugged, a good, cleansing cry, focusing on the positive. We teach by example, intentionally or not.

ANSWERING "THE HARD QUESTIONS"
Sometimes children catch us off-guard with serious inquiries about current events, cancer, drugs, death, etc. Many feel a good rule of thumb is to answer the question asked, truthfully but at it's simplest level. Then ask, "Did that answer your question?" "Do you have another?" (They'll let you know!) Too much information can be as unsettling as too little.

A WORD ABOUT "THE WONDER YEARS"
Teenagers wake up every day in a different body, and the developmental stress inherent in adolescence impacts many areas:
  • Self-esteem
  • Peer pressure
  • Hormonal swings and awakening sexuality
  • Acne, perspiration, body-consciousness, etc.
  • Academic pressure
  • Social pressure to conform . . .or Not!
  • Temptation to experiment or test limits
  • Over/under-eating
  • Worry about personal safety at school (a sad, contemporary concern)
  • Family conflicts regarding school, authority and autonomy issues
Every single tip suggested above for younger children applies for teens as well. I actually have a friend who renegotiated her professional hours when her kids entered middle school so that she could be available after 3 to carpool, help with homework, sports, etc. She said,"In some ways they need my supervision and guidance even more now than when they were little." Interesting thought...

PLEASE...Please...please... Take time to slow your children's world down and make it a lighter, gentler, safer place. Give them language to communicate their fears and questions and secret wishes. You do not have to solve every problem, nor do this important job alone. Many skilled professionals, seminars, articles and books can offer manageable strategies for preventing, assessing and relieving stress in children. But there is NOTHING that will take the place of your child's trust that you will be there and are willing to help. It is never too early (or too late!) to make that safety known. Talking with people whose parenting you respect is a great way to share what works, and avoid "re-inventing the wheel" which is, after all...pretty stressful!

Peace of mind, a positive outlook, sense of adventure, exercise, meditation, conscious food choices and honest, supportive relationships all increase the "feel-good" factor, and in many cases enhance immunity, facilitate healing and promote physical and emotional health.
I wish you all those things, and above all ...
Peace, Susie