What To Do When Your Child Is Stressed
It’s a bit ironic that I am writing a blog post on stress management. I am the Mom who is running to Target at 9:55 p.m. because the printer is out of ink and the-most-important-history-project-ever is due tomorrow. I swore the last time this happened (and the time before that, and the time before that) that I was going to keep a stock of at least five cartridges in the office desk drawer so that this would NEVER happen again. I am also the Mom who has been known to forget to send a check on school picture day (this may or may not have happened more than once). At the beginning of every school year (and we have had thirteen of them, not counting preschool), I have been determined to live out a Zen-like existence throughout the year. Our home was to be a peaceful land where permission slips are signed and returned early, teacher gifts are purchased and cutely-wrapped well in advance of birthday, teacher-appreciation-day, and last-day-of-school, and I never, ever, ever, drive my child to school in my pajamas. This goal wasn’t reached until high school, and that is only because permission slips are no longer required, the parent is no longer responsible for teacher gifts, and said child is driving herself to school.
We all face the pressures of making sure our kids have everything they need to succeed, as well as the internal pressure to not look like a complete failure as a parent. And then, on top of all the normal everyday stresses, has anyone noticed how fast time is going? November is halfway over, the holidays are around the corner, and our kids are preparing for final exams and winter fun. As pages turn quickly on the calendar, and academic and social pressures build for our kids, we as parents can easily be tempted to want to bury our heads in the sand. It can just start to feel like too much. But it is exactly at these moments that we need to realize that our kids are watching us for clues on how to handle the unavoidable stresses of life. We, as their parents, mentors, teachers, or people of influence, have an opportunity to encourage, support, and motivate them as they navigate adolescence and young adulthood. But in the midst of our own battle with the stress monster, how exactly do we do that??
1) Stay engaged with your child. There will be times, especially during the tween and teen years, when you will swear your child wants nothing to do with you. Almost everything they do or say will seem to carry the silent (or not so silent) message, “Leave me alone!” One of the most important lessons I have learned as a parent is that these times when my child appears to be pushing me away are actually the times when she might need me the most. It can be so easy to think, “Fine! You want to roll your eyes and slam your door at me? Forget it, then!” Resist that urge! Remember that this is the infant you rocked to sleep, the child you taught to tie shoes, and the eight-year-old you practiced multiplication tables with. It’s that same little boy or girl deep inside. Be available. Be present. Don’t badger. Don’t condemn. But pursue them gently. Let them know you want to understand their struggles. Remind them that you are on their side. They need to know that you are in their corner, even if they won’t admit how desperately they need it.
2) Don’t minimize. It’s natural to think “These kids don’t know anything about real stress. Wait until they have to earn a living, pay a mortgage, and punch a time clock. Then we can talk about stress.” Our default response when our kids are talking about how stressed they are can often be to do a little bit of “parental reality checking”, expounding on how much tougher life is as an adult and exhorting them to enjoy their youth while they can. Another version of this tendency is to talk about how much harder we had it when we were kids because (fill in the blank with any of the following): we had to go to the library to do research, we had to use a payphone or a phone that actually connected to a wall to make a phone call, we only had a few television channels to choose from, etc.) If we’re honest, we’ll admit we’d like to let our kids know how fortunate they are. But here’s the reality: our kids are facing very real stresses. Academic requirements are more rigorous, the pressures of social media are intense, and every little insecurity is magnified by peer pressure and the images of media perfection. Acknowledge the stresses your child is experiencing. Ask them about what they are stressed about. Ask them, “What do you need from me? How can I best support you?” Then really listen to their answers. You might be surprised at how open and honest they are if they know they have your full attention.
3) Stay connected with outside support. This parenting thing is difficult, and adolescence itself is no cakewalk either. Don’t go it alone, and don’t expect your child to. Make sure you both have support systems in place. Extended family and close friends are great places to start. If you are part of a faith tradition, reach out to those in your community. Seek out support and understanding from those who are in a similar life stage, and seek wisdom from those who are further along and have already weathered these storms. There is wisdom in numbers and it really does “take a village”. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from those you trust. And if you recognize signs that your child is experiencing stress or anxiety beyond what appears “normal”, do not be afraid or embarrassed to seek professional consultation and assistance. There are tremendous resources available and it is always better to be proactive rather than find yourself in the midst of a crisis. If you are not sure if what you are observing in your child is normal or not, ask someone who knows them well for their opinion. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to have your child evaluated by a professional.
In the whole scheme of things, our days of influence with our children are short. You will never regret any time or effort spent reaching out to your children. Their stresses are real, and they need your support. Seize any moment you can to connect, to empathize, and to encourage. If they don’t appreciate it now, they will someday. After all, have you ever heard an adult say, “I wish my Mom/Dad hadn’t tried so hard to understand me?”
Lauren O’Connor, M.S., MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a background in child development. Her main focus currently is navigating the world of college applications, financial aid, and all things higher education with her 17-year-old daughter.
|Tags: Academic stress, Parenting tips, School pressure, Stress management|