Help Your Child Reduce Stress

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March 3, 2014


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This post is available in: Spanish

Who is more stressed out – your child or the CEO of a large company?  That’s a tough call. Due to a variety of factors, our kids are dealing with a lot of daily stress, according to Gary Lancelotta, Ph.D., a child psychologist from Baptist Children’s Hospital.

Stress triggers include excess homework, extracurricular activities, standardized tests and a lack of sleep.  “Too often kids are under-rested, but over scheduled,” says Danette Torres, M.D., a pediatrician affiliated with Homestead Hospital.

And don’t forget the hidden toll of modern electronics. Gadgets and high-tech toys were designed to make life easier for all of us, but too often electrons add to the load kids carry in their physical and emotional backpacks.

“Kids are so overloaded with the stress of managing electronics,” Dr. Lancelotta says.  “We expect them to manage and make difficult choices about social media, texting and Instagram.”

Here are a few facts for parents:

How large is the problem?

In the U.S. every year, 13 percent to 20 percent of kids deal with a mental health disorder, including anxiety, depression and stress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), which has issued a new report on children and mental health.  Poor mental health in childhood can lead to long-term problems, including addiction to food, alcohol or other drugs, which are used as coping tools, Dr. Torres says.

“Without early diagnosis and treatment, children with mental disorders can have problems at home, in school, and in forming friendships. This can also interfere with their healthy development, and these problems can continue into adulthood,” the CDC reports.

What role do parents play?

Parents are juggling several roles, including careers, household management and child-rearing. “It’s a triple dose of pressure,” Dr. Lancelotta says. “Parents are stressed out and running on empty. Dealing with the kids becomes almost like vacuuming—a chore that you fit in when you have time.” Unfortunately, like a vacuum cleaner picking up dust, kids pick up on the stress that collects in the home.

Are kids over-scheduled?

For many kids, the school bell is not the end of the day, but the beginning of a second shift of activities, including sports, dance or music lessons and other after-school commitments, Dr. Torres says.  And if you add in homework, household chores and meals, there is not much time left for rest and relaxation, she says.

Dr. Lancelotta recently treated a 5-year-old boy who broke down crying after describing a non-stop roster of after-school activities with a different sport or agenda each day. Too much “fun” can create too much stress for kids, he says.

What are the warning signs of too much stress?

He advises parents to watch out for these signs of stress:

  • Tears.
  • Irritability, including whining and complaining.
  • Constant headaches, stomachaches and other ailments.
  • School avoidance.
  • Anger and angst.
  • Sleep problems (nightmares, excessive daytime fatigue, or fitful sleep at night)

What can parents do?

A scattered household can increase stress, Dr. Torres says. Honestly evaluate the atmosphere in your home. Does your family need a better structure for handling chores, homework and family meals?   How effective are your morning and bedtime routines? Are there too many after-school activities and too little downtime?

If your child seems overwhelmed by school and other challenges, a professional therapist or a child psychologist can offer relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy and other coping tools.

Get moving. Exercise is a great stress management tool, according to mental health experts. Kids should get at least one hour a day of physical activity each day, according to the CDC.

“Don’t discount the stress that kids encounter on a daily basis,” advises Dr. Torres.  “Instead, pay attention to the signs and find ways to reduce that stress to prevent problems further down.”

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