Whether one runs three miles or drinks three beers, everyone has a different way of coping with stress. Children are no different. They develop ways to manage their stress and routinely look for appropriate strategies from their parents and peers.
Stress is the body’s physical, emotional, and chemical response to the changes around it. Children, let alone adults, can’t possibly manage this without first recognizing its source and function. Stress can be positive or negative and can land kids on either side of the fence depending on how they respond to their own bodies' natural triggers. First, children must realize what stress does to the body.
A stressor is a trigger that puts the body in stress mode. This can be school related as often as trauma related. The brain is stimulated by the stressor much like a drug, and it instantly sends messages to the rest of the body telling it to prepare for a response. The adrenal gland pumps out adrenaline to the body, which opens the blood vessels and makes the heart beat faster allowing more flow to the brain and muscles. The digestive system then slows down all its functions to conserve energy until the stressor is dealt with. Next, to keep up with the increased blood supply, the body naturally requires more oxygen, so heavier breathing is necessary. At this point, the body is poised and prepared to handle anything from giving a speech, to pushing a wrecked car off a loved one.
Stress is natural in children and adults and is needed in athletics, social engagement, and even academics. Unfortunately, negative stress, or distress, is often the downfall of young society. Distress is often mistaken for positive stress and is not dealt with properly. For example, positive stress is associated with focus, alertness, and a challenge. It is a rewarding feeling that will hopefully end in positive results. Negative stress is associated with anger, frustration, and confusion. Children need to know how to tell the difference so they can respond appropriately.
With all the changes occurring in the body during stress, it is common sense to acknowledge the fact that too much stress of any kind can be harmful. Children and teens need to learn and practice strategies so they can move on to bigger and better things. They look to parents and peers for this support, but often to no avail. So, here are a few things that everyone, not just children, can do to cope with negative stress:
- Exercise – Use that extra energy the body produces and redirect it into something positive. The body’s natural reaction to exercise relaxation!
- Talk – Although it sounds cliché, discussing stressors with others can be extremely beneficial.
- Relax –Reminisce on the good times, and become surrounded by positive people.
- Set priorities straight – Try to see the big picture, and contemplate short and long term goals.
Now these simple strategies are great and all, but try discussing them with a stressed out 8th grader. The best thing to do is lead by example because that is exactly what children are seeking. Regrettably, students are taking up stimulating activities to get their mind off the negative stress of life. Video games designed to literally stress the mind paired with caffeinated beverages are the exact opposite of what the body needs. Yet, parents allow it because, from their angle, it seems to help.
Live by example, parents. Spend time with these kids and discuss the real priorities in life. Set goals with them and model good strategies when dealing with stressful situations. They need it now more than ever.