If you want to raise a child who is successful, part of the process requires the child to undergo tough periods which inevitably would involve a certain amount of stress. Stress can be healthy, it drives us to perform. But too much stress for too long is likely to do more harm than good, for both adults and children. Prolonged high stress can cause a mental breakdown. Major conflict at home, lacklustre academic performance, being bullied are some of the possible sources of stress for your child. A child could be unduly stressed due to internal (how he perceives things) or external reasons. What could you, the parent, do to help the child?
1. Recognise the signs of stress. Bedwetting, headaches, change in behaviour e.g. sudden moodiness or sleep disturbances are some of the signs of stress.
2. Listen to the child, encourage her to voice it out. This is a test of your listening prowess as a parent. Recognise that the stress is real. Overwhelming fear of being labelled as lazy or stupid could stop your child from telling the truth e.g. if the child has failed some tests at school, especially if the child takes pride in his school achievements.
3. Help the child identify his or her source of stress. New year, new school, new stress. Inability to deal with mounting school work, perceiving that you are less able to do a good job in comparison to your classmates or siblings, feeling left out of your regular group of friends – it could be more than one – are genuine issues that could trigger anxiety and stress in a child. You know you are stressed when you have clouded feelings, you feel frustrated and sad, you might withdraw from family and friends as you process the negative thoughts, sucking you deeper into a labyrinth of more negative thoughts. If these feelings are allowed to reign, you might be overcome with hopelessness.
4. If it is tied to school work, action is the word. School work builds gradually. If your child has difficulty understanding a certain topic, it makes sense to help him out, even if it means simply sitting next to him quietly as he does his homework, and you do your work, if his assignments look all Greek to you. Some children feel encouraged and motivated to carry on by the mere presence of a parent. Helping is not equal to taking over. Keep in mind that a child might procrastinate the moment they cannot follow what is taught in class, and the problem gets compounded with each passing day. The child would spend more time with subjects he likes, neglecting the subjects he dislikes. The longer nothing is done, the more complicated it gets, the more your child loses his self-confidence.
5. Consider the daily commitments of your child and your expectations as a parent. Are there too many things scheduled in there? Not all children are the same. Some children thrive with lots of tasks. Others might not do so well. Certain things cannot be swept under the carpet, they do not disappear just by wishing them away. You need to confront them, bit by bit.
6. Tell the child that he is not his emotions. Self-criticism can be debilitating. The sadness, frustration or hopelessness are there, they might indicate something is not right, but they do not reduce him as a person. But he needs to do something practical to deal with them, it could be as small as jotting down a simple to-do list of his assignments, and marking them as ‘Done’, to challenge his negative thoughts, making him feel lighter gradually.
7. Deliberately create a calmer household. Children detect the stress levels emanating within the family, especially from their parents. Children at times need to be pushed into doing what they need to do, eustress is good stress, just pause to see if you are overloading your child with expectations that are unrealistically high. In short, be sure you are not a major contributing factor to your child’s prolonged high stress.
Know that overwhelming fear could stop the child from speaking the truth. It is not the norm, but the stressor could be so shocking, something you did not expect at all. I have heard of a seven-year-old girl who spent hours in her bedroom each evening, until her parents found out that she was coerced into doing a classmate’s homework. A thirteen-year-old boy was threatened at knife point regularly by a couple of boys in school unless he gave up his pocket money.
In cases like these, the parents and the school need to step in. The school could have taken a proactive step by creating a safe space to discuss the bullying menace at least once or twice a year, so that children feel safe to talk to teachers and parents and not fear a backlash. If you, like many others, have experienced stress yourself, share your experience with the child, in such a way to plant the seed of bravery and courage to face up to his fears. The fact that you are willing to share your unpleasant experience, and you being a trusted adult, proves to the child that, no matter how bad the situation is, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Every person is different, but there is a way out provided you are willing to find it.