Anxiety and stress rates among children are rising. There are many contributing factors to this sad fact, including:
- Not enough free and recreation time for open play and movement,
- A cultural hyper-focus on achievement,
- Over-exposure to media,
- Modern diet,
- Lack of sleep,
- Family dynamics and lack of quality time or stress from over-worked parents,
- Traumatic events, and
- Social dynamics.
It’s a complex maze to navigate in understanding your child’s stress and anxiety. However, there are things you can do. Part of your role as a parent is to notice what the contributing factors are for your child, to watch for how they naturally cope, and to help cultivate stress reduction in their lives. We often think of children as small adults, but the signs of their stress can be quite different. Certainly their understanding of what is going on and their natural ability for self-soothing looks different than in adults.
Here are three things that will help your child in maintaining healthy stress levels.
Play: The real work of childhood is play. For many neurobiological, cognitive, and emotional reasons, play is the way children tend to process their life experiences. It may seem like just random musings of imagination, but often there are deep metaphors and themes running in childhood play. Sometimes it is obvious, such as when as children have an experience of being bullied at school and then play it out with cars crashing and people fighting. Sometimes it is more subtle, and children in the same situation may engage in types of play that make them feel in control. Either way, they need space to process these events, which is why giving our children free play time is essential to health.
Naming feelings: This seems simple enough, and often people ask me why it’s so important. Children have to learn how to name a physiological and emotional experience in order to understand it. Even just naming something as stress or nervousness helps the brain and body connect and integrate the experience, providing relief. There are even stress-reducing physiological responses we have when we name our felt experience; the act of naming what we feel is soothing. One thing adults can do is to model naming feelings and to help children name theirs.
Learning to self-soothe: There are many ways to cope with stress and anxiety. For some people, physical movement is critical in order to release energy and important endorphins so that they can relax. For some, talking about it is helpful. Others may need a creative outlet to express their feelings. Often sensory-based activities are most helpful for children. When we engage in sensory-based activities, it activates parts of our brains that are involved in emotional processing and soothing the body and nervous system. Even just squeezing some clay, chewing some gum, listening to music, smelling some yummy lotion, or looking at a picture book can help immensely in calming.
One of the reasons why art therapy is effective is that it combines all three of these strategies for kids. It is playful, an art therapist helps name feelings, and it is sensory-based with art materials. Art therapy is an integrative process, and childhood is all about the growing integration of mind, body, and feelings.
I am running a workshop for parents with more information on this topic in February. For more information on this workshop, please visit www.courageoushearthealing.com/workshops