Helping Your Kids Deal with Stress

Everyone’s heard of our natural response to stressful situations with the “fight or flight” mode. When our adrenal glands overwork, our liver dumps extra sugar into our system, the hormone epinephrine fuels the body, the heart rate accelerates and the lungs work harder (Exploring Creation with Anatomy and Physiology). But what happens when we can’t fight or flee from what we face?

Through my own battle with adrenal exhaustion, research, reading, and even some therapy, I’ve uncovered two other responses our bodies use to cope with unwanted stress. Aside from fight or flight, we can freeze. Like a rabbit sensing danger, we can just shut down. I have a child who does this; through counseling and assisting with communication and emotional recognition, I’ve been able to help him open up more, but sometimes, I have to give him space and time to re-engage with the world.

According to child psychologist Jerome Kagan, children are born with “three basic temperaments that determine how they instinctively respond to difficulty. Some respond with anxiety and withdrawal (flee), some with aggression and assertive action (fight), and some with optimism and an effort to win through by being social and cordial.” Perhaps this last one could be pegged as manipulative diplomacy.

I don’t have a politician in my family, but my three children span the other three temperamental stress responses. So, how do parents help their children cope when their personalities take them in such different directions?

For the child that wants to run: my sweet cautious youngest needs a lot of reassurance. He needs to know that life isn’t as scary as it seems. He needs to know that he has a safe place to fall when life rages against him. And he needs to be encouraged toward boldness.

For the child who fights: I often have to tone down her bold confidence. She charges life full speed ahead, and my advice to her is the opposite of the above-mentioned sibling. “To become wise, the anxious must learn to be bolder, the bold to be cautious, and the chronically sunny to be more thoughtful” (Timothy Keller, God’s Wisdom For Navigating Life). I encourage more contemplation and reflection: in other words, think before you act

For the child who freezes: I’ve been counseled by a child therapist to give this child time to think. When the amygdala signals to the prefrontal cortex that life is too much, the decision-making abilities and emotional coping skills kick into an almost animal instinctual mode, which doesn’t permit this child to answer questions like, “How was your reaction to your brother unkind? What should you have done differently? Etc.” His anxiety and anger have disrupted his logical, risk-analysis abilities. Demanding answers or even doling out consequences immediately waste teaching opportunities. Giving this child space–removing them to their room for the safety of other children–helps them calm down and engage in conversation and discipline at a more beneficial time.

Obviously, each child’s gauge on stress differs. My firstborn almost thrives on stimuli and experiences that overwhelm and fatigue my extremely introverted middle child. So how does a parent nurture the needs of one without depleting the needs of another? It’s a tricky balance at best; downright impossible at worst.

I am FAR from having it figured out, but here are some things I’ve noticed helping:

  1. Feed their Love Language: I may have to drag along a reclusive sibling to another child’s event, but I can make sure that depleted child gets plenty of snuggles before or after. When my youngest is feeling anxious, he doesn’t want touch so much as quality time–lots of Checkers and dice and card games here. If you don’t know what your child’s love language is, find out.
  2. Adapt your disciplinary action according to personality: I’m not opposed to spanking, but we found other techniques more effective (E.g. loss of sweets, TV, early bedtime, etc.). If they are indifferent toward their consequences, it’s probably not effective in training them.
  3. Listen and Play: Give your child plenty of time to share their hearts. In order to do this, you have to carve out open windows of time to “just be” or the schedule will push out of the space to speak. When they share struggles, fears, or frustrations, be quick to listen and slow to speak. If they think you’ve already got them figured out and cut them off with “what they should do” right away, they will be less inclined to share next time. I speak from personal experience here. Take time to have fun with your kids. Play. Laugh. Dance. Do something silly together. Milton Berle said “Laughing is an instant vacation.”
  4. Stay Calm and Pray: All parenting, regardless of ease or hardship, should keep us on our knees. But be sure your children are praying with you as well. Help them to understand that our strength and courage doesn’t come from within, but from With Him. I regularly tell my children, “I’m sorry. I messed up. Mommy needs Jesus too.” Point your kids to the Only One who won’t fail–who will love them perfectly. He is our anchor in the storm.

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