What your child worries about
In a research study, fifth- and sixth-graders were asked about the life events that had made them (or would make them) worried or feel bad. Here are the circumstances most commonly mentioned, with the most frequent ones listed first.
Signs of Overload
Although stress is a part of life and growing up, you need to intervene when you sense that it is undermining your child's physical or psychological well-being. Here are some clues that stress may be having too negative an effect.
Are You Pushing Your Child Too Hard?
Much of the stress in your child's life comes from outside the family and may be beyond your control. Yet many youngsters may feel pressure because their parents, with the best of intentions, are overscheduling them with music lessons, sports activities, computer courses and art classes.
At first glance it might seem advantageous to expose your child to as many educational, cultural and athletic experiences as possible. For some parents, this seems to be a way to give him a little edge over his peers in our very competitive society. But experts believe that when children are driven to be overachievers - when nearly the entire day is structured for them - it can have negative effects. Many children find it stressful to race from activity to activity without any time to relax, to play, to "hang out" and just "be a kid."
Finding a Balance
You and your child together need to find a balance between structured and unstructured activities. Don't worry about his becoming bored; he can actually benefit from some unplanned time, when he can use his imagination and pursue interests of his own. As for his structured activities, limit them to those he truly enjoys, and in which he is able to succeed, gain new skills or see improvement. Solicit your child's suggestions and opinions before making any plans for him.
Once your child has become engaged in activities, be supportive (but not pushy), offering praise and showing your interest by attending his baseball games and piano recitals. Sometimes, your child may complain about losing interest in an organized program, or of feeling anxiety about his inability to perform as well as his peers or teammates. Explore the reasons for and realities of his complaints. There may be problems to resolve together, or it may be time to discontinue the current activity. As a parent, keep in mind that in these middle years your youngster is still very much a child. Particularly as children approach adolescence, they often feel pressure to be more grown-up. Parents and peers alike may encourage more adult actions or dress. Help your youngster enjoy his childhood without unnecessary stressors like these. As he matures, let him set his own pace of discovery. Talk with him about issues like individuality and peer pressure.
Helping your Child Cope with Stress
Together, you and your child should evaluate the situations or activities that are producing problems. Clarify the problems together, and identify a number of possible solutions. Look at the influences that might be adding to the difficulty your child is having in adjusting to or managing the situation, and find ways in which she can change them.
If your youngster seems to have too little free time, help her modify her schedule so she can relax and play. She will probably increase her creativity and devise her own forms of recreation. Encourage her to use her imagination and skills to create play and pleasure. Remember, your job is not to keep her entertained; in fact, most children enjoy playtime free of the frenetic pace and the tension that usually accompany formal overscheduling.
You may also wish to protect 10 to 15 minutes of time each day to devote solely to your child in an activity that she chooses and directs. This can promote family closeness while offering some stress-free time.
Talking with your Child about Stress
When your child is facing a lot of stress, she may benefit from your help in figuring out how best to cope. Take the time to talk with her about the pressures she is feeling and the anxiety in her life. School-age children often find it difficult to sit down and discuss these matters. But let her know that you are interested and care, and that you would like to help. Approach each situation as a problem to be solved.
You may need to put yourself in your child's place and imagine what she may be feeling. Talk about some of her behavior and displays of emotion you have noticed recently, which suggest to you that she may be struggling with some issues. Gradually, your efforts may help her put her feelings into words.
Help your child understand her own temperament. Use some guiding statements about observations that you have made about her. Say things like "I know you react pretty strongly to stress.'' Or, "You seem to prefer to take your time making decisions.'' This can help foster insight and help your child cope.
Examining the Issues
If you feel you need additional help in the area of stress management, discuss this issue with your child's pediatrician, who can talk to you and your child and help the family develop less stressful avenues for your youngster to pursue. In some cases, when your child is coping especially poorly and the stress is interfering with her day-to-day functioning, the doctor might refer you to a professional counselor.
You also may need to examine your own life. Children under stress often have parents under stress, and some of the resulting anxiety is transferred from parent to child. If you are undergoing a personal crisis - a divorce, for example - or have filled your child's day with activities because you yourself are overcommitted, it may be time to make changes in your own life, easing the personal stress that might have an indirect impact on your child as well.