Mom’s note: Here’s a scene that’s become increasingly common in our house now that we have a sixth grader. One minute, he’s talking, laughing, telling us about his day. The next, he’s throwing himself on the sofa dramatically, complaining he has way too much homework and no free time. Sometimes, these outbursts are provoked by being reminded that homework comes before television. Sometimes, it’s a difficult math problem that sets him off. Other times, it’s nothing at all, and Oscar’s dad, little brother, and I are left staring at each other after the storm blows through, wondering what just happened.
I generally chalk it up to him being 12. To hormones kicking in. To school getting more difficult and demanding. To activities that have him scheduled well into the evening several days a week. I walk that fine line between trying to help him plot out his time so that projects aren’t left until the last minute, and realizing that he needs to start figuring that out for himself. I try to make sure there is some downtime built into the week. but I don’t want to prevent him from pursuing his varied interests.
I want to set him up for success, but gosh, I don’t want him to be stressed about it. Isn’t he too young for that?
I recently happened upon a demonstration of the “putty meditation,” posted by our former pediatrician, Dr. Sue Daniels of Hatch Pediatrics. It made me miss her all over again and wish we could have stopped her from moving to Montana. The video has Dr. Daniels demonstrating a calming technique one of her patients showed her. She slowly rolls a ball of putty to represent each worry, then rolls them together to “smooth everything out.” So simple, and yet, really impactful. Not only did Oscar seem to enjoy stopping everything to roll some putty—like a big, deep breath he just gets too worked up to take sometimes—the video got us talking about stress, something he’s obviously feeling, but hasn’t been able to articulate—thus the door slamming and dramatic flinging of himself onto the sofa.
On days when my job as parent feels a lot like being a cook, maid, and chauffeur, it’s so important to remember that much more critical than getting them to and from activities is equipping our kids with the tools to avoid becoming overwhelmed along the way. And, when they do get stressed out, making sure they feel comfortable talking about it.
By Oscar Wolfe
Stress. It’s the worst. But it’s inevitable if you have a busy life. Earlier, I was realizing the irony of writing this essay. I need something to post, so I’ll write about stress. So basically writing about stress is stressing me out.
When I get stressed I do numerous things. For one, just like any normal person would, I freak out. However, I don’t do it in public. For example, one day at school we were getting assigned an extremely large amount of homework. One kid in my class asked me, “Oscar, how come you never get stressed about all of this work that we have to do?” I responded with a lame, “I don’t know. I guess I just do the work.” That kid would be surprised, because when I got home that day, I screamed into my pillow about all of the work I had to do.
I’ve decided to talk about my “I just do the work” response. That would probably be my number one tip for people that are stressed about something. Just get whatever it is over with and don’t give yourself time to worry about it.
Also, I fidget. If you ever pay attention to me when I talk, I’m almost always doing something. I play with little toys, I bounce my knee, and I move my hands among other things. It’s not like an uncontrollable sort of thing, it’s just that it calms me when I am stressed out.
There’s one particular fidget/meditation method that my mom showed me from my old pediatrician, Dr. Daniels. I tried it, and it really calmed me down and made me stop thinking about everything going on for a minute. It was so great, I decided to talk to Dr. Daniels about how to deal with stress.
How common is child stress? Why does it happen? What causes stress?
Stress is the brain’s response to danger, whether real or imagined. It’s normal for all humans to have some stress. It’s how our primitive brain tries to protect us from threats in the world. A little stress actually helps us. It keeps us from wandering away from our parents when we’re really little. It makes us look for cars before we cross the street. And it can help us care more about our schoolwork.
But when stress is more severe or more frequent than normal, it interferes with a person’s functioning. It can make it hard to sleep, or to focus on school work, or to have fun. When it’s really bad, it’s called anxiety or an anxiety disorder. About 1 in 5 kids or teens will have an anxiety disorder at some point in childhood. But I would estimate that stress that interferes with the work of childhood is a lot more common. In my pediatric medical practice in Montana, I would say about 1 out of 3 kids struggle with stress, and can learn simple strategies that really help.
The triggers of stress vary a lot from one person to another. For some, it’s fear of trying new things, or fear of failure. It can also be triggered by just having too many things to think about at one time. It’s more likely to happen if a person has family members who have had anxiety, or if a person doesn’t get enough sleep.
What age does stress usually start?
It can occur in kids as young as 5 or 6, but is most common in kids 9 and up.
Why does the silly putty meditation work?
The putty meditation, like all mindfulness practices, works by getting your focus out of your busy brain and into your physical body. Paying attention to your breath going in and out of your body, or paying attention to rolling your hands over the putty, helps us “live in the moment,” and just be. I feel like it let’s me just be a mammal, a healthy animal in balance with my environment. That’s a great relief from our usual wakeful state of thinking all the time about everything!
What are other methods that can help decrease stress?
Wow! There are so many!
The most basic and one of the best is practicing mindfulness every day. That means learning to focus on your breathing. Practicing mindfulness, like with all things, makes you better and better at this important skill. Then, when you feel your stress level creeping up, even before you’re really stressed out, you can take a few minutes (Yes! it can work that fast!) to focus on your breath going in and out of your body. Stress level drops, relaxation increases and we are better able to focus on our work, or fall asleep, or enjoy whatever we’re doing.
- Laugh! But don’t wait for something funny to happen. When you’re stressed, or before you start something you think might be stressful, go to a mirror and starting laughing. Fake it! Do it for three minutes. By the end of that time, you’ll have released amazing endorphins that will totally chase stress away! If you’re in a place where you have to be quiet, laugh in your mind’s eye! No one will know and you’ll still feel better. Having a day where you can’t even muster a laugh? Draw a goofy smile on the edge of a piece of paper, hold it in from of your mouth while you look in the mirror.
- Have a Plank Off! Do planks with your parent or sibling. Time yourself and see who can go the longest! This is another way to focus on your physical self, is awesome fun and tiring. All good for stress reduction.
- Have a Duck Walk Off! Same as a plank off but you see who can duck walk the longest. Parents will lose this game 100% of the time!
- Try Qi Gong! Pronounced “chee gung,” it means “cultivating energy.” This is a Chinese mindfulness practice that incorporates big breathing, gentle movements and intention.
- Put down your electronics and go outside! Humans are not evolved to face a screen all day. It contributes to stress and simply going outside improves our physiology. It doesn’t matter what you do once you’re out there. Being out is good for humans.
Wanna get really fancy? Make a chart with each of these activities listed. Have a column for BEFORE and AFTER and rate your stress level on a scale of 1-10. See how much less your stress is with each practice. Keep track for a couple of weeks and see which one work best for you!
What can/should parents do to help their kids with stress?
Parents can be extremely helpful by making sure kids cover important basics that we know help prevent anxiety. Here’s my advice for them:
- Make sure your child gets good sleep. Elementary-aged kids need 10-11 hours of sleep per night. Older kids and teens need 9-10 hours per night. So many things interfere with getting enough sleep. Homework, extracurricular activities, screen time, lights in our rooms from clocks and phone chargers. Prioritize good sleep for your child as it is essential in preventing fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression, and almost nothing can make up for a poor sleep routine.
- Consider limiting extracurricular activities to 1, or at most 2, at a time (sport and music lessons, for example). When a child is doing more than 1-2 activities at a time, stress is an inevitable consequence. Especially once kids are old enough to have significant homework. Down time is essential for people to think creatively and to recharge. Being overcommitted is a threat to good mental health for kids and grown-ups.
- Feed your child a wide variety of nutritious foods. Limit processed foods, especially those with artificial colors which are shown to disrupt behavior. Consider adding protein to snacks, which is shown to stabilize blood sugar and mood through the day. Offer apples or carrots with peanut butter, string cheese, hummus, nuts, good quality deli meat or yogurt.
- Encourage your child to try new things, even if it causes some nerves. Practicing facing our fears makes us better at facing our fears.
- Listen carefully to your child but don’t feel that you need to “fix it.” Kids often feel better after sharing worries with parents. Just listening and being supportive can be very helpful.
- Model healthy behaviors for kids. Practice good self care by getting good rest, limiting screen time, eating healthy food, going outside to play, and trying new things like mindfulness. Cultivate a focus on the positive. Talking positively can help kids think positively.
Dr. Sue Daniel’s Resources:
Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Young Children by Amy Saltzman. An MP3 with 14 short guided mindfulness exercises. Listen to one every night before you go to sleep. Invite one of your parents or siblings to listen along with you.
Still Quiet Place: Mindfulness for Teens by Amy Saltzman. Longer exercises for older kids.
Stop Breathe & Think An awesome free mindfulness app for teens
Laughing Meditation This video gives great advice on how to do a laughter meditation, including the knee-slapper, hohoho-hahaha-heeheehee, and nasal laughs
Mindfulness Qigong with Dr John Christopher Totally NOT for kids but I still like this one. This 14-minute Qi Gong introduction shows the BIG breathing and the energy ball! Dr. Christopher taught me to do Qi Gong!
What stresses you out? What do you do about it? What do you think about limiting extracurriculars to one or two? Weigh in! Parents, kids—we’d love to hear from you on this important topic.