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Help your child cope with fear, worry and stress

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As the mother of four children, I understand the desire to have a family that is happy and flourishing, writes NSM, registered nurse and naturopathic herbalist Letitia Coker. Yet, often as the wonderful bundle you brought into the world grows into a person, you become busier, perhaps have more wonderful bundles and, suddenly, your expectations for each of your children do not always match their experiences. What happened? Life did! And a happy, flourishing child can seem out of reach, hampered by stress, hassles, demands, frustrations and deadlines.

For most of us, stress has become part of our everyday life. Stress in itself is not inherently a bad thing as it helps us perform in life, be on time for work, complete tasks which have been set and helps us deal with fearful situations as the flight-fight response. It is when stress becomes chronic, a frequently occurring emotion in our daily life, that our health can be affected.

As adults we tend to accept a certain amount of stress; we can recognise the signs of stress and take actions to alleviate it. Did you know, though, that in the past decade there has been a significant rise in the presentation of childhood and teenage stress, anxiety, worry and depression? There has been research undertaken in 12 countries across the world to support this presentation, and girls appear to suffer the most.

What causes stress and anxiety?

In his book Stress Management For Teenagers, Parents and Teachers: A Breakthrough Approach To Get Rid Of Stress At Its Roots, Dr Sarfraz Zaidi talks about how the root cause of worry, stress and anxiety is fear. Fear of many different aspects of our life, fear of not being liked, of failure, of what will happen in the future, of losing something or someone, and on and on it goes. So, if the root cause of worrying, stress and anxiety, and of severe forms panic attacks and depression, is fear, what are our children and teenagers afraid of and how do we help them deal with their individual fears?

Our bodies do not recognise the difference between physical and psychological stresses, and so with the rise of stress, our bodies become vulnerable to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts most of the systems within our bodies, raising our blood pressure, suppressing our immune system, creating inflammation, causing insomnia, reducing our energy levels and reserves, contributing to hormonal disruption, as well as leaving us vulnerable to many mental and emotional issues. As chronic worry, stress, anxiety and depression is on the rise in our children and teenagers, meaning their bodies can be greatly affected and they can present with many different illnesses.

Seeking help…

All of our children are unique in their responses to fear, worry and stress. If you suspect any anxiety or depression, it is important that you seek medical advice, remembering no single treatment works for everyone or in every situation, so trying different strategies with support is important. Watch your child or teenager and focus on what helps them to feel calm and in control.

We need to help our children take control of their thoughts, their emotions and the way they deal with the situations within their lives. We can tend to fill up our children’s lives with many activities, but we must not underestimate the importance of quiet time – times when we are not going from here to there. In our technology-rich world we need to grasp the importance of playing outside in the sunshine, connecting with each other, regardless of our children’s ages. Family times, sharing meals and reading books together, playing board games and interacting with each other as a family helps our children feel secure, loved and valued. These seemingly unimportant activities we do together help to combat our children’s fears and stresses, giving them an avenue for them to talk about and debrief the day’s trials. Like us, feeling like they belong and are loved helps our children feel valued, which only strengthens their resilience against fear and stress.

Coping strategies…

Exercise. Exercise is important in managing stress, whether walking, running, doing sport, dance, riding bikes or socialising. It helps soothe the nervous system and boost the body’s endorphins levels. Exercise also helps build our children’s and teenager’s self-confidence, lowering symptoms of worry, fear, stress, and mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can even improve sleep which, in turn, eases stress levels.

Breathe correctly. When chronic stress, fear and anxiety becomes part of our children’s and teen’s lives it is important that we teach them to breathe! Stressed, fearful and anxious people’s breathing becomes shallow, so they are not receiving enough oxygen to help them think straight, or to have the energy to cope with life. Here is a simple way of counting while you breathe in and out which ensures enough oxygen: breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, then breathe out for a count of eight. This simple breathing technique can switch off the stress response and increase energy levels.

Eat well. Eating healthy food nourishes our bodies, supplying the nutrients needed to deal with the fears and stresses that come at us each day. Skipping meals can add to the stress of the day, breakfast being one of the most important meals switching brains on after fasting through the night. A diet that is low in sugar and caffeine, but high in fresh fruit and vegetables, can promote health and help to reduce stress.

Sleep well. Lack of sleep reduces the ability to cope with the stresses of daily life that, in turn, can affect the way we sleep, so it can become a vicious cycle that can reduce the coping abilities of children and teens, their energy levels and moods. Good sleep hygiene is important, including turning off electronic devices and practising a relaxing routine before bedtime, which can help prepare us for sleep.

Reducing stress and teaching children important ways to manage their stress can help them to remain healthy, happy and to flourish throughout their life. Remember, stress is not inherently bad, but when it becomes a chronic emotion throughout the day it can lead to reduced health and wellbeing. If there are any concerns you have with yourself, your children or your teens, it is important that you seek medical advice and support from you family practitioner.

Do you worry about stress and anxiety in your child or teen? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

More on child health…

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