“Pressure and stress is the common cold of the psyche,” said the Australian comedian Andrew Denton. Not only adults, but also children suffer from stress. Here’s how to help your child manage stress.
By Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj
Who isn’t at the mercy of stress these days? Thanks to the pressures of our modern lifestyle, most of us give out loud cries of distress. Children are no exception. But, are we even aware that they are under stress? If yes, what are we actually doing about it?
Neighbours, friends and relatives often seek my counsel when it comes to deciding their children’s higher education and career. Here is one such instance.
Mala’s daughter Shwetha (both names changed) was good in academics. She also participated in extra-curricular activities. She was a skilful dancer, an eloquent orator and an accomplished painter. She was interested in almost everything. She was able to maintain a good balance between studies and other activities until she completed class 10. She opted for the science and maths group in class 11 (going by both parental and peer pressure). A couple of months later, her problems started. She was unable to cope with the pressures of assignments, laboratory work, records, tuitions, dance classes and inter-school competitions. There was a dip in her academic performance; she started withdrawing from friends and family; she took ill often; finally, she refused to attend school. That is when Mala brought her to me. After a couple of marathon sessions with both Mom and daughter, I realised that Shwetha was very interested in pursuing extra-curricular activities. I suggested a change in her group – from Science to Arts. Within a few weeks of the change, both friends and family were able to see the same old cheerful Shwetha again. Hers was nothing but a classic case of stress. Identifying the stressor and managing it was what mattered.
In the case of Shwetha, a change of stream was all that was needed to get rid of stress. However, different approaches may be required to tackle stress in children depending on the reason for stress.
The Online Oxford Dictionary defines stress as, ‘A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’.
In simpler words, stress is nothing but undue pressure – pressure to meet deadlines, pressure to conform to norms, pressure to realise ambitions, pressure to perform consistently, pressure to say ‘Yes’ always, pressure to cope with crisis and tragedy, pressure to exceed expectations … the list goes on.
Such pressure, strain and tension have adverse effects on physical, mental and emotional health. Therefore, it is essential to manage stress effectively. It is all the more important for children, as the present generation is under a lot of pressure from various quarters. Before we go into how to manage stress, it is essential to know more about it. For, managing it well depends on being able to recognise stress, stressors, outcomes of stress and its manifestations.
There are three major types of stress:
Acute: This is the form of stress commonly experienced by all. It is short-term stress, caused by recent pressures and future demands. Low levels of such stress can bring on thrill and excitement. However, high levels can cause exhaustion.
Episodic Acute: When you experience frequent periods of acute stress you have episodic acute stress.
Chronic: This is long-term stress and is the most difficult to treat or manage. Unlike acute stress, which can bring some thrill and excitement, chronic stress hampers functioning at all levels and destroys lives.
To understand this, we need to go back to the definition of stress, this time from Harvard Medical School’s ‘Medical Dictionary of Health Terms’ – ‘An innate survival response in which certain hormones are released, increasing blood flow to the brain or heart. The stress response leads to an energy surge, enabling a person to flee dangerous situations. Ongoing stress, however, can sap energy and damage health.’
Two phrases in this definition tell us the nature of the outcomes of stress – ‘energy surge’ and ‘can sap energy’. ‘Energy surge’ is a positive outcome. Such a surge can push us to perform better, thus bringing out the best in us. This condition is called ‘Eustress’.
‘Can sap energy’ is a negative outcome. When our energy levels are low, it will affect our performance and can bring out the worst in us. This condition is called ‘Distress’.
All that matters is how we handle stress – whether we allow it to surge or sap our energy.
With these tips, let us help our children overcome stress and tread confidently on life’s road.
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Dr Priscilla J S Selvaraj