Kids these days are stressed – that’s no surprise to any parent. But what exactly stresses them out may surprise you. A “Stress in America” survey by the American Psychological Association found a whopping 30% of children lay awake at night worrying not about school or friend trouble, but about family money problems. Even more alarming: 25% of tweens felt their stress has increased in the last year. So what can parents do to help? Three family experts weigh in.
Watch your outflow of info
When you’re stressed out, it’s easy to forget your kids can hear and understand most, if not all, of what you say. Do you and your spouse frequently talk about paying bills? Do you fight about money or worry about a sick family member? Michele Borba, Ed. D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, suggests parents keep it on the low-down.
- Limit kids’ exposure to your stress, as it will only amplify tensions of the situation.
Know stress signs and be vigilant
“If something big changes in a family, like a parent becomes sad or withdrawn, children automatically adjust their behavior to accommodate them and recreate the balance,” says Dr. Cynthia Langtiw, a child psychologist in Chicago. “If you’re making dinner, and your kid comes up and gives you a hug out of the blue, they probably know you’re feeling sad. Your problems are affecting them even if you think you’re hiding them.”
- Know signs of stress in children: tantrums, clinginess, change in eating or sleeping habits, headaches or even potty-training regression.
- Be vigilant. If you notice any of these changes, talk early [see next tip].
Talk Early and Often
Kids often imagine the worst. If they have an inkling that you’re in danger of, say, having your home foreclosed on, it’s important to map out a coping plan.”If their worst fears are a reality, explain they’ll have a new place to live that will be lovely,” explains Golda Ginsburg, Ph.D., a child psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “They need to know they’ll be taken care of.”
- Tell them they’ll still be able to decorate their room, they’ll still be close to their friends, they’ll still go to the same school.
- If there’s a threat you’ll have to move away, tell your kids about an old friendship with someone far away who you’ve kept up with.
- Let your kids know they can maintain their most important friendship with emails, phone calls and visits when possible.
Make Family Routines and Fun a Priority
No matter how stressed you get, try to maintain normal, daily routines and family traditions. In shaky times, Ginsburg says, kids need structure and familiarity more than ever.
- Make every effort to keep up family movie nights, adventure drives, sit-down dinners, or however your family reconnects.
- Even simple activities like taking a walk or giving them an extra story and cuddle before bedtime makes them feel bonded.
Get Yourself Help
If you’re having troubles, consider therapy: it gives you a safe place to blow off steam away from your family, and your therapist is objective. While it might be helpful to talk to friends or relatives, they’re not professionals, and their own perceptions might color their opinions.
- Don’t write off therapy as being out of reach financially; it’s often offered on a sliding scale.
- If therapy is still too expensive, set up a weekly coffee date with a friend or two. Knowing they’ll be there for you every week can give you some relief.
Don’t Take It Out on Your Family
Every parent and spouse blows a gasket from time to time. It’s normal, and there’s no shame in occassionally raising your voice. Remember, it’s good for kids to see their parents show real emotions and not be robotic perfect people 100% of the time (how would that teach them about their own volatile feelings?).
- Pay attention to your behavior in times of extra stress. Are you more critical? Demanding more? Losing patience? These are the little shifts in behavior that add stress to the little people in your life.
- Remember: Your kids are most important, whether or not their toys are put away or their teeth are brushed. Give them some slack, and they just might give you some right back.