May 29, 2018
Did you know that according the the National Institute of Mental Health in 2016, 2.2 million adolescents aged 12-17 suffered from a major depressive episode with severe impairment? (Severe impairment is defined by DSM IV criteria as at least 2 weeks of symptoms reflecting change of functioning such as sleep, eating, energy, concentration, self-image, increased thoughts of death and suicide) This is 9% of the U.S. population ages 12-17 (Almost 1:10 teens)! Among adolescents aged 13-18, 31.9% were found to have some sort of anxiety disorder. This is heart-breaking and very worrisome. This study was done 2 years ago, and I imagine with the recent school shootings and all other political and global conflicts that these numbers are significantly higher today.
These numbers are frightening to say the least. So, what as parents can we do? Stress management and coping skills begin in infancy. A baby cries, a parent responds. A toddler falls, the parent responds. A child is made fun of in school, the parent responds. A teen fails a test in school, the parent responds. It is how we respond that can determine how well our children will fare.
One of the most difficult parts of parenting is the balance between providing our children with support and encouragement while at the same time “helping” them when they fail. It seems the knee-jerk reaction is to put your super cape on and help make things right in your child’s world. I mean, you are a super parent right? Well, not so fast. These “saving” mechanisms can actally do more harm than good and can result in feelings of low self esteem, anxiety and possibly depression down the road. Remember the ultimate goal as a parent is to help a child develop into an independent, self-sufficient, well-rounded, and happy adult (no pressure)!
I believe there are at least three components to dealing with stress in all stages of a child’s life that are imperative. 1. Listening to your child (regardless of age-this includes verbal and non-verbal communication) 2. Validation of their feelings and concerns 3. Strategies to help your child effectively resolve the stress/problem on their own.
Stress of course is very different for a 2 year old that didn’t get the toy he wanted and the 15 year old that is failing in school. However, when a child is going through the stress it can feel debilitating and overwhelming regardless of age. Each age brings with it an opportunity as a parent to use these three techniques when helping deal with stress. It is extremely important not to dismiss what can seem trivial in a small child. The parent-child trust and relationship begins early on.
Take the time to listen to your small child, validate their feelings and concerns and guide them in finding constructive ways to deal with the “problem”. If he/she decides that a temper tantrum is the most effective way, then let them have their tantrum. Do not try to reason with a two year old having a tantrum. It is the equivalent of an adult that has just “lost it”. Once the tantrum is over, this is your opportunity to approach your child, perhaps give them a hug and give them the opportunity to express themselves when they have calmed down. This is sending a message to your child that it’s okay to feel upset or disappointed, you will be there to provide unconditional love, and that the tantrum really didn’t solve anything. Then, together with your child explore helpful ways to resolve the problem or disappointment. Pay attention also to the ways that you respond to conflict or problems in your life. Are you having adult tantrums? Do you sometimes just “lose it”? Your child is watching.
In adolescence, the problems are different of course but using these three techniques can at least help get your started with helping your child navigate this new world that brings with it so much change and uncertainty. It is a period of insecurity and doubt. Even the “coolest” of kids worry about what others will think of them or what they look like (sometimes even more!). That is the irony of it all. Most adolescents worry about very similar things but communicate very little. So, when your child is faced with a problem in school or socially, stop and remember these three skills. Take the time to listen to your teen ( I mean really listen-without judgement and without thinking about what you are going to say next), validate their feelings (yes, sometimes it just “sucks” and sometimes it’s not fair) and finally help them come up with ways that they can make the situation better. If they are too upset to think, encourage them to “take a day” to relax and re-visit their emotions. We all know that when we calm down we can think more clearly and react more productively that when we simply just react to a situation.
The key is to find productive ways of dealing with stress that work for your child. Encourage them to exercise, meditate, go for a walk, read, run, journal…there are many options. Just resist the temptation to jump in and make the situation “right” for your child. Don’t speak for them but instead help them find their voice. Don’t fight their battles, but give them the confidence to defend themselves. In the end they will be adults; strong, independent adults willing to stand up for themselves.
Elizabeth Vainder, M.D., F.A.A.P