During the first month of preschool, my daughter hastily said good-bye to me at the door of her classroom without a glance back. But the first week in October, her outlook changed. She cried every morning and clung to me when we got to the classroom. After I left, I would peek in the window and see her happily playing with the other kids. Even so, each tear-filled morning that week, I wondered whether I should let her stay home.
It’s natural for parents to want to fix a stressful situation for their kids, says Candice Alfano, Ph.D., director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. However, one of the best ways to help your kids learn to manage their stress is to teach them to deal with their feelings, rather than avoid them.
“Stress is a lifelong battle for most of us,” says Dr. Alfano. “It’s unrealistic to think that we can help them eliminate it. It’s much more reasonable to help them develop ways to cope with stress.”
By teaching kids to manage daily stress, whether it’s preschool jitters or an upcoming test, you can help them learn to handle the big and small challenges in life. Experts suggest these tips for teaching your kids how to cope with their anxiety:
Imagine cares away
You can use your young child’s active imagination to help him deal with stress. For example, you can pretend to blow bubbles to encourage deep, steady breaths, suggests Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. You could also play out a stressful scenario using dolls or stuffed animals. For example, if your child needs to go to the doctor, you could help her pretend to give a check-up using a toy stethoscope and a teddy bear.
Point out the positive
As early as preschool, you can teach your kids to recognize the positives in a situation, says Elizabeth DuPont Spencer, coauthor of “The Anxiety Cure for Kids: A Guide for Parents.” For a child who’s having separation anxiety going to preschool, you might point out the games she’ll be able to play or remind her about a fun upcoming event like show-and-tell.
Listen, don’t solve
When your child is old enough to talk about his problem, listen to him carefully but don’t jump in with an answer. Instead, ask him about his own solutions and the possible outcome of each. Remind him of the times when he successfully handled stress in the past. “One of the most loving things you can do is to make them realize they can handle stress,” says Dr. Alfano.
Be a role model
Parents often make the mistake of pretending they can do it all, says Dr. Alfano. Instead, let your child know that stress is part of life, and show her how you deal with it, whether it’s reading a book or taking a yoga class.
Know when to ask for help
If you’ve tried these strategies and the stress persists or is interfering with your child’s life, you may need to seek outside advice. Talk to your pediatrician if your child is still anxious after a stressful event has passed or if the stress is interfering with normal activities like eating, sleeping or interacting with others.
Ann Muder is a freelance writer based in Olathe, Kansas.