By: Dr. Sharon Richter, Annapolis Pediatrics’ Behavioral Health Department
Parents are role models for their children when it comes to teaching life skills, including how to cope with stressful situations. Part 1 of stress management addresses what you can do to help manage the increase in stress that is affecting many people these days. Stress Management – Part 2 consists of how to help create more peace within the family.
#1- Promote Physical Health. Prioritize getting enough sleep and help your children get adequate sleep. Preschool children (3-5 years old) need 10-13 hours; School aged children (6-13 years old) need 9-11 hours; Teenagers (14-17 years old) need 8-10 hours; and Adults (18+ years old) need 7-9 hours. No one can think clearly, learn, and process their emotions properly when sleep deprived.
Eat a healthy, whole foods diet as much as possible. Limit processed foods, sugar, artificial dyes and chemicals to the best of your ability as these do not support your health.
Spending time outdoors in nature has been shown to be an antidote for stress, promoting feelings of calm, and improving both sleep and mood. The goal for this is 2 hours outdoors per week.
Get regular physical activity if possible. There are multiple health benefits from exercise in addition to benefits for sleep, mood, anxiety, and stress management. Exercise has also been shown to have cognitive benefits for attention and memory. Even if you are not able to do the recommended 150 minutes per week (recommendation for adults- see CDC website), any increase in physical activity is still helpful, even if only 10-15 minutes of walking 3-5 days per week.
These are the basics even if they sound boring.
#2- Focus On What You CAN Control. There is so much we can’t control these days (our homes, work demands or lack thereof, our kids’ school and social opportunities, aging relatives, local issues, national issues, world issues, the weather…) but rather than ruminate on these, focus on what is in your locus of control- wear a mask, wash your hands, stay distanced from others, eat healthy foods, exercise, get fresh air, and get enough sleep. Show your children that taking care of oneself is important.
You can control some of the negativity entering your life. First, decide if you want to have the goal of feeling calm and having a lower stress level. If so, then avoid or limit leisure activities that do not make you feel calm and happy as these work against this goal. Turn off the news, get off social media, stop arguing politics, don’t read continual updates about the pandemic. Find a few trusted sites for information and plan to look at the news or check social media a few times per day if you must, but be aware of how this information is affecting your mental health or interfering with sleep and modify the amount of media you consume accordingly.
You can also control your thoughts.
#3- Watch Your Thoughts. There is no such thing as perfection. Forgive yourself, don’t compare yourself to others and practice gratitude every day- more on this below. Are you constantly criticizing yourself with your internal monologue? Catch yourself doing this and tell yourself something nice instead. Take the word “should” out of your vocabulary! It implies guilt and/or failure. Replace it with “next time I will…” Thoughts are very powerful as they dictate our actions and feelings. Be nice to yourself.
#4- Connect With Others. Nurture relationships by reaching out to friends and families by phone, email, text or even an actual letter. Now that you know how to use Zoom (or other video call services), set up a meeting with friends. Talk to people you care about. Practice kindness to others. Leave your spouse or partner a nice note. Help someone else. Compliment others. Kindness can decrease stress hormone levels and improve mood.
#5- Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness is being fully aware of the present moment (of thoughts, feelings, behaviors) without judgement or attention to the past or future. Practicing mindfulness can help direct your attention away from all the time spent planning, problem-solving or worrying that increases stress. Take a moment to stop and slow down, to experience life with all five senses. Mindfulness can be done anywhere and at any time.
Mindful meditation has shown to be helpful for stress, anxiety, depression and sleep, among having other physiologic benefits. Take time to close your eyes and focus on your breathing and what you are sensing and feeling. You do not need to be sitting for meditation, you can be laying down or walking (I would recommend keeping your eyes open for the walking meditation, however.)
Where to start? There are many good apps available to help with learning and developing these skills. Consider the following: Insight Timer is free. Calm, Headspace, 21-day Meditation Experience, and Ten Percent Happier all have free trial periods. More information and videos available at mindful.org.
#6- Self Care. Do something you find relaxing. This can be deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or yoga. Headspace.com has examples of these techniques. It can be reading a good book, watching a TV show, going for a walk, listening to music, or focusing on a hobby. The goal is to get out of your own head and do something enjoyable.
Along the lines of self-care is to remember not to overextend yourself. Don’t feel like you have to say “yes” every time you are asked to do something.
#7- Gratitude. This practice has been associated with an improvement in mood. Keep a gratitude journal and write down the things for which you are grateful on a daily basis. Tell those you love that you are grateful for them. Encourage them to express their gratitude and appreciation as well.
#8- Use Humor. Humor can protect against symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can reduce stress and help with sleep. Laughter itself is a stress-reliever, causing a release of endorphins and has long-term benefits for improving your immune system. Focus on positive humor- making jokes others will appreciate and finding humor in your own daily life to make yourself feel better (as opposed to negative humor such as ridiculing someone else or putting yourself down). Watch or read something funny, look for jokes, post comics or memes you find funny. There are times of high stress when I find it better to get my news from SNL Weekend Update and The Onion- you can still figure out what is going on through the parody interpretation. Go to YouTube and watch one of the brilliant Coronavirus parodies of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (is this a fever? Or just allergies? Caught in a lockdown, no escape from the family…)
*NOTE: Always talk to your doctor or seek professional help if you or a family member is showing signs of depression, anxiety or any emotional or mental health disorder.
Stress Management in 2020 – For Kids and Families
Parents are role models for their children when it comes to teaching life skills, including how to manage stress. Stress Management – Part 1 addressed factors that can help mitigate stress. Part 2 consists of how to help create more peace within the family, which in turn leads to less stress at home.
#9- Keep a Routine. Structure, routine, and predictability provides children with a sense of security and stability. Adults benefit from routine as well. This doesn’t mean that every day has to be exactly the same, but structuring the day is a great way to help communicate and manage expectations of everyone at home and allows you to build in the activities that you prioritize. Younger children and kids with a shorter attention span often need breaks in between activities or be allowed a change of activity approximately every 45 minutes. In general, it is best if the less preferred activities (usually schoolwork and chores) are scheduled before children are allowed free and play time (often comprised of non-academic screen time), as this mirrors adult life- we all have to work before we get paid. It is easier to tell a child “when” they can do what they want than it is to tell them to get off the video game and clean up their room. Keep some sort of structure and schedule on weekends/non-school days including a sleep schedule that is shifted no more than an hour later.
Of course, you will still need to be flexible when things come up, such as a sleepover, last-minute cancellation or opportunity, change in weather or illness. Last weekend I had the perfect Saturday scheduled (reading, making salads for the week, writing, walking outside), but then I had to spend a few hours in the ER when my son flew off his bicycle. Be flexible and adjust your expectations at these times. Showing your children how you prioritize and then manage unpredictability is a good way to teach them how to be flexible. (Oh well… guess I can’t walk today)
#10- Adjust Expectations. The world has changed, and our expectations of ourselves and others need to change in kind. Maybe you can’t do as much as you could in 2019 with the kids doing virtual school at home. Maybe your children have a lot of extra energy without their usual afternoon sports or social activities. Plan your new normal and talk to your family about what they need or what they find to be overwhelming. Have everyone in the family make a list of their priorities and what they think are the priorities and expectations of others. Have a non-judgmental discussion about this with the goal of getting everyone in the house on the same page. Make sure it is clear what the new expectations are, realizing that everyone may need to compromise. Where did you put “have a clean house” on your list of priorities? Did it even make the list of your children or your partner/spouse? Maybe it would be okay if beds weren’t made or toys were still on the floor for the time being.
#11- Balance Activities. Most of us are on screens all day for work and school. And then we have leisure activities on screens as well- TV, social media, video games. Instead of focusing on how many hours your child has been on a screen, focus on scheduling daily non-screen related activities. Again, this goes for adults as well as children. Some examples:
- Outdoor time in nature- you can do a nature-oriented activity like gardening, or do your physical activity, reading, meditation or hobby outdoors when possible
- Physical activity- walk, bike, scooter, toss a ball or frisbee, build an obstacle course with things around the house or yard, follow an exercise video, make up a contest or goal with your kids (if this fits their personality)- how many sit-ups can they do in a minute? How long can you hold a plank? Can you even get into plank position? Help them build their own goals to strive towards if they like challenge.
- Game time- board and card games, Lego-building contests, play hide-and-seek with a household object (we used a water bottle) in 1 or 2 rooms where part of the object has to be visible without moving anything. Or hide the object completely and use “hot/cold” to help find it.
- Quiet reading or audiobook time; read to your children for as long as they will let you, even after they are capable of reading themselves (not referring to hours of reading to delay bedtime, referring to enjoying stories together until they no longer want to do this with you). Consider reading or listening to joke books or relaxation techniques together
- Cook or bake together. If your child likes to cook and you have ingredients that are about to expire, challenge your child to a game of “chopped”.
- Listen to music. Dance (but don’t embarrass your kids too much).
- Spiritual time, meditation or yoga time
- Creative time- art, writing, building, let your kids make something out of the extra Amazon boxes that are piling up and duct tape. If you are not very creative, look on Pinterest for ideas of craft and science activities with kids
Ask your children what activities they would like to do and add them to the routine/schedule. Or write them on a piece of paper, put them in a jar and pick one at random. Or rotate daily and let another family member pick the activity to do during the scheduled time
#12- Emotion Management. Not everyone manages emotions the same way, and what works for parents don’t necessarily work for their children. Some people like more physical outlets such as exercise, dance, hitting a pillow, or muscle relaxation. Other people manage emotions best by talking things over with friends or family, journaling or listening to music. The goal is to find what works best for you and help your child find what works best for them.
Sometimes children may not be able to express their emotions verbally, rather they demonstrate their feelings behaviorally such as by having a tantrum or shutting down. In this case, start by helping your child recognize and label the emotion. By labeling the emotion, you are externalizing it. Once you name the emotion and make it separate from your child, you can then work through how to process the emotion using descriptive language. How can they cool down that volcano? How can they talk back to the “worry bully”? Two psychologists who have great books and websites with helpful information for parents on helping their kids manage emotions are: tamarchansky.com (books for parents) and dawnhuebnerphd.com (workbooks for children).
On the flip side, make sure that your children know that it is safe to express their thoughts and feelings at home without judgement. It can be dangerous to keep emotions bottled up inside. Make sure children know that having strong emotions is okay. Without feeling like it is safe to express emotions and knowing how to safely manage them, people turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or other substances, or self-injurious behaviors.
#13 – Make Home a Sanctuary. Be the calm you want your children to emulate. The website Parentandteen.com suggests parents convey the following to teens, but this message is also appropriate for school-aged children: “The world feels frightening right now. So, we are going to make our home a haven. We’re going to choose to be kinder and gentler. We will gain our strength from each other. We are going to speak openly about how we love and care about each other. There will still be little things about each other that get on our nerves. But we are going to do our best to let them go. We are going to get through this together because we will create peace in our house.”
Show your children how to be calm and peaceful, watch your tone of voice and body language. Take some deep breaths and remove yourself from a situation if you feel it escalate. Remember it takes two people to argue. Try to see the positive side of your children’s’ behaviors, even if you are currently finding them frustrating. And remember to give children more praises than corrections.
#14 – Have Fun. Schedule family game night or any family time with the above ideas or your own. I have talked to many people who have camped outside in their backyard in lieu of a vacation or sleepover party, sewn masks together for donation and sponsored midshipmen.
When my husband was tackling a repair task at home that required him to turn off the electricity for a few hours, my kids and I made Bingo Cards of all we guessed would happen during the planned four hours without power. We wrote things in the boxes like- needs another trip to Home Depot, he says it’s going to take an extra hour, goes to neighbor to borrow a different tool, etc. The tone wasn’t mean-spirited (he wanted to make his own bingo card) and it helped lighten up the time.
#15- Model Positive Thinking. Express gratitude (see part 1) and forgiveness. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, just as there is no such thing as a perfect child. Forgive yourself for letting your kid play video games while you had to work. Forgive your child for not being able to find all the school assignments on google classroom.
Re-frame how you look at things. Consider thinking about things not as a “problem” but as an opportunity or a challenge. Are you bored or is this an opportunity to try something new? Are you overwhelmed or just really important?
Let some things go and take care of yourself so you can be calm for your children and give them the foundational sense of safety and security that they need.
*NOTE: Always talk to your doctor or seek professional help if you or a family member is showing signs of depression, anxiety or any emotional or mental health disorder.
About Annapolis Pediatrics:
For 70 years, Annapolis Pediatrics has provided superior healthcare to infants, children, adolescents, and young adults in Annapolis and the surrounding communities. In some cases, we have cared for three generations of families. We strive to provide high quality medical care, from excellent clinical care to a positive customer experience for our patients and their parents.
We have over 30 physicians and nurse practitioners in 5 locations: Annapolis, Crofton, Edgewater, Severna Park, and Kent Island. We now offer virtual visits, virtual events and classes, pediatrician chats and more.
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