When we think of stress, we might not immediately think of it being something that children suffer from. Stress for us as parents can feel unavoidable – whether it be our work, financial pressures, relationships or the general ups and downs of life, the potential for stress to take over can feel overwhelming. Whilst we try to shield our children from these stressors as much as possible, it is inevitable our children absorb some of this too. Stress relief for children, therefore, is important in the same way it is for us as parents.
And whilst children’s stressors may be very different to ours – friendship problems, exam worries, parental divorce or separation and separation anxiety (to name just a few), this stress affects them physiologically in the same way it affects us.
Stress in Children: What is Happening in the Brain?
Children’s brains develop from the bottom up. This means that the brain stem is developed first (beginning in the womb), followed by the limbic system, and then the cortex (the sophisticated thinking part of the brain).
- The brain stem is concerned with instinctive actions and impulses. It controls the complex functions of our body – our heart rate, digestive system and our sleep cycle for example.
- The limbic system is often known as the ‘fight and flight’ part of the brain since this is where our amygdala is stored, the two almond-shaped bundles of nerves that help us detect and respond to threat.
- The thinking cortex part of the brain is concerned with planning, finding solutions and problem-solving. Interestingly, all of these parts of the brain are affected when our brain detects a threat (or stress). The thinking part of our brain goes offline (meaning we lose all ability for rational thought) and we are instead controlled by the fight/flight part of the brain which is focused purely on our survival and getting us away from the perceived threat as quickly and as safely as possible.
- At the same time, the functions controlled by our brain stem are altered, meaning that we can experience changes to our digestion, our sleep and our breathing and heart rate, to name just a few.
The effects of stress that we and our children experience are a direct result of our limbic system kicking into action. Our bodies are flooded with chemicals such as adrenaline and noradrenaline which creates a range of symptoms throughout our bodies. For children, this might be:
- Tummy aches
- Poor sleep
- Nausea and vomiting
- Panic attacks
- Tight chest and racing heart
- Anger outbursts
- Emotional and tearfulness
A huge part of a child’s stress regulation system – and their later ability to tolerate stress – is largely determined by the age of three. Whilst children’s brains develop from the bottom up, their thinking is also more dominant in the right hemisphere of the brain. This means children are more able to make sense of experiences, including stressful situations, through stories and metaphors. And this knowledge is so important when looking at ways to relieve stress in children.
Ways to relieve stress in children
Take a look at our tips below if your child is suffering from the effects of stress:
- Find your child’s sensory preferences. When stress levels are high, it is important we know what soothes our child’s stress regulation system quickly. These activities are best done when your child is calm so that they are more likely to remember and make use of them when they need it. Consider all five of your child’s senses – sight, smell, touch, taste, sound. Explore the senses your child uses the most at times of stress. For example, is it more relaxing for them to listen to music or to enjoy a warm bubbly bath? Have fun exploring different ways of relaxing that uses the different senses to find what works for your child.
- Read stories that mirror your child’s experiences. There are so many brilliant children’s books and the chances are there will be one that fits the stressful experience your child is going though. As we have already seen, children learn and understand their experiences through metaphors so sharing a story that mirrors your child’s experience can help a child to process what is happening to them. For older children, this can be as simple as an analogy or a well-known saying or story about someone you know. Here at the Youth Fairy, we understand this important part of your child’s brain development and incorporate metaphors into our work with children and young people.
- Allow time to talk and just to simply listen. Whilst we always want to help our children when they are going through a stressful time, sometimes our best efforts can hinder rather than help. This is even more true with teenagers! Remind children that when they talk to you, they can ask you for what they need. You could start conversations with “do you want my advice for this or do you just want me to simply listen?” Allowing your child control in this way can make them feel more comfortable to open up to you about problems in the future – and more likely to go to you for help too.
- Create a self-soothe box with your child. Similar to the sensory idea above, it can help to plan for times when stress feels high by creating a toolbox of strategies that feel good for your child. Have them collect the things that help them when they’re stressed. For example, a particular soft toy, a music playlist, a special scent or bubble bath and to add this to the box. At stressful times, your child can grab this box knowing that the things inside will help them to feel better and to soothe their system. In a similar way, children can create a positive list of things that they enjoy. This list can be looked at when they need a reminder of what to do to help them to feel better.
- Get outside in nature! We’re all very familiar with the blue light that is emitted from screens that interfere with a child’s sleep cycle. This is known as ‘hard fascination’ – where your attention is held by a highly stimulating activity. In contrast to this is ‘soft fascination’ – like getting out and about in nature. This involves less directly stimulating activities that allows for opportunities to reflect and process thinking. It is a way of soothing our stress regulation systems and allows children the opportunity to process and ease levels of stress.