It’s a parent’s natural instinct to want to protect a child from the ups and downs of life. But that’s not always possible, especially as they get older and more independent. In addition, today’s children are under tremendous pressure to be successful at school, sports and during a dizzying array of after-school activities. All these different stresses can take physical and emotional tolls on children’s health. Although stress and setbacks are part of daily life, parents and children shouldn’t feel powerless. One of the most important things you can do is to help your child develop the resilience, confidence and skills to respond effectively to life’s challenges and stresses for a healthy, balanced and successful life.
What’s the best way to raise a confident, resilient child?
Oftentimes parents’ expectations – even if they have the best intentions – can put enormous pressure on their children. Instead of focusing on your child getting a particular grade in school, encourage your child to always work hard, do this best and persevere. These goals will help him or her to develop lifelong skills to continue working towards a goal and problem-solve rather than giving up or feeling bad if they don’t achieve a particular grade.
Creating a secure, supportive and nurturing home environment is also vital to giving your child a solid foundation to draw from when dealing with stressful or difficult situations. Make sure your child always feels safe and loved. Structure boundaries so your child knows what is OK and what isn’t, and be consistent with your messages, expectations and any consequences.
Even when life is busy and there’s a lot going on, don’t miss out on family time. This is also an important part of building a nurturing, safe environment for your child. One of the best forums for that is the family dinner. It’s a positive time to come together, gives everyone a chance to share what happened during their day and gives you the opportunity to keep in touch with what’s going on with your child. Other simple but effective ways to spend time together include going for a walk after school or dinner, chatting while you are traveling together in the car or occasionally having lunch out together.
What else can I do to help my son deal successfully with problems?
Help your son establish lifelong healthy habits. It’s much easier dealing with any potential stress or problems when healthy. Teach him the importance of getting enough sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise. Establishing a routine or schedule can help children implement these important aspects.
Parents often underestimate the value of sleep. It is critical for letting your child’s brain rest from all the learning it has done during the day and giving your child’s body time to recover as it grows and develops. If your son is well rested, he will be able to do his best and manage challenges more resiliently. Elementary school children need approximately 10 to 12 hours of sleep a day.
A nutritious diet is also essential for your son’s good health. Use the five food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy) as your guide. Offer foods in a rainbow of colors and encourage your son to try different foods to help him expand his palate and get the highest nutritional benefit from what he eats. Children should also take a daily 400 IU vitamin D supplement for best health.
Regular exercise (at least five hours of vigorous exercise a week that makes your son sweat) is also important for good health and reducing stress. Limit screen time to help encourage your son to be active. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day for children over 2 years of age.
What are some of the signs that my daughter is getting too stressed?
Too much stress can definitely have a negative impact on your child’s health. Your daughter may be suffering from stress if she:
- Complains of headaches and stomach pains
- Seems withdrawn, forgetful or overwhelmed and is not doing what she is supposed to be doing
- Has trouble falling asleep and seems tired and irritable during the day
- Is not thriving at school and has less interest than usual in attending classes and doing homework
- Seems less interested in activities that she used to enjoy
- Loses or gains weight which might indicate an eating disorder
How can I help my son learn to manage stress?
Don’t try to solve your son’s problems for him. It’s much more important to empower him with skills that he can use throughout his life when things get difficult to manage. Follow these tips:
- Teach him good time management skills, so school projects aren’t left to the last minute.
- Make sure he gets regular breaks. Tasks often expand to fit the time allowed for them. Taking some time for a break or sports activity he enjoys can help provide stress relief.
- Monitor what he has on his activities plate. If assignments are slipping through the cracks or he has missed another sports practice, help him problem solve how to keep things balanced. Ask him what he thinks is a reasonable load and if there is anything he could let go to make things more manageable.
- Model good stress management skills – you are your child’s best role model. Talk to your child about how you manage stress effectively.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Make sure you know what’s going on in his life and check in with him often. Let him know that you are always there to help him talk things through.
Manisha Panchal, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Santa Clara Center. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.