You, or your child, is jacked up. It’s all just too much. The walls seem like they are closing in. Nobody understands. What to do? Well, for starters, just breathe. Taking one, two, or three meaningful, deep breaths helps you put what just happened into context, lowers your heart rate, and prompts you to give priority to your stress management.
Fourteen year old Mandy stomps in the front door after school. She tosses her jacket and book bag on the floor and sighs deeply. Her mom comes down the stairs to greet her usually perky teen, sensing distress.
“Hey Sweetheart,” mom cautiously greets her, “How was your day?”
Mandy glares at her, boring a hole through her. Then she melts into tears. Mom moves toward her daughter to wrap her arms around her.
“It’s…it’s…just…all too much,”
“What is, darling,” mom hugs her tightly.
“All of it. I don’t know. School, tests, boys, my so-called friends. I just can’t do it all. When will it stop, Mama?”
Mandy is clearly on stress overload.
There are two kinds of stress. Distress gets all the press. It’s when you feel weighed down by perceived bad stuff. The other, lesser known kin to distress is eustress. “Eu” is the Greek prefix for “good,” so eustress happens when confronted with good things in your life. Having a birthday, getting married, having children, getting student-of-the-week, kicking the winning soccer goal. All of these things are good, but stressful in the preparation, persistence, and outcome.
For children and teens, common distressful events include studying hard for a test and still getting a bad grade, being picked on at recess, being unfriended, the “cool” kids talking behind your back, being rejected in dating, feeling out of place or not good enough in general.
Thankfully, for Mandy, her mom sensed Mandy’s distress, checked in with her verbally, gave her space to respond, and then active listened her feelings without judgement, criticism, or problem-solving. All of this gave Mandy the opportunity to clear her head and figure out how to recover. Mom’s reactive stance and support helped Mandy calm down and feel less overwhelmed.
Because stress happens, all the time and to all of us, it is equally important to be proactive. This is a case of the basics. As parents, both model for, and encourage your children to, eat well, sleep well, and maintain physical conditioning. In school, elementary recess and middle/high school P.E. classes form a foundation for physical release and conditioning. Encourage your children in groups, clubs, and sports, also for stress release. Fun, engaging stuff is always stress releasing. Now, inclusion and competition bear their own distresses sometimes, but the stress release function outweighs the potential for distress in these activities.
When you encourage your child to “go outside and play,” you are promoting their positive stress release. When you say, “Let’s go outside and play,” you are both modelling stress management and enhancing relational bonding. Being proactive in your stress management can lead to teachable moments with your children. And remember, just…breathe.
Suppose your child comes to you with an issue. You know, something’s bugging him about things not going for him how he would like. Of course you see his emotional fever rising as he talks to you about the circumstances, and you appropriately active listen his feelings to help him bring the fever down. He seems ready to do something about what’s bothering him. Now what?
The questions are, do you help him address what’s bothering him? How do you help? More importantly, whose fight is it? How can you turn his bother into a learning experience, a teachable moment? The answer is, it depends.
Eight year old Joey got off his school bus after a long day. Mom saw from the kitchen window that his shoulders were slumped and his pace was slow. Usually, Joey had bounded off the bus and run through the back door. “Oh boy!” mom thought as she wiped her hands on the dish towel, “What’s going on here?” She greeted her little boy, got him some milk and cookies and the settled in at the kitchen table. Mom waited.
“It’s not fair,” Joey began, words spilling out, “I just kicked the ball really hard when I was up, like you’re supposed to in kickball at recess.”
His mom nodded and reached out to touch his arm as he continued.
“It’s not my fault that my ball hit Bobby in the face and he fell down.” Mom active listened and Joey continued, “They Bobby got up and rushed at me, yelling and wanting to fight me. I didn’t know what to do, so I hit him back. Then everybody just got around us and yelled ‘fight, fight, fight’ until the teacher broke it up.”
Mom hugged her son tightly and Joey teared up. “What was I supposed to do, Mama?”
Mom has some choices here for her response. She could scold Joey for fighting (judging, criticizing…not good). She could answer her question directly and give him very good solutions (solving his problem…also not good.) She could ask his permission to share some ideas and join him in problem-solving (Bingo!!)
Whose fight is it? It’s Joey’s. Mom’s path to helping out and making this a teachable moment is to active listen, ask permission to offer some thoughts, and then support Joey in formulating a solution.
Now, in these circumstances, age and developmental stage matters. For younger children, ages birth to 6, you take care of their needs, explaining why you are doing what you are doing. From ages 7 to 12, you collaborate and encourage your child to follow through on your discussed plan, indicating that, if he doesn’t, you will step in. From age 13 and beyond, your teen/young adult takes the lead with your encouragement and assurance that you’ve “got his back.” Getting feedback from him along the way helps you be available to consult with him.
How do you help? By being there emotionally and physically for your child come what may. Whose problem is it? Always your child’s problem. How much you help depends on your child’s age and developmental stage. How do you move what’s happening toward being a teachable moment? By collaborating, jointly problem-solving, and giving your child feedback about how he’s handling the situation and how what’s happening fits in to the broader picture of his character and responsibility. Hopefully, in return, you will get a heart-felt “Thanks, Mom.”