Managing Mid-Year Meltdown: When School Pressures and Holidays Collide

(Texas Family Magazine, November/December 2007)

The holidays are a time of enchantment – the streets are lined with twinkling decorations, excitement is brimming in the eyes of children, and people everywhere are bustling around in busied anticipation. Adults and children alike look forward all year to the joys of the holiday high season, when lavish dinners, festive parties, get-togethers with family and friends, and religious and community events abound. The expectation of these honored traditions and magical experiences make the holidays a special time, especially for children…

Then why, in the midst of these jolly good times, can kids be so cranky and anxious, so tired and emotional? Because along with homemade cookies and eggnog, the holiday season often brings a mountain of mid-year stress. This time of year, the obligations of being a student and an athlete and an artist can come due seemingly all at once. Final exams and papers, group projects, sports championships, fine arts performances – they all are happening one on top of the other, with children caught in the middle.

As adults, we can be so wrapped up in our own holiday hustle and bustle that we might not notice that our children – of all ages – might be feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, too. Fortunately, there are concrete actions parents can take to reduce stress and help their kids cope.

Do the Groundwork

The degree to which children are able to function optimally under any kind of stress depends largely on the coping skills they acquire while developing, says Dr. Beth Blanton Flowers, a Houston psychiatrist and mother of five. She says these coping skills are learned through experience and repeated attempts at problem-solving and then are cultivated through lessons in success and failure. These experiences help children learn to keep trying when things get difficult and, equally important, to learn when to stop, rest, and recuperate. Also, parents should understand and convey to their children that no one can excel at everything, that everyone needs breaks, and that sometimes they will fail – but this is okay.

Dr. Karen DeBord, Associate Professor and Child Development Specialist at the University of North Carolina, suggests the best way parents can fortify their children against the ill effects of stress is to develop an “engaged relationship” with them from birth and then maintain that relationship. She says children need their parents’ constant understanding and support, open communication, and, most importantly, their parents’ time. And, the more positive relationships the child has, the better. Any adult who can provide this kind of positive, healthy support – grandparents, older siblings, teachers, mentors – helps strengthen the child against assaults from stress, although it’s especially fortifying when the parent or primary caregiver is that caring, available adult.

Be Watchful

Another reason close relationships are important is they allow parents to maintain an intimate understanding of their child’s personality, habits, and normal reactions so that when the child is under stress, they will be more likely to recognize the behavioral changes that signal distress.

Stress in children can manifest in many different ways, depending on age and personality. In DeBord’s essay, “Helping Children Cope with Stress,” she outlines many behavioral signs of stress in children: School-aged children may become withdrawn and express feelings of distrust or being unloved. They may complain of headaches or stomachaches and can have trouble sleeping or loss of appetite. Teenagers under stress may show anger and disillusionment and hold onto these feelings longer than usual. They may exhibit a lack of self-esteem and a general distrust of the world. When stress is very high, a teenager may become rebellious and begin to take part in high-risk behaviors.

It is important to remember that the magnitude of stress children feel is measured by their subjective perception of it and may not correspond with the parent’s own measure. Kids may feel stress that a parent may not understand readily, over events that may seem insignificant to the parent.

According to Dr. Madeline Levin, California clinical psychologist and author of “The Price of Privilege,” studies show that adolescents experiencing high levels of stress are more likely to make poor choices and tend to be drawn to those with poor values. According to the National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse VII: Teens and Parents, which is an annual survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teens who are highly stressed are at a considerably greater risk of smoking, drinking, getting drunk, and using illegal drugs.

It is crucial, then, that parents prioritize regular, meaningful interaction with their children from a very young age and then continue that interaction through adulthood. In addition to creating a happier, more balanced home life, this interaction allows parents to be in tune with any behavioral changes that may signal their children need help and then to intervene in the best way.

Strive For a Stress-Free Home

Parents can significantly relieve stress by reducing chaos in the home environment. Kids need order and routine – it helps them function at an optimal level and helps avoid the anxiety that can be brought on by surprises. Suggestions: Help your child place books, school materials, and sports equipment in a dedicated place so they can be found easily. Keep mealtimes and bedtimes as consistent as possible. (This can be difficult with school and home obligations, extracurricular activities, and general holiday activity, but make the effort.) Plan ahead so that you and your children have a smooth morning send-off and a peaceful evening/bedtime routine.

Don’t Share Your Stress

Kids have enough of their own stress, without having to take on that of their parents. Keep your own stress under control or at least out of sight and earshot of the kids. “Highly stressed parents inevitably create a high-stress environment for their children,” states Paul Foxman in “The Worried Child: Recognizing Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Heal.” This can be a tough reality pill for many parents to swallow, especially since part of the stress can come from trying to make life optimal for their children.

The paradox is that parents’ efforts to provide the good life may be creating the very stress that is making them unhappy. Parents often add more stress to already demanding lifestyles by over-committing kids to activities and imposing high academic performance expectations. By wanting success and happiness for kids, parents may be asking too much and trying to do too much. Flowers says parents should keep their expectations in check and teach children to do the same.

In order to cope with stress, she says parents and children alike need to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. They need to acknowledge their own personal limits and assert those healthy limits with others. This skill of self-management is a gift parents can give their children by modeling realistic and healthy concepts of personal ability and time.

Fortify the Body

Everybody needs recovery time. Resilience to stress, which means the ability to bounce back from a stressful event and the ability to function through stressful times, requires a nutritious diet, regular rest, and ample sleep. In periods of stress, people often ignore these three crucial factors. Poor diet and inadequate rest also can cause cumulative damage because they hinder recovery from the ill effects of stress.

The growing bodies and brains of children need to be fueled with good food. Make sure your children are getting a colorful, varied diet. They need food that will provide energy and stamina – final exam week is not the time to feed on high fat, highly-processed, fast food fare. Nor should children skip meals – watch that kids aren’t getting so busy they don’t eat regularly.

Children need periods of rest, which can mean free-play or downtime from their busy schedules. And, the whole family needs a good night’s sleep … every night. Research is clear about the importance of sleep for children. Growing children, including teenagers, need lots of it. Though needs vary, most children need to shut down for at least 9 hours. And, high school students should know that “pulling an all-nighter” is actually counter-productive – the brain has a difficult time holding on to information when it is tired and anxious.

Stress Less

Though stress is an inevitable by-product of our lifestyles, particularly this time of year, we don’t have to accept its mounting ill effects on our families. By paying attention, taking a good look at our choices, and reassessing our priorities, we can create a more peaceful home and help our children lead happier, healthier lives.

© 2007 Texas Family Magazine Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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