As adults, we can usually recognize when our stress level gets too high. We can give ourselves a needed break, get some exercise, or call a friend for support. Yet children are often poor managers of their own stress. They are less able to understand their feelings of frustration and confusion, and they don’t know how to help themselves. The child with ADHD, autism, or the learning disabled child is even less equipped to handle stressful situations.
My seven-year-old stepdaughter with ADHD used to say, “I feel so angry, I want to punch someone. But I don’t know why.”
Is it stress?
Learn to recognize your child’s stress-symptoms, and teach him to recognize them too. “You don’t usually cry over having to do your homework. I think maybe you’re feeling stress today.” Typical symptoms of stress include overreactions (crying or screaming at minor things), headaches, acting out aggressively toward others, tantrums, throwing things, pouting, withdrawal, etc. You know your child’s typical behaviors and when he is obviously losing control. Helping him to recognize his feelings of being overwhelmed will encourage him to help himself.
Stress-Busting Activities Your Child Can Learn
1. Breathing Exercises – Deep breathing helps harmonize our nervous systems by turning on our parasympathetic nervous system–our “relaxation response.” My stepdaughter found deep breathing particularly helpful. It’s easy, and it’s something she could do for herself. When she had feelings of anger, we taught her to stop and take three deep breaths. We explained that she should close her mouth and breathe in through her nose to slowly fill up her lungs “like balloons.” When they were full, she was to then let the air slowly escape through her mouth. Many times, after the last breath, she would say, “Phew. I feel better now.”
2. The “three things” walk—Here is a terrific activity you can do with your child that will teach her to verbalize her feelings. Go on a walk together around the neighborhood. As you do, tell your child you’d like her to share three things that “really make her angry.” Then, follow-up by asking for three things that make her happy. If she has trouble coming up with ideas, make suggestions. “How about when your little brother won’t share his game? Does that make you angry?” The physical exercise involved in taking the walk is one stress reliever, and verbalizing her feelings is another.
3. Using a journal or day planner- Buy your child a journal or a simple day planner. Teaching your child to organize his daily activities is a big stress-buster. The day feels a lot less chaotic and a lot more manageable when it is broken down into predictable segments. Autistic children and children with ADHD will benefit tremendously from the ability to plan, predict, and have a sense of control over their day. It also aids in transitioning from one activity to another, which is often difficult for these kids.
4. The “relaxation” game. Ask your child to lay down and close his eyes. Then, starting from the top of his head, describe how the parts of his body are relaxing. “Now your fingers are getting heavy. They are completely relaxed. Your arms are so relaxed, they feel like wax melting into the floor. Your whole body feels like its floating away on a raft.” If your child gets into the activity, it’s very relaxing indeed. If she erupts into giggles, you’ve still helped distract her from the stress she was feeling.
Reassure your child that stress is a normal part of life. We all experience it. It’s not whether we’ll experience stress (because we will), but how we manage it that matters most.