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How Parents Help Their Children Cope with Stress by Dr. Jennifer Ashton

What’s going on here? Isn’t stress supposed to be bad for you? The answer is yes . . . and no. Research shows there’s good stress and bad stress. We now know that bad stress is a leading cause of serious chronic illnesses, linked to diabetes, heart disease, and depression. But we also know that some stress can actually be good for you. The secret is in knowing which is which, developing strategies for dealing with both kinds, and understanding what it takes for you to stay emotionally healthy.

Fortunately, a growing body of research shows that we can cultivate lifetime habits that help us recognize and deal with stress and negative emotions, helping us live healthier, happier lives. And yes, even our kids can learn these skills…at any age.

All stress is not created equal. Some stress can actually be good for our kids, motivating them to do their best, to prepare for challenges, to make smart decisions about where to spend time and effort.  But bad stress, often over events you don’t control, can hurt us over the long haul. High levels and sustained levels of the stress hormone cortisol can damage blood vessels, impair metabolism, affect your overall hormonal balance, delay or impair healing and normal cell growth, and weaken the immune system. With prolonged or chronic stress, a generalized inflammation can set in throughout your body and lead to potentially significant physical problems.

Turning Bad Stress into Good

Fortunately, parents can help their children cultivate very productive coping skills with some easy approaches:

1.) Give yourself (and your kids) a positive power pep-talk.  When faced with a stressful situation, find a positive or inspirational quote and repeat it to yourself, write it where you can see it, and make it a part of your daily mantra.  It should be short, to the point and very positive. “You can do well on this physics test” and repeat it as often as possible.

2.) Start a Daily Journal:  Having an outlet for your feelings can be hugely helpful to your health, even if you only express them to yourself in the form of writing in a private journal. And this can definitely help our kids, too! Developing a lifetime habit of journaling, even if it’s just ten minutes every night, can improve their health, reduce their stress, and even help them sleep better. Numerous studies show that writing can also help kids perform better under pressure: In one recent experiment, students who wrote about their anxieties on a math test for ten minutes before a test did much better than those who didn’t.

3.) Deep Breathing, Ten Minutes a Day

I’m a longtime fan of the Ayurvedic, or Eastern Indian, approach to health. Its emphasis on deep breathing to restore balance and wellness falls right in line with a growing body of research showing that deep breathing and meditation are highly effective stress busters.  Even kids can practice a simple breathing technique, called Ayurvedic breathing, for ten minutes every day. Have them close their eyes, and gently close one nostril with the middle finger. Breathe in deeply as slowly as possible through the open nostril. At the end of the inhale, release the nostril, close the opposite one with the thumb, and exhale as slowly as possible through the other nostril (the one that was initially covered). In the Ayurvedic tradition, this kind of breathing is thought to unify the right and left sides of the brain and helps bring heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure down. It’s a great stress-buster!

4) Music, Art, Dancing, or Other Fun

Help your child or teen think of something creative they’ve always wanted to do—learn to dance, play the guitar,or take a cooking class. Encourage your child to ask a friend to go along.  Having some creative outlet that takes the mind completely off the stress in life is one of the healthiest habits your child  can develop.

5): Altruism Therapy

Pouring your attention into helping others is another good way of treating yourself emotionally. Research shows that when a stressed person focuses on other people, the result is an almost immediate sense of gratification, which over time can reduce stress. There is perhaps no better time to start to turn attention to others than in childhood or adolescence.  It is natural and common for our children to think only in terms of themselves and their immediate world.  Helping them to see that the world does not revolve around them and that there is always someone in a worse situation than they are is key for teaching them perspective and context.  This could mean as little as spending fifteen to thirty minutes helping someone else. It could be a volunteer project, like visiting the elderly, or simply helping your neighbor with yard work.


Okay, so we all know we’re not supposed to eat or drink our cares away. But . . . what if it’s healthy food? Some healthy foods can be terrific stress busters. While it’s important to realize that no food or drink can cure stress or a true mood disorder, you may be able to reduce the effects of stress with a trip to your grocery store.

Whole-grain oatmeal: Packed with the healthy type of complex carbohydrates, this may work as a mood stabilizer by boosting the feel-good brain chemical serotonin.

Low-fat milk: The calcium found in milk is helpful in reducing muscle spasms and can ease anxiety and boost mood. (Drink it warm for a more relaxing effect.)

Sushi: This packs a great combo of protein and B-complex vitamins in the fish and the serotonin-boosting carbohydrates and fiber found in the rice. Salmon in particular can help to balance cortisol levels.

Avocados: These are filled with potassium, which can help lower blood pressure, and also contain the healthy type of monounsaturated fat. Half of an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana.

Oranges: The vitamin C in this citrus fruit helps keep cortisol in check.

Nuts: High in B vitamins, which are used in the body’s stress response, and also the antioxidant vitamin E, nuts are a great source of protein.

Spinach: Rich in magnesium, spinach can help reduce headaches caused by stress and combat the fatigue that can accompany stress.

Seeking Help

No matter how good your stress management habits are, sometimes it is a good idea to call in the professionals.  Anxiety or depression can get worse; so can eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, substance abuse problems, or compulsive or addictive habits like cutting, binge eating, or other high-risk behaviors.

If your child’s stress seems to have consumed them, if their moods seem to be stretching out into longer and longer low points, or if the stress or anxiety is interfering with their daily responsibilities, they may need to see a therapist or other mental health professional. There are emotional and mood disorders that no amount of good intentions and healthy habits can shake:  Asking for help is the first step in getting better.  After all, if you had the flu, you’d go to the doctor, right?  Depending on the situation, a therapist could be a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist.  There are plenty who specialize in treating children and teens.  By getting your child help in coping with stress you are not only helping him or her today, you are helping secure their emotional future too!

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