Stress is a significant part of our lives today. And while we all experience it, children and teens have a more difficult time managing it. Academic pressure, social tensions, family stressors, etc all impact a young person’s mental well-being. For this reason, it’s important for parents to help their children develop coping skills by guiding them through tough times instead of jumping in to save them from any discomfort that may come along.
Children and teens often present stress as what adults call a meltdown or a tantrum. Psychologists call it “flooding.” This happens when a wave of strong, negative emotions flood in and rational thinking goes out the door. The amygdala, which helps coordinate emotional responses to the environment, is engaged during this moment. Since the pre-frontal cortex, or self-control center, is not fully developed, children and teens struggle to get control of the powerful wave of emotions. And to top it all off, emotions are contagious, so when children are upset, parents get upset too.
When parents experience this with their child, it often leads to one of two possible responses. Either the parent wants to jump in and save their child from the distress or they minimalize the situation and think their child is overreacting. However, we must remember that children deal with situations that are real and big to them, such as starting a new school year or studying for an exam. If we don’t address stressors that our children experience, it can lead to the development of poor coping skills, a weakened immune system, and an increase in anxiety.
To counteract the effects of anxiety, it’s important to help children become resilient in the face of adversity, stress, and/or failure. This means that parents need to refrain from “fixing” and instead, connect and be present for them while validating their feelings. In the heat of the moment, working on calming techniques such as deep breathing or going for a walk can help calm them since oxygen stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Once they are calm, it is a good opportunity to talk to them about the situation. For younger children, it’s best to help them name the feelings they are experiencing. For teens, brainstorming solutions is most effective.
Many adults were not taught healthy coping strategies growing up so teaching and modeling appropriate ones for children and teens is difficult. On a positive note, there are numerous resources available to help. In the SKILLZ program, Teaching SKILLZ and Parent SKILLZ are used to help children develop a growth mindset by stimulating positive brain chemicals and helping parents better connect and be attuned to their child’s needs. Each class also carries an optimistic tone, so children embrace mistakes and, therefore, develop a growth mindset.
Coping skills take a lot of practice and it’s important for parents to role model healthy ones and guide their children in the development of their own skills. Finding things that makes a child feel good is key in creating these abilities that will lead to resiliency. As the neuroscience saying goes “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Too much stress and no coping skills causes negative wiring in the brain to get stronger. But this can be changed when we strengthen the positive circuitry in the brain and spend more time working on healing procedures and healthy coping skills.