One of the phases in Stepping Stones-our social skills training program for kids and parents-is Stress Management. When we reflect on childhood, we often think of it as a carefree time compared to adulthood. We can’t help but think that kids have it easier. We’re wrong. The average child experiences stress on a regular basis. Kids define feeling stressed as “being stuck in a feeling of upset,” “wanting to cry all the time.” Or “feeling like my guts are going to explode.” For some children, school is filled with such stressful situations that they read getting on the school bus each morning.
All children are stressed by change and uncertainty in their lives. For preschoolers, separation issues can be very painful. For example, a preschooler will likely feel stressed if his mother returns to the work force after being at home for several years. For kindergartners, a trip to the doctor or being left to play at a friend’s house might be stressful. And for an elementary school child, the pressure to succeed academically and socially is enormous.
In addition to normal developmental stressors, children also face temporarily stressful situations. Many children are exposed to parental conflict, separation, divorce, and custody battles. Children are more mobile today, changing schools or moving from one home to another. They frequently must adjust to new neighborhoods and new classmates. In general, kids are not in charge of their own destinies, and as parents make most of the decisions for them, kids end up feeling out of control. More and more children are being left in the care of professionals while both parents work outside the home. Stressed out and overburdened parents unwittingly create a frenetic home environment, making it hard for them to identify stress in their own kids. What’s more, some children also must cope with a serious illness in the family or the death of a close relative. There is little emotional energy left in families to deal with these catastrophic problems because the energy has already been used up dealing with daily life.
As with adults, learning to relax and finding ways to make ourselves more calm is an important skill for children. Identifying our body’s reaction and having strategies to manage worried thoughts is something we work on in group with children as young as 4 years old. One of the ways we accomplish this is working with them on yoga poses. Instead of using the adult terminology, we substitute animal names that represent classic yoga moves. For instance, coming down on all fours, tucking your chin and rounding your back is called a Tiger. When we Bear Walk, we are doing a moving Downward Dog, and the picture you see is called a Crocodile. The children really enjoy this practice and it is something they can easily add to their day. Parents can participate and reinforce by making up their own animal names and corresponding exercises and adding them to an after school or before bedtime routine.