All kids feel stress, but they show it in different ways. Your child might complain of aches and pains or lack of sleep, be clingy or whiny, erupt with temper tantrums or pick fights. She might try to avoid school or other situations, she might have trouble concentrating and appear lazy, or she may lack motivation and withdraw into a shell. Or she may fall ill frequently with colds, the flu, or other infections.
Each child has her own characteristic way of showing her stress, which parents have to learn how to read. If she's acting stressed, assume there's a reason that she's uptight or upset. A seven-year-old may refuse to do an activity that she previously enjoyed. Take that as a signal that she's worried about something related to that activity. Don't blame her for how, she feels; it will only make her feel worse. Talk to and listen to your child to find out what's really going on.
A twelve-year-old may tell you angrily what an idiot his teacher is when he's really worried that he hasn't understood fractions and is getting low marks in mathematics. Get your child to express his fears by asking, in a nonjudgmental way, about the teacher. Why does he dislike the teacher? How does the teacher treat him? How does the teacher explain things? Once your son starts talking to you, his underlying problem or fear will emerge.
Parents sometimes forget that their children feel just as many pressures as they do. Today both parents and kids feel that they have too much to do and too little time in which to do it all, which puts pressure on everyone. Experts remind us that just like your day job, school is work for a child. Your child feels pressure from you, from his teachers, and from his friends to perform, to deal with problems you aren't even aware of-fights with friends, bullying on the bus, an offer of cigarettes. When a child shows signs of more severe stress, it may signal problems in the family, too.
Talk with your child about the stress he feels-identifying the problem may relieve some of her anxiety. Your child will feel better when she has a sympathetic ear. Then you can start working together on solutions to her dilemma. Lots of kids clam up during a face-to-face conversation but are more relaxed when talking in the car or while doing activities. You need to find the time and the place that your child is most comfortable talking with you. Look for your opportunity.
Encourage your child to talk about any stressful situation whenever he wants. And when he does start to talk, respond calmly but with interest. Don't get upset, and don't be too quick to offer solutions or lay blame, even if you support his position. If you increase your child's anxiety, he'll be less inclined to talk to you. Often the best way you can help your child handle his stress is to play with him and have fun together. Lots of vigorous physical activity works well, too. So if your eight-year old is anxious and whiny because his best friend is moving away, encourage him to talk about his feelings and help him to plan how he will stay in touch with his friend. Then head outside together to play catch or to run with the dog.
Excerpted from Raising great Kids: Ages 6 to 12 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.