If you want to Know About Stress, ask the Kids!

If you want to know the real truth about anything, described in graphic and honest detail, ask kids.  That’s exactly what a TV station and I did in South Africa – we conducted a focus group with children between the ages of seven and twelve to discover how they interpret stress and what they do to try and cope with it. 

This is the first of a 3-part series of blogs describing what the children in the focus group told me.  Their responses were hugely insightful and eye-opening.  None of the participants attended special needs schools.  They all came from middle to upper class environments.

‘What happens to you when you feel stressed?’ 

In answer to my question:  ‘What happens to you when you feel stressed – how do you know you are stressed … one seven- year-old said, (while using his hand to indicate a movement from his belly up to his chest),   ‘when I am stressed it’s like a volcano … like the lava is growing and growing … and then someone just says hello to me and I burst out crying.’  

Another said, ‘I feel cold and get a like a tight feeling in my head.’      

Yet another said, ‘I feel like puking.’

And … ‘I feel helpless and afraid.’

‘I fight with my brother.’

‘I don’t know what to do so I go to my bedroom and hit myself with my pillow.’

The responses went on and on.  These youngsters did not have to hesitate for a second, they did not have to think about what stress is like for them – they could answer this immediately!    And all the little hands went up,  all wanting a chance to share how stress feels for them. 

What I found so interesting is how they spoke about their stress with such openness and candor.  They did not care that the TV cameras and crew were there filming the focus group; they did not care that there were many strangers in the audience watching them and listening to them.   It was as if they were glad to have the opportunity to speak about their stress – and –  to someone who wanted to listen.  One little 7-year old boy who had deep, dark, soulful eyes, had been laid off from school with bronchitis, but absolutely insisted that he wanted to get out of bed that morning to be a part of this focus group so he could tell his stress story and see if he could find a way to make the stress easier to manage.  

Chronic stress is the most dangerous and yet the most ignored condition in children today.

Isn’t this a sad indictment on parents and teachers; schools and coaches, society and healthcare practitioners, and anyone else dealing with children?   Why are our kids so stressed?   And why are so many parents, teachers and healthcare practitioners either:

  1. Ignoring this?
  2. Expecting, or hoping,  that the child will cope?
  3. Medicating the child to help it cope? 

The fact that children are stressed is an undeniable reality.  

Enormous pressure is placed on them to get good grades, be popular with their peers and perform on the sports fields.   We are unlikely to be able to change this.   Surely, if this is the reality, then shouldn’t we focus on ensuring that children have strong and healthy minds, bodies and spirits so that they:

  •  Are resilient and don’t interpret everything as being stressful. 
  •  If they do feel stress, they have the skill and strength to rise above it. 

So here is what I have discovered.  Loving, caring parents and teachers are playing the blame game.  The parents tell me that it is the teacher’s  and school’s fault that the kids are stressed.  The teachers blame the parents.  The truth, from where I stand, is that, with the best of intentions, both parents and teachers unconsciously contribute, every day, to the stress of the children in their lives.  How do you do this?  By walking around with your own stress levels that are through the roof!   Your own minds, bodies and spirits are in a knot.  And, chances are high that you are doing very little to fix this.   In many cases you may have developed your own stress-related physical and emotional ailments – from headaches, tiredness, muscular aches and pains, bloating, overweight, digestive disorders, allergies – to blood pressure, heart, diabetes, thyroid, and others.  

This seriously reduces your ability to be fresh, happy, exciting, energetic, passionate, funny and relaxed around your children. 

I would highly recommend that if you are a parent or a teacher you should consider Taking Charge! in these 5 ways:

  1. The first step of a parent or teacher who wants to Take Charge!  is to learn how to fix yourself first.   When you have a strong, resilient, mind body and spirit, you will automatically pass this on to your children and students.  All children have a natural capacity for stress resilience.  As the parent or teacher, it is your responsibility to know how to tap into, and release, that amazing capacity – but you can’t do it for them if you can’t do it for you!
  2. Take ownership of the level of stress you feel.  Be glad if it is low.  Be concerned if it is high.
  3.  Look at any personal physical or emotional conditions you are dealing with and understand that these were triggered by stress and are worsened by ongoing stress.
  4. Look at your own behaviors, conversations, body language, and tone of voice and ask yourself how much stress the children are picking up from you.  The formula is a simple one –‘where there is a stressed parent or teacher, there will be a stressed child’.  Your children absorb your stress.  So bottom line:  It starts with you.  When you ignore your own stress – this hurts not only your own mind, body and spirit but also your child’s and your student’s mind, body and spirit.
  5. Ask your children (or students) – ‘what am I doing that makes you feel stressed’?    And make the necessary changes.

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