Please do not expect me to solve the problem of stress. Stress lies somewhere between burnout and boredom, solutions can only be individual. We all cope with it, children and adults, each in one’s own way.
In these technological days we have much stress. You would think not when machines do so much of the hard work, when the work week was lowered to 40 hours, when even the kitchen has many labor-saving devices. However, we now seem to have so little time that we read books on how to manage the stress of overwork.
Stress is the response to something you consider fearful or challenging. It can be real or imagined. We all know the symptoms, adults and children alike – knots in the stomach, tightening of the throat, faster heartbeat, sweating, and others. We evolve coping methods very early in life, we refine them as we go along. Sometimes stress brings out the best in us, sometimes the worst. In any case our behavior is often unexpected by those around us, especially those who know us best.
Stress is often brought on by unexpected events, those to which we have not built up a response. You can be much more patient when you know what will happen next. There your experience gives you an advantage over the children. You also have built up defenses which they still must find. They take cues from you.
If the stressful event is beyond your control it is more bearable. There is then no blame attached. As children you were blamed for so many things that reactions to blame are automatically stressful.
Children put adults under stress. They make messes, break our valuables, they whine and cry, have temper tantrums, they run in the house, climb on the furniture with dirty feet. They forget to brush their teeth. Worst of all, they are sometimes impertinent, and sometimes they even disobey. What do you do about it?
Adults put children under stress. They hurry them, they slap their hands when they are touching things, they scold and nag, they call them clumsy or stupid, they pull them away from what they are doing, they push them away, they punish. What do the children do about it?
Reactions seem to be a matter of control. Adults are in many ways afraid of children., afraid of losing their authority. Parents with children as young as a few months are sometimes fearful lest they should get the best of them. Disobedience is seen as a cardinal sin to be squashed at any cost. Impertinence is one of the greatest horrors, seen often when it is not intended. The stress reaction in these cases is apt to be quite violent. Children under stress cannot understand all this. They have lost control too. Things are done and said that are regretted on both sides. Adults always win the struggle and are seen to be in the right. Very few adults will apologize, very many will demand apologies.
Everyone knows that the stressful feelings will go away, but at the time it is hard to admit.
Children also want to be in control of themselves. They have no illusions as to their own weakness alongside adults. They have their own defenses. One is withdrawal into fantasy. Here they are safe, adults rather like it. Sometimes they exhibit regressive behavior, even wetting themselves. Others lash out, and there are many ways to do that. These children become proud of being able to stand the heat. They will try to escape blame by denial or putting blame on someone else. They will distort the facts until they come out favorably. Adults use the same defenses but are not very tolerant of them in their own children.
Our first reaction to the unforeseen situation is alarm which turns into fear or challenge. You must see the challenge and decide whether it is worth the trouble. Children do this every day. Frustration is a daily emotion for them. They cope with it, they are used to it. They just do not want anyone else doing it for them or telling them how to do it. It is, again, a matter of control. Adults, on the other hand, feel that they should be in control of the environment. They buy things, fix things, put them away, clean them, discard them. They become stressed when they feel loss of control., when they can’t keep up with the breakage. Adults will gladly accept help.
The only way to avoid stress is to see it coming. This is not possible with earthquakes or floods, it is possible in traffic jams. It is possible with children only when you take the time to understand their motivations. You need to realize how many new situations they face every day, how they can only take so much before stress sets in. It is not always your fault. It should be easy to recognize the signs. With older children you can use language to help them see the coming storm clouds. Everyone can become aware of the phenomena of the attention span and stop an activity before the breaking point. In this way you are exercising power over yourself. It is much easier to do this than to get over a temper tantrum.
One adult response to stress is to bite one’s lip, suppressing the feeling altogether. This is hard for children to deal with, it would be better to explain. If you are tired, hungry, out of sorts, these are situations they can well understand, and they will try to be patient. They need to know that you also are coping with these emotions so that they can get tips from you for the future.
There is much stress when we spend too much time doing things which are against our true inclinations, or time doing things dictated by others. It takes away the feeling of control which we need for a sense of safety. The ardent mountain climber will endure much of the same stress which will tire the army recruit. Schools are burdensome for the same reasons.
The great inclinations of children are mastery of mind and body. The baby who is learning to walk is under terrible stress if he is prevented by having his legs in a cast. The adult in this situation is also under stress, but not as much. When it is time to walk the child must get up. The toddler must touch things and is under much strain if confined in a playpen. The same child will be under less stress when confronted with an unfamiliar flight of stairs to practice climbing skills. Even adults are under great stress when put into prison.
To help children cope with unfamiliar situations it is well to give them plenty of notice with you are going somewhere or when something unusual is in the offing. Then give them the appropriate behavior so that they may be prepared for it. It is extremely stressful not to know how to act. That is the time when children jump up and down and squeal most obnoxiously.
Boredom is one of the most difficult situations for children. It takes years to learn how to handle it gracefully. Many children cope with this by turning off. This is sad.
One great source of stress is the social snub and the fear of it. Every child comes home at least once saying , “Nobody likes me.” At this time a child can be in such stress as not to be able to concentrate on arithmetic lessons, or be very creative. You will need to teach your child as much as you can how to manage. The more you take time for such seeming trivialities the more your child will be able to deal with the next situation. The social stresses of adolescence are just around the corner.
In the world of stress we are asked to hurry, hurry, hurry, or we will be late for the next thing. Your home is an island in this hurried world. You can set the tone. It is in your power, at least up to a point. Without stress life would be pretty bland. It helps us exercise our emotions and make them serve us. It colors up the world. Treated properly it helps us know ourselves better.
by Marietta Rawson