The Feelings Thermometer

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You know what’s hard when you’re little (and sometimes even when you’re big)?  Verbalizing feelings.

We tell kids to use their words.  We want them to say what they mean.  We want them to use a calm voice to describe what’s going on, even when what’s going on feels extremely urgent and fills them with anger or stress.

Kids need help learning to verbalize their feelings.  That’s where the “Feelings Thermometer” comes in handy.

Even really young kids can understand that your temperature rises when you have a fever and goes down when you are healthy.  Explain that when you’re angry, worried, or under stress, your temperature rises.  You feel uncomfortable, your muscles are tense, and you might even have a headache or stomach pains.  But when you’re happy…you feel cool.  Your body is calm and feeling good.

Draw an example for your kids to visualize the metaphor.  Little faces and different colors for different feelings can help.  Describe each feeling in detail – from how you might act to how your body might feel.

Have your kids practice with one when they’re calm.  When they’re sad or worried, revisit the thermometer and fill out a new one.  And when they’re angry – have them color it red, red, red!  Both verbalizing their emotion and the act of coloring it in can provide some relief from the big feelings, and help your child calm down enough to talk about it and think about some solutions.

What are you waiting for?  Go ahead and get those thermometers up on the fridge!

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The Worry Brain

A worried mind is a very loud mind, it practically screams out for help the minute the lights go down or an unexpected trigger hits.

Go ahead and panic, it whisper-yells, over and over again.  The body responds in an instant with anxiety symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid, heartbeat, muscle tension, stomach pain, and dizziness.

And that’s just for adults…imagine how children feel when panic sets in?

We are all equipped with the fight or flight response.  We need that little voice inside our brains that reminds that the pot is too hot, that we shouldn’t run in the street, or that danger is imminent.  Healthy stress is a very good thing.

But excessive stress and excessive worry can lead to health problems.  Poor sleep (including nightmares), poor eating habits, frequent colds and viruses, headaches (including migraines), stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues, and high blood pressure top the list of negative side effects of stress and anxiety.

Children have worries, and some worry more than others.  It’s a perfectly normal part of development.  Many children even have specific fears that cause the brain to go into panic overload.  Transitions, crowds, separation from parents, getting lost, being left behind or home alone, fear of failure, fear of upsetting a teacher or parent, fear of rejection, natural disasters, scary TV shows or the news, dogs and other animals, spiders, the dark, monsters, ghosts, and nightmares are all common childhood fears and worries.

As their worlds expand, children become aware of new real-life stressors and experiences.  It makes sense that their fears become larger as they experience things like fire and earthquake drills or talk about personal safety on a regular basis.

Self-talk helps children talk their way through stressful and fear inducing situations.  When children talk back to their worries, they feel some control over the situation and can remain calm enough to find a solution to the problem.

I like to teach kids about the difference between the “Happy Brain” and the “Worry Brain”.

The happy brain focuses on things that make a child feel calm and happy on an everyday basis.

Example of a Happy Brain

The CEO of the brain remains calm and in control when the “Happy Brain” takes the lead.  Worry is there in case the fight or flight response is needed, but fears are at a minimum when the “Happy Brain” is in charge.

The “Worry Brain” is a different story.  The “Worry Brain” hits the panic button when a trigger arises, causing those terrible anxiety symptoms mentioned above.  The “Worry Brain” makes decisions based on fear, and causes children to feel scared, sad, and alone.

Example of a Worry Brain

When the “Worry Brain” takes over, the CEO of the brain shrinks and the worry center expands.

Kids can talk back to their worry brains, though, and that can help them cope with stressful situations.  They can say things like:

No, worry brain!  I won’t get lost!

I can ask for help!

Monsters aren’t real!

When your child can identify her fear triggers, she can learn to talk back to her Worry Brain so that she can make a choice to help her through the acute stress reaction.

Drawing and play are two great ways to help your child identify her worries.  Pleasers by nature and not wanting to worry their parents, most young children will respond, “I don’t know” when asked directly about specific fears.

Some kids go from calm to panic in a matter of seconds.  They forget to talk back because they are too busy trying to catch their breath…

You might want to practice blowing up some balloons first to help them understand the art of deep breathing:

 

Do your worried child a favor today and draw out a happy brain and a worried brain…understanding how our brains and bodies work can make a very big difference in the mind of a worried child.

And then practice those self-talk statements…because we all know that practice makes proficient.

Here’s hoping you have a worry-free day!

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Helping Kids Cope with Stress

You might not know this, but apparently 5th grade is the new 11th grade.  The pressure to succeed, make that excel, in elementary school is alarming.  All over the country parents are complaining of too much homework, too many activities, and too much stress.

 

Believe it or not, stress is not actually a bad thing.  A healthy amount of stress challenges us to push just a little bit harder.  It’s what helps us remain focused and alert in emergency situations.  It’s that little voice in the back of your head that suddenly becomes loud and yells, “swerve!” when another car is headed straight for yours.

 

A healthy amount of stress keeps our brains active and alert.

 

But children today experience very high levels of stress, even beginning in Kindergarten.  The academic, social, and athletic pressure imposed upon them is unreasonable at best.  And they are suffering for it.

 

Much to my dismay, I don’t think the homework thing will subside anytime soon (although the President of France is on a mission to ban homework…anyone want to jump the pond with me?), so it’s important to teach your children how to cope with stress.

 

**Parent tip:  Paying for good grades or punishing for poor grades both impose external stress on your child.  Be proud when your child succeeds and seek help when your child struggles.  Keep your emotions away from the grade.

 

It’s imperative for parents to recognize the signs of excess stress in children.  A few things to look for include:

 

Sadness or depressed mood

Sleep disturbance (too much or too little, frequent night-wakings, frequent nightmares)

Irritability or other mood changes

Stomachaches or headaches (including migraines)

Anxiety (nail biting, restlessness, rumination, excess worries, etc.)

Eating issues (too much or too little, significant changes that are not otherwise accounted for by growth)

Frequent colds

 

Whether or not you see any signs of significant stress in your child, teaching your child to cope with stress now can only help when overload hits in the future.

 

Kiss Overscheduling Goodbye:  If your child is up hours beyond his normal bedtime in the name of homework each night, something has to go.  Kids of all ages need to learn to set limits.  In general, one team sport and one other extra curricular (art class, theater, etc.) per semester is plenty.  Your child needs downtime, social time, and enough time to keep up with academics without losing sleep.  Kids want to do everything.  It’s up to us to teach them to set limits and prioritize.

 

Focus on Sleep:  If your child has to get to school between 8-9AM each morning, staying up until 11PM is NOT an option.  Even though older children can self-monitor when it comes to getting ready for bed and completing assignments, they still need a consistent bedtime.  Weekend nights should only fluctuate by about an hour.  The older they get, the more they think that bedtime is no longer a requirement.  We have to model and teach healthy habits to ensure that out kids are getting enough sleep (which will help with those pesky headaches and colds).

 

Put Away Perfection:  Some kids put undue pressure on themselves (I would know, I was one of them) while others react the pressure imposed by parents.  Perfect doesn’t exist.  Teach your children to strive for doing their best on any given day, and to stop focusing on perfection.  The best gift you can give your child is the freedom to perform their best without comparison.

 

Healthy Choices:  You know how you reach for the salty pretzels and tend to eat on the go when you’re under stress?  We seek a quick fix when we feel our blood sugar crashing, but this actually complicates matters.  Teach your children to sit when they eat (Pop Tarts on the bus will only increase the body’s stress response), make healthy food choices (eat the rainbow), get regular exercise, and lean on their support systems.  Many children feel that they need to suffer through excess stress on their own.  Communicate with your children.  Welcome their thoughts and emotions.  Offer help.  They need you more than they are willing to admit.

 

Reframe:  When the stress cycle sets in, many kids become overwhelmed and respond to everything with a negative (I can’t, it’s impossible, it will never get done).  Teach your children to reframe their thoughts.  Have your child repeat the stressor out loud first and then say it again with a positive spin.  For example, “I can’t do this!  This math is too hard!” can be reframed to, “I think I need a break right now, and then I can tackle this difficult math homework.”  Adding a positive statement decreases the stress response and gives your child a moment to relax.

 

Teach Relaxation Exercises:  The natural response to stress includes clenched fists, tight muscles, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing.  Teach your children to calm their breathing and relax their muscles, even when under stress.  Yoga helps kids learn to control their breathing and focus their thoughts.  Invest in a great Yoga DVD and use it often.  Teach your kids to count to five when inhaling and exhaling.  Teach progressive muscle relaxation (Tighten hand muscles for a count of three and release.  Repeat on other side.  Work your way up your arms, one muscle at a time.  Then begin with toes and move up.  Finish with face muscles).  It’s also important to make sure that your kids have ample time for relaxing activities (drawing, reading, walking the dog, hobbies, etc.)

 

Self-Talk and Scripts:  Talking back to the fear center of the brain is a great way to stop stress on the spot.  When our brains react to excess stress, we often experience anxiety.  Anxiety can cause intrusive thoughts.  Teach your child to talk back to stress.  Saying something like, “Stop!  I know I can handle this.  I can finish this homework” can help stop the intrusive thoughts from taking over.  Preparing scripts in advance to tackle common stressors is also useful.  Being prepared for stressful situations can circumvent that out-of-control feeling that often results in excessive anxiety.

 

Conquer Small Obstacles:  Feeling in control of the small stuff can go a long way toward building resilience.  It can be difficult to know when to step back and when to step in.  Instead of focusing on fixing or not fixing, consider providing support along the way.  Help talk your child through small obstacles by asking questions and trying different strategies together.  When you support your child along the way, your child learns when to try alone and when to seek help.

 

Dial back the pressure at home whenever possible.  Set realistic expectations, but know that your child is working hard at school and in extra curricular activities.  And remember that a mental health day every once in a while can really reset the soul.  

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When Darkness Falls

I could feel the shift in her emotions from the moment the sun began to set.  Curled up in my lap on her old rocking chair in the guest room, we slowly moved back and forth while watching shades of pink and red envelop the sky.

 

She seemed to make herself just a little bit smaller with each passing moment.  We breathed in unison, heart to heart, as silence filled the room.

 

“I feel small tonight, Mommy.”

 

I stroked my fingers through her sun-kissed chestnut brown hair as we watched a seagull make its way toward the beach.

 

“I know, sweet girl.  You haven’t been yourself tonight.”

 

As darkness crept into the room, she heaved a great big sigh.  With eyes half closed she nuzzled into my chest, just as she had done as an infant.

 

“Let’s get you to bed, sweet girl.  You seem tired and it’s getting late.”

 

I scooped her up, the five-year-old weight of her heavy in my arms, and gently placed her upon her lavender polka dot duvet.  I settled onto the floor beside her bed to tell her a relaxing story, but, before I could get a word out, I heard a noise.

 

She was sobbing, my sweet baby girl.  With tears streaming down her face, loud hiccupping sobs (the kind held in for far too long) escaped her throat, one after another.

 

Without a thought I jumped up and crawled into her bed.  Wrapping her in my arms, I kissed her forehead over and over again.

 

“What is it, sweet girl?  What’s making you feel so sad today?”

 

She buried her head in my chest, letting the last of her sadness out…

Please stop by moonfrye to continue reading this post.

When Life is Scary

Bad things happen to good people.  Not every day, but some days.

 

People make bad choices.  People hurt other people, take things from other people, and violate the personal space of other people.

 

People lie, cheat, and steal…even if it negatively affects other people.

 

People spread rumors about other people, bully other people, and intentionally hurt the feelings of other people.

 

Not all people do these things, but some do.  And so we need to teach our children to be aware of these not-so-nice people who exist in our nice little world.

 

We hoped that we could shield our kids from certain adult problems for a little bit longer.  We thought that buying a house in a “safe” neighborhood with great schools would buy them a little ignorance.  We were mistaken.

 

This weekend, during the hour that we went out as a family, our home was burglarized.  Many, many things were taken.  Some replaceable, some not.  Our home, or safe space, was violated and turned upside down.

 

This weekend, ignorance was no longer bliss.  We had to tell our sweet, innocent little kids about the not-so-nice people in the world.  About the ones who break into your home, take your things, and make a mess of everything.  About the ones who are dangerous, disrespectful, and really just rotten.  About the ones who don’t care about others.

 

It was heartbreaking.  We are still recovering.  We are still trying to stay calm and find our way back to feeling safe in our own home.

 

This weekend, we had to be strong in the face of great stress so that we could help our children feel safe and secure.

 

Remain Calm:  My first instinct was to get everyone out of the house and into the car.  No yelling, no panic, just a specific order.  Kids pick up on panic and anxiety.  Stay calm, use your normal voice tone, and focus on immediate safety.  Once I got the kids out of the house, I let them know that I needed to call 911 for help.

 

Be Honest:  When something goes horribly awry, it sometimes seems necessary to start crafting a story for the sake of the kids.  They know when something isn’t right.  Give your kids a brief, but honest explanation about the situation.  In our case, I let the kids know that someone went into our house when we were out and took some of our things, and that that is against the law.

 

Provide Reassurance:  Kids live in little safety nets in their minds.  They think we can handle anything.  It’s hard to imagine that something is beyond the scope of your heroic parents.  Reassure your kids that they are safe, and that safety is the most important thing.  Give them extra hugs and kisses and focus on them as much as possible.  When we panic and start running around, we signal a complete loss of control.  This is very scary for kids.  Try to focus on their needs as much as possible.

 

Expect Behavioral Changes:  Kids may be resilient, but they don’t bounce back in a day.  Kids will show behavioral changes following stressful life events.  It’s reasonable to expect clinginess, excessive tears, frustration, increased temper tantrums, poor sleep (difficulty falling or staying asleep), and possible changes in appetite.  Be patient.  Kids need to know that they are safe.  They will ask the same question over and over and talk about the event repeatedly.  Allow it.  Keep your answers consistent.  And let them cling for a while.

 

I am happy to report that we are safe and sound.  We will find our way back to normal as we recover from this event, and the kids will soon feel safe again.

 

Have you had to teach your kids about people who make very poor choices?

 

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Holiday Meltdowns (Tips for avoiding holiday stress)

   

Riley & Liam enjoying some holiday magic

The holiday season is full of fun, excitement, and tradition.  It’s a time of decorations, baking, and thinking about others.  The anticipation seems to start a little bit earlier each year, regardless of your holiday, which means that the holiday season now runs from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  That’s a long stretch of time.

Hidden among all of the fun and excitement are two potentially destructive hidden stressors:  Exhaustion and over-stimulation.

Holiday related meltdowns are to be expected, no matter the age of your kids.

It’s reasonable to assume that kids are talking about the holidays with friends at school, learning about various traditions in their classrooms, and talking about it at home.  A lot.  Tis the season of wish lists, after all.

You can’t even run to the local pharmacy to pick up a toothbrush without encountering toys, holiday candy, and decorations the second you walk in the door.  Just the other day Riley became fixated on a toy at Walgreens.  A toy that would most certainly be abandoned within minutes of getting it home.  But with the pretty bow on the box?  She just had to have it.  Until we walked out the door empty-handed, and then she immediately forgot that it even existed.

The point is that the holidays are everywhere.  It’s very difficult for kids to stay focused on gratitude and wait patiently for their holiday to arrive when they are bombarded with imagery and toys every which way they turn.  Who wouldn’t have a meltdown once in a while?

A meltdown (or temper tantrum) is simply a physical and emotional release of pent up stress, exhaustion, and overstimulation.  It’s perfectly healthy for kids to release their stress this way, even if it does earn you a few stern looks from passersby.  Fear not, parents; it’s all part of growing up.  But there are steps you can take to avoid excessive stress this holiday season.  Below are some tips to do just that:

1.    Let them sleep:  Kids need sleep.  Specifically, somewhere between 10-14 hours of daily sleep for the under six crowd, and 8-10 from 7 on up.  Resist the urge to keep your kids up late for holiday related parties and other special treats, and ensure that they get adequate rest.  Lack of sleep leads to stress, exhaustion, and illness.  Holidays aren’t much fun if you’re cranky, tired, and sick.

2.    Eat well:  Adults often reference over-eating during the holiday season.  If presented with unhealthy choices, kids will most certainly do the same.  Stick to your normal meal/snack schedule for your kids.  Provide light meals before parties to avoid over-indulgence on snacks and sugary treats.  Offer desserts as you normally would.  Set a good example and be mindful of what your children really need.

3.    Limit parties/activities:  Everyone loves a holiday party.  It’s the perfect time to catch up with old friends and let the kids run free.  Until the kids become over-stimulated, and then it’s just stressful.  Choose the parties that will truly be family friendly and limit the amount of time you spend there.  60-90 minutes of party time is more than enough for kids 6 and under.  Older children might hang in there a bit longer, but behavior shifts quickly when boredom sets in.  Keeping your kids at a party too long can be a set-up for poor choices.  Keep it short and sweet.

4.    Factor in downtime:  It can be tempting to sign your kids up for several “camps” the minute school lets out for a couple of weeks.  School vacations serve a purpose.  Your kids are working hard at school, be it preschool or high school.  Allow them some downtime to hang out in pajamas all day, build forts, and just be a family.  Kids need time to regroup and relax.  Downtime is the best gift you can give your child.

5.    Create traditions:  The holiday season should be about family, tradition, and giving.  Due to the constant bombardment of stuff everywhere, it often becomes about wanting.  Your children will remember the cookie baking, tree decorating, caroling, and stories/games by the fire.  Whether it’s Elf on the Shelf or a countdown calendar, start building traditions that aren’t about toys and stuff.  My kids had a great time choosing and decorating our tree, and are now looking forward to baking Christmas cookies.  They have their moments when confronted with cool new toys everywhere they go, but the minute they get home it’s all about family time.

6.    Don’t force the photos:  I know, I know…everyone wants the annual picture with Santa.  Here’s the thing:  Some kids are petrified to sit on a stranger’s lap and smile.  Can you blame them?  Let your child choose whether or not she’s ready to sit on Santa’s lap or just wants to wave.  And try not to force your kids to pose for big family pictures for long periods of time.  Chances are they will be fairly over-stimulated by the time they even reach the holiday party, asking them to sit still and smile is actually asking a lot.

7.    Appreciate the little things:  Instead of focusing on 8 nights of gifts or the upcoming visit from Santa, try to make note of the small wonders of the season.  Our favorite activity during this time is to take “night drives” to see the lights and decorations around the neighborhood.  Take time to point out the lights, enjoy the smell of fresh baked cookies, and sit by the tree or fireplace and just read together.  Cue your kids to find magic in small acts of kindness and the simple pleasure of appreciating a beautifully decorated home.

8.    Let it happen:  As I mentioned earlier, meltdowns happen this time of year.  In general, the first instinct is to find a way to stop the tantrum.  People cite distraction, bargains, and removal from the target as useful tools.  What they fail to realize is that these are simply Band-Aid strategies.  Children need to release their stress, and often a meltdown or tantrum is the best way to do so.  Let them cry, let them yell, let them let it out…and then help them regroup and figure out why they had so much pent up stress.  A meltdown can be a very good thing.  It gives your child a chance to get it all out and then start fresh.  It gives your child a second chance.

How do you avoid holiday meltdowns?

 

Relaxation Revisited (Tips for helping your kids relax)

The end of October marks the beginning of the very busiest time of the year.  Starting with Halloween and ending on New Year’s Day, children are in a near constant state of over-stimulation, excitement, celebrations, shifting emotions, and exhaustion.

It’s tiring, and it can lead to frequent meltdowns.

It helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve for teaching your kids how to relax when they become over-stimulated or overwhelmed.

Below are some tips to help you help your child relax:

1.    Know the signs:  Kids are always in forward motion and will continue along that path as long as their bodies allow.  Most young children do not know how to stop and assess how they are feeling (in fact, many adults don’t do this either).  Teach your child the signs of over-stimulation:  Rapid heartbeat, tightened muscles, inability to settle down, poor sleep, and feeling like they just can’t stop moving.  Children don’t always know when to say when, so we have to step in and help them slow down.  Teach them to recognize the signs so that they can ask for help.

2.    Exercise:  In a long season full of parties, planning, shopping, cooking, and crafting, children don’t always get adequate exercise.  Exercise is a great stress reducer.  For kids this means playing outside (or indoors in inclement weather, think scavenger hunts and obstacle courses), going to the park, or a fun class that involves movement for at least 45 minutes per day.  If you get their bodies moving while they are having fun, they will exhibit fewer symptoms of stress.

3.    Music:  Adults often reference listening to a favorite band to check out when the going gets tough, so it makes good sense that music helps children as well.  Riley sneaks off to her room and turns on her bedtime music when she becomes overwhelmed.  It’s not the style of music that matters, it’s that you play the music that means something to your child and helps him relax.  People like to reference classical music as a good strategy for relaxing babies and young children, but classical music can actually be a bit startling at times.  Ray LaMontagne turned our morning around just the other day.  It’s the music, not the lyrics, which calms them down.  Find what works for you.

4.    Take a break:  If your kids are experiencing frequent meltdowns, then it’s time to look at your daily schedule and find a way to factor in some downtime.  Whether it’s a nap or just some quiet playtime mid-day, children need downtime to rest and process the events of the morning.  Give them a break each day and allow them time to just be.  I often have parents tell me that once the nap is gone the days just become hectic.  Riley has a quiet time period during Liam’s nap each day.  She needs to check out, watch a show, read some stories, and just play with her dolls by herself so that she can enjoy the afternoon.  Make it happen.

5.    Visualization:  Young children have the benefit of living in a world of active imaginations.  This can come in handy when they are over-stimulated.  Visualizing something happy helps children relax and release their stress.  Have your child lie comfortably on the bed and close his eyes.  Ask him to describe his favorite memory and use that memory to describe something that makes him happy.  I often cue Riley to take a few deep breaths in the beginning, but by the time she finds her happy memory she becomes very calm and does the breathing on her own.

6.    Relaxation Breathing:  Deep breathing is quite possibly the best way to relax your body.  Deep breathing, when done correctly, lowers your heart rate and normalizes your blood pressure.  If you tell your child to take a deep breath, he will most likely take a very quick deep breath.  Children need to practice slow, deliberate breathing that relaxes the body.  The Cotton Ball Relaxation Game adds a little fun to deep breathing.  Children have to use slow, deep breaths to move the cotton ball from one end of the table to another.  See the video below.  If they learn to use deep breathing exercises when they’re calm, they will be better able to retain the information and visualize the exercise when they are upset.  Another great exercise is blowing up balloons.

 

How do you help your kids relax?

Stressed Out Parenting

“Stress is commonly defined as the failure to respond adequately to mental, emotional, or physical demands, whether real or imagined.  Stress can be environmental, internal, or physical.

Stress often manifests as headaches, rapid heart rate, stomachaches, back or neck pain, sleep loss or excessive sleep, depressed mood, excessive irritability, excessive worrying, eating issues (too much or too little), social isolation, and sometimes increased alcohol consumption and/or drug use.

You’ve probably heard all of this before.  You’ve likely experienced some of these symptoms during difficult times.

But did you know that your stress can and does affect your children?…”

Stop by Mommy Moment to finish reading this article and find out more about how stress affects our children.

 

Mommy Moment

Stress Be Gone (Tips for playing away stress)

It’s no secret that kids experience stress.  Stress is triggered by illness, sleep deprivation, friendship issues, school (yes, even preschool), over-stimulation, over-scheduling, family problems, and various other factors.

Stress often manifests in the form of tantrums, regressed behavior, nightmares, difficulty separating, poor appetite, social avoidance, and excessive crying.

Feeling stressed can be scary for children.  It can cause them to feel out of control and helpless.  It can cause behavioral changes that others might label as “wild”, “out of control”, or even “depressed”.

Stress needs to be addressed.

The best ways to help ward off excessive stress include:  establishing consistent eating and sleeping routines, ensuring adequate exercise, avoiding over-stimulation, and avoiding over-scheduling.  When you have a solid schedule in place, it helps your child know what to expect and ensures adequate sleep and healthy eating.

There will always be triggers out there, and some will yield higher stress reactions than others.  Staying attuned to your child’s emotions and changes in behavior will help you to intervene more effectively when signs of stress emerge.

There are also ways to structure your child’s play time to include more relaxing, and stress-reducing activities.

Below are some tips for playing your way through the stress:

1.   Play dough:  The benefits of play dough are endless.  Regular play dough use improves fine motor skills and hand eye coordination, provides an outlet for creativity, and provides sensory stimulation to name a few.  But it’s also an excellent stress reducer.  Kneading play dough and forming it into shapes is similar to doing progressive muscle relaxation on the arms.  It causes children to tighten and release their arm muscles, thereby helping them relieve built up tension.  Hint for making it fun:  Make your own play dough to get your child more involved, add vanilla for a nice scent, add oatmeal, rice, or glitter for extra texture, mix various colors to make new shades, and use plastic cookie cutters to add new shapes.  *During transitions and following tantrums are great times to break out the play dough and relieve some stress.

2.   Sand:  There’s a reason the sand box is always packed toward lunchtime and at the end of the day.  It’s a great place for kids to decompress.  Running sand through their hands and pouring sand back and forth between cups provides a calming sensory experience, while building with it or drawing in it helps them check out and play quietly for a while.  Liam can often be found in our sand box just before dinner, after an exciting afternoon of running around and playing.  You don’t need a sand box in the back yard to use sand to calm your kids.  Consider filling a large plastic storage box with play sand (can be found at Home Depot) and few cups and spoons.  Mini sand boxes can also brighten the mood on a rainy day.

3.   Water:  Kids love to play with water.  They like to pour it, splash in it, water the garden with it, and experiment with it.  It’s one of the best toys around.  Water play can be very relaxing.  Similar to sand play, letting warm water run their hands and pouring it back and forth between cups, bowls, or pitchers provides a relaxing sensory experience (there’s a reason most spas have fountains everywhere).  Adding some soap and creating bubbles to blow using deep breaths also helps relieve pent up stress.  Hint for keeping it interesting:  Put six plastic cups of water on a tray and give your child food coloring and a small dropper to experiment with color.  Riley can spend an hour doing this at the end of the day.

4.   Drawing:  Markers and paper are always a great way to de-stress.  Stopping to think about or plan a drawing helps them refocus on a single goal (a great antidote for over-stimulation), while moving the marker across the page relaxes the senses.  In general, it’s best to let kids create what they want instead of trying to do art therapy, but prompting them with:  “can you draw how you’re feeling today?” or “let’s use the colors to show how you’re feeling” might help your child express herself non-verbally and give you an idea of how to better help her cope with her triggers.

5.   Play tools and gardening:  Children tend to carry their stress in their muscles because they often tense their muscles in response to triggers (tight fists, tight jaws, etc.).  Activities that cause them to tense and relax those muscles will help relieve some of that stress.  Play tool sets with hammers and “nails” can help them pound out some stress, while digging with gardening tools will have a similar effect.  Watering plants also provides a calming sensory experience.

6.   Bubbles:  When in doubt, blow bubbles!  Head outside and put your child in charge of the bubble blowing.  To successfully blow bubbles, kids need to take very deep breaths and blow the air out evenly.  Deep breathing is one of the most effective relaxation techniques around.  Please, save the automatic bubble blowers for birthday parties.  They need to use their bodies to make the most of this relaxing activity!

Adding a few de-stressing play activities into your day can help your child relieve some of the day to day stress that she experiences.

What playtime activities do you use to de-stress? 

 

 

Back to School Stress (Tips for staying calm)

Back to school is an exciting time.  There’s lots of shopping to be done:  New clothes, new shoes, new crayons, and new backpacks are all in order.  As the beginning of school approaches, kids start to look forward to friends they might have missed over the summer.  Yes, back to school is an exciting time.

But it can also be very stressful, and it is completely normal for kids to experience some back to school anxiety.

Getting a new teacher means adapting to a new teaching style and starting from scratch.  For a child who struggles with transitions, this is a recipe for stress.  Riley spent the entire week before school started trying to convince me that staying home would be much easier than meeting new teachers.  As it turns out, she loves her new class (as I knew she would).

There are other back to school stressors as well.

Some kids will worry about making new friends and where their friendships from the previous year stand.  If they are split up from a best friend, they might fear losing that friend or not being able to form a similar friendship in their new class.

The return to a busier schedule puts a huge amount of stress on children.  Chances are that, just weeks ago, they sat around in their pajamas until late morning.  Suddenly they’re rushing to get dressed, rushing through breakfast, and rushing out the door each morning.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And then there are the extra curricular activities.  Everything seems to start at once.

Many parents experience their own back to school stress.  They worry about such things as:  Getting the “best” teacher, whether or not their child will be happy and have friends, and separating from their kids again after a couple of months together.  When parents are under stress, kids are quick to pick up on it.  Try to save your worries for late night chats with your spouse to minimize eavesdropping by smaller ears.

We tend to focus on the excitement of back to school with the hope that it will encourage our children, but the truth is that children experience stress too.  They just don’t always verbalize it.  The good news is there are a few steps you can take to make the adjustment a little less stressful.  Below are some tips to help you help reduce back to school stress:

1.   Focus on routine:  The latest research shows that American children, on average, are under-slept.  Having a good bedtime routine is essential to helping your children catch up on sleep.  Children need anywhere from 11-14 hours of sleep (total).  A consistent bedtime (between 7-8pm is best) will help your child’s body adjust to a schedule and ensure better sleep.  A consistent morning routine is also beneficial.  Create a morning routine checklist to tape to your child’s door to help them stay focused.  Consider doing some prep work in advance.  I always have Riley decide on her breakfast for the next day before she goes to bed.  That way I can get downstairs early on waffle day and start making the batter!  Fruit can be cut up the night before, and choosing an outfit before bed can shave some time off the time it takes most preschoolers to get dressed in the morning.  Try to start the day off with a balanced breakfast (Pop Tarts don’t count), even if it means getting out of bed a little bit earlier.  Your children will thank you later.

2.   Avoid friendship focus:  As parents, we want to know that our kids are making friends and having fun.  The last thing we want is to hear that one of our children eats lunch alone every day.  But making friends is hard work, and can take time.  Some kids jump right into it while others take some time to warm up to new kids.  Let your kids make new friends at their own pace.  Instead of asking your child which friends she played with, try asking what fun activities she did at school.  Ask specific questions about art projects and stories read that day.  Taking the focus off of friendship making shows your child that you are interested in what she’s doing at school, and that you are proud of her efforts.

3.   Minimize extra-curricular activities:  There’s no doubt about it, kids today tend to be overscheduled.  Kids don’t know when to say when.  Left to their own devices, some kids would do absolutely nothing while others would sign up for every available activity.  Parents need to set the limits.  When kids are in school (including preschool), 1-2 additional activities are plenty.  Kids need time to decompress and just play.  Let them have it.

4.   Factor in downtime:  Learning to cope with stress is difficult.  Particularly for young children.  Having downtime to engage in relaxing activities is essential to building adaptive coping strategies.  Build a daily quiet time (45-60 minutes) into your early afternoon routine.  Consider investing in some “quiet time toys” to keep it interesting and special.  Check on your kids if they need it, but otherwise try to let them settle in a play quietly in their rooms.  If they are given the opportunity to practice calming activities regularly, they have a better chance of remembering to use those strategies when they are under stress.  Liam recently learned to climb into his crib when feeling overwhelmed.

5.   Know the symptoms:  Many young children struggle to verbalize their feelings when under stress, but those feelings will manifest in other ways.  Symptoms of stress in children include:  Stomach aches, headaches, poor appetite, difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and nightmares.  They also tend to come up with excuses to avoid school, play dates, and other activities.  Some back to school anxiety is to be expected, but it should resolve within 6-8 weeks.  If you notice some of the above-mentioned symptoms and the stress seems to continue beyond 6-8 weeks, call your pediatrician to check in.

6.   Communicate on your child’s level:  Parents love to start asking questions during the ride home from school because it’s a nice quiet place to catch up.  Many kids actually need time to process the day before talking about it.  They’ve been working hard at school and likely had some new experiences.  They might need some time to think about it.  Consider approaching your child later in the day (like after quiet time or during dinner) to check in about the day.  Ask specific questions and follow up with other questions when they share interesting stories.  Praise them with specific details (this helps build self-esteem, whereas “great job” or “I’m so proud” is very general and can be confusing).  You know your child best.  Riley likes to sit back and relax during the ride home from school.  We talk a little, but I try to just let her relax and enjoy the ride.  She always comes to me bearing details of the day during her afternoon snack.  Every single time.

Back to school stress is a very normal part of readjusting to school after a couple of months away.  It generally doesn’t last too long and is usually resolved with a structured routine that includes a little downtime.

How do you combat back to school stress?

Note:  If you are in Southern California, please be sure to catch my interview on this very topic, with Brad Pomerance, on HLN Local Edition airing during the week of 10/3-10/9!