Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

I recently had the pleasure of reading Susan Stiffelman’s book, Parenting with Presence. One of the chapters that struck me most was called “Helping Our Kids Cope with Stress.” In this chapter, Susan outlines some the alarming recent studies about our adolescents:

Research conducted by the University of Michigan stated that 10% of high school sophomores and almost one in eight seniors admitted to using illegally obtained medications (study drugs) to keep up with their workload….

Thirty percent of teens reported feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or sad as a result of stress…

In the past 60 years, the suicide rate has quadrupled for males 15-24 years old and doubled for females of the same age. Suicide rates for those between the ages of 10 and 14 increased by more than 50% between 1981 and 2006…

The AAP released a study noting that stress hormones can have a significant long-term impact on a teen’s body. Stress can unleash chemicals that interfere with the development of neuronal networks in the developing brain as well as inhibit the development of new neurons in growing brains..

In her book, Susan offers practical solutions for helping our children cope with stress. I will outline those here.

1. Connecting in Real Life. A strange thing is happening in this day and age. Somehow we are more connected than ever through social media and constant availability via cell phones, yet we are more lonely. The connection is superficial. These cyber connections don’t allow us to truly be seen or heard, and as we are more and more plugged in, we get increasingly more distant in our unplugged lives. Feeling isolated or disconnected is a significant contributor to stress. Susan says, “Being connected in a shallow way to the entire world can prevent us from being deeply connected to those closest to us — including ourselves.”

A genuine, close connection with a loved one is one of the most effective antidotes to stress. “Children who have durable, reliable attachments with healthy loved ones are much better able to cope with life’s stressors,” Susan says.

How do we connect? I wrote 10 ways to connect to your child here. (These are my tips, not Susan’s.)

2. Managing Change and Uncertainty. Life will always throw unexpected wrenches in our plans, and learning to be flexible and handle these unexpected situations is a key buffer against stress. Susan suggests 2 ways we can help our children handle uncertainty. One is through modeling, of course. Children are watching how we handle stressful situations, from waiting in a line that is taking forever and possibly making you late to your next appointment to delayed flights, your reactions often become their reactions. Therefore, learning to manage stress yourself is vital to teaching your children how to manage it. Second, Susan suggests “making friends with the worst-case scenario.” For example, discuss what might happen if you are late to your next appointment or your flight does get delayed. Yes, it will be inconvenient, but you will be okay. Children need to know that.

3. Having fun. Susan tells us, “Helping our children isn’t just about teaching them how to cope when things aren’t going well. It is also about infusing their days with enjoyment.” We know that laughter is an antidote to stress. Find ways to have fun with your children. Turn up the music and dance. Watch comedies together. Enjoy life with each other!

4. Persisting. Susan highlights the importance of developing inner resources to push through stumbling blocks and to keep trying when success eludes us. Teaching children that happiness and peace can be achieved even if we don’t reach all of our goals or if things don’t go the way we’d planned is key in helping them cope with stress. Once again, what we model as parents is largely what teaches these lessons. She advises letting them hear you ask, “Will this be an issue in five years – to two days?”

Here is an article on teaching young kids persistence. 

5. Paying attention to your child’s stress. Watch for signs of anxiety and depression. Make sure children know they can trust you with whatever they are doing through by maintaining open lines of communication and a trusting relationship.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children with depression may display these symptoms:

  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Change in grades, getting into trouble at school, or refusing to go to school
  • Change in eating habits
  • Feeling angry or irritable
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling worthless or restless
  • Frequent sadness or crying
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Loss of energy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

When symptoms last for a short period of time, it may be a passing case of “the blues.” But if they last for more than two weeks and interfere with regular daily activities and family and school life, your child may have a depressive disorder.

6. Practicing mindfulness. Susan recommends practicing mindfulness each day, ideally in the same place and around the same time, as a small family ritual. She offers several practices in the book, so I will just highlight one of them that I like best called “follow the breath.” Sit comfortably with your child and ask them to pay attention to the breath coming in, noticing the air coming in through their nostrils. Is it warm or cool air? Ask them to follow it as it makes it’s way into the lungs, and feel how the chest rises and falls. Instruct them to refocus on the breath if their mind starts to wander, and to be quiet for a few breaths. Doing this short exercise for a few minutes each day is one way to help your child learn to cope with stress.

There are many nuggets of wisdom to be found in Parenting with Presence. It’s a great addition to your positive parenting library. One of the things I love about this book is the “Making It Practical” section at the end of each chapter. Susan doesn’t just give lofty ideas about being an attuned and present parent, but she offers practical advice on how to implement each idea she covers, and that is really helpful both for someone new to this philosophy and for seasoned parents as well.