Playdough, Jesus, and Stress Management: The Effect of Stress on Children at Home

Girl laying on grass looking at the sky - Stress on Children blog

My nephew’s wife asked her three-year-old daughter what she learned in Sunday School, and she replied, “Playdough and Jesus!” We all had a good chuckle over that response, but in all seriousness (smile), learning ought to be fun!

For example, in my commute in this morning, Dr. Denise Reid, Associate Professor, told me how she and her daughter took her grandson to Tanaka Farms in Irvine (South Orange County). They rode a tractor, sat on bales of hay, were taught how to properly harvest strawberries, and then had the special opportunity of receiving a basket, harvesting the strawberries, and eating to their heart’s delight. Additionally, they enjoyed taste testing of many fresh vegetables from the field, including fresh green onions, cilantro, and carrots. What would you rather do . . . a book assignment or a field trip? Which is more memorable? Which adds the most fun? Which reduces stress on children at home?

The Effect of Stress on Children

Thinking of stress, stress reduction is essential for all of us, but especially for children and adolescents. Chronic distress literally disrupts white matter in the brain that is still developing in children. The white matter is the “coating of the intricate network of fibers and neurons that transmit messages between all the regions of the brain” (Vanderbilt Peabody Reflector, 2017, p. 19). Chronic stress can prematurely age the brain, affecting memory and complex problem solving. Chronic stress can also lead to further anxiety and depression.

A recent study from the journal, Psychological Bulletin, by Bruce Compas and his team, “evaluated data from more than 80,000 children and adolescents in 200 coping and emotional regulation studies to document the efficacy of various coping tools for children and families facing significant stress” (ibid, p. 19). It turns out that “stress is the single most potent risk factor for mental health problems in children and adolescents, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, eating disorders and substance abuse,” says Bruce Compas.

Children, ages 5-18, can reduce stress through a variety of approaches, including cognitive reappraisal, acceptance, and assertive communication. While there are various approaches to these strategies, let me define each strategy.

Leveraging “Cognitive Reappraisal” and Reevaluating Stress on Children at Home

Cognitive reappraisal is reinterpreting the message of the emotional stimulus which then changes the trajectory of the emotional outcome. For example, your adolescent could be nervous about an upcoming test. She might feel overwhelmed. You work with your child to prepare for the test. She has now done all she can do to do well on the test. She evaluates the situation and realizes that the worse case scenario is failing the test and having to retake it, and the best case scenario is to pass the test and move onto the next unit. Suddenly, the test no longer is overwhelming and whether or not she passes, it does not define her. She simply needs to do her best.

Through intentional intervention, discussion, or therapy, she stops the internal negative talk (e.g., “I’m going to fail again!” or “I never pass my math tests.”) and gives the project her best focus, letting go of her anxiety because the passing the test is not an end for her life, nor does the test need to control her emotional state. She then replaces her negative thoughts with, “I’ll do my best and trust the outcome to God.”

Or, “I’ll study for four hours and whatever happens, happens. I’ve done my best.”

Or, “I’ll study two hours and then reward myself with a break and enjoy the evening.”

Or, “I’ll do my best to prepare for the test and hope for the best.

I usually pass the test so I am not going to worry about it!” The skill of cognitive reappraisal skillfully “nudge[s] your emotions back toward baseline” (Barlow et al., 2011).

Facing the Stress on Children Together

Acceptance is when your child or adolescent comes to grip with a difficult understanding. Perhaps mom or dad has a serious problem that affects the family or perhaps there has been a loss in the family. You don’t ignore the problem or the loss, but you talk about it. You face it together. You give space to talk about what the issue is and you accept what is. For example, sometimes someone in the family has a serious illness. This affects everyone. Ignoring it only increases the stress. Talking about it and accepting the problem as it is relieves the stress. A temptation for children or adolescents is to think that everything is their fault or that they can solve others problems. Usually they cannot.

Acceptance of what is is painful, but is a helpful coping strategy. For example, “I accept that my brother is mentally ill, but I choose to love him and stay engaged as his sibling.”

Or, “I accept that my father is depressed and has lost his job, so I will do everything I can to live more simply and not spend much money.”

Or, “my mom has cancer and I cannot control it. I will pray and help her, but I will still keep living my life. That would make mom happy and me happy too.”

Steps to Solving Stress on Children at Home

Problem solving involves tackling the problem head on and often with a parent, mentor, or counselor. Compas (2017) emphasizes that parents can help children and adolescents cope with their stress.

“He offers these tips:

  • Make time to listen to your child and let them share with you the stresses and challenges they are facing. No need to give any advice at first, just listen and let them share what they are struggling with.
  • Remind yourself and your child of the first rule of coping with stress: “Try to change the things you can change, and accept the things you cannot change.”
  • Think out loud with your child about how you have coped with similar situations in the past or how you might cope with the situation if you haven’t faced a similar stressor in the past.
  • Encourage your child to make a plan and then follow up in a day or two. If the first plan doesn’t seem to help, think it through together and try another plan until either the problem has changed or your child has been able to accept the problem and adapt to it.” (p. 1)

Finally, remember the old adage “all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy.” We all need breaks. As a parent, you can help bring balance to your child’s schedule (limiting stress and inviting fun) by ensuring that your children enjoy some breaks and outings (field trips, a movie, a visit to a museum, park, farm, or beach) and develop the habits of diligence simultaneous to the habit of rest. When your family does need professional help, seek it. Biola operates a counseling center that is open to you and your family.

Prayer Project:

  1. Lord, how am I coping with stress and modeling this for my children?
  2. Lord, am I observing that my children are overly stressed? How might I facilitate the reduction of stress?
  3. Lord, are there anxieties that my children are experiencing that require a conversation?
  4. Lord, how is the “fun factor” in my homeschooling day? Am I ignoring fun because we have a big problem? Will you help me tap into the playful part of my personality in order to bring enjoyment to my children, even amidst the hardship?

Dear Lord, life can be difficult and filled with anxiety. Help me and my family to face our challenges head on and with You at our side. Help me to be honest with the challenges and talk openly about the challenges. Help me to listen well to my children and invite them into a closer walk with You. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

 


References:

Barlow, D.W. et al. (2011). Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Therapist Guide. London, UK: Oxford University Press. 

Brasher, Joan (2017). “Coping with Stress: New research confirms that teaching children coping strategies reduces mental health problems.” Vanderbelt Peabody Reflector. Nashville, TN: Peabody College.

Compas, Bruce (2017). New research identifies best coping strategies for kids. Research News @Vanderbilt, https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2017/07/20/new-research-identifies-best-coping-strategies-for-kids/

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (May 14, 2014). “Improve Your Perspective Using Cognitive Reappraisal,” http://cogbtherapy.com/cbt-blog/2014/5/4/hhy104os08dekc537dlw7nvopzyi44