A new school year is right around the corner, which brings excitement, anticipation, and sometimes, stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey last year, students endured more stress than the average adult throughout the school year at levels significantly higher than experts consider healthy. Parents are not immune to increased stress either, with 83 percent of American adult workers reporting stress at work.
Stress presents in multiple ways, including psychological (worry, intrusive thoughts, unhelpful thinking, irritable or depressed mood, difficulty concentrating), physiological (accelerated heart rate, sweating, body tension), and behavioral (withdrawal or avoidance of anxiety-provoking stimuli, sleep and appetite disturbance, ineffective coping). Short-term stress lasting a day or two is not harmful and can actually be helpful for the mind and body; however, chronic stress can lead to significant problems for children and parents, both at home and at school or work. Specifically, chronic stress can lead to avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations, including kids and teens not wanting to go to school. This can lead to social isolation and additional difficulty with loneliness and depression if left untreated. Chronic stress has also been connected to numerous health problems, such as insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and premature mortality.
Parents ask every year what they can do to help their children more effectively cope with increased stress, and my top recommendation is to PACE themselves and their families:
P stands for Pay Attention.
We often don’t notice stress and anxiety affecting us until we struggle with a headache or stomachache, become overwhelmed with worry, or feel the urge to avoid school and work altogether. It’s important to take a few minutes at different intervals throughout the day to do a quick check-in to see how your body, thoughts, and emotions are doing. For kids, it can be helpful for parents to ask specific “check in” questions about their day, such as, “How did you feel today? What do you think about how your day went today? What did you do today?” These questions encourage kids to elaborate more on emotions, thoughts, and behaviors than the usual, “How was your day?” which generally elicits a one-word response.
A stands for Act in the Moment.
Practice doing one thing at a time. Scientists have proven that multitasking is not nearly as efficient and effective as we’ve come to believe. If you’re working on homework, work. If you’re playing with your kids, play. Try to be a full participant in whatever activity you’re engaging in rather than trying to do too much at once, and this includes worrying while doing other activities. Worries do need to be dealt with, and I recommend scheduling a “worry time” of 15-30 minutes where you just worry. Write out your worries and think about them. Once that time is over, stop and focus in on whatever you have planned next in your day.
C stands for Challenge Unhelpful Thinking.
Try to catch unhelpful thoughts, such as, “This will never get better,” “I can’t do this,” etc. and put these thoughts on trial. What evidence do you have to support them? What evidence suggests that they might not be accurate, realistic or true? If they aren’t true or helpful, talk to a supportive friend or family member and work to find an alternative thought or perspective that is true and helpful.
E stands for Energize.
As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as energizer bunnies in our 21st century society, most of us are not. We’re human, and we can’t give away what we don’t have. If we don’t take time to fill ourselves with rejuvenation and peace, we will not be able to thrive throughout the day. The good news is that we don’t need a weeklong meditation retreat to do this. It can be done in tiny segments throughout a given day – in as little as 10 seconds. Savor a favorite piece of candy. Go for a walk. Listen to your favorite music. Take time to write in a journal. Do something – anything – that you find rejuvenating. Four one-minute intervals in a day can make a surprising difference.
Above all, parents and kids can work together to PACE their families. A group effort makes all the difference.