Time to Unwind: Managing Stress and Anxiety

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Most children experience stress or anxiety in some form. Whether they're afraid of the dark, making the soccer team or coping with the pressures of school, and friends,kids feel it. Add to the equation that we live in a high pressured, fast paced city and it's no wonder we feel like we don't have a moment to slow down and take a breath!

Stress is a fact of life for everyone. It is our body’s “fight or flight” response to the various challenges the world throws at us. When stress strikes, our heart beats faster. Our palms sweat. Our system is ready for action.

Recently, I attended a workshop on test anxiety at the NYU Child Study Center. The facilitator explained that there is an optimal amount of anxiety or stress that helps us succeed. We need to feel just enough anxiety so that we push ourselves to study for an upcoming exam or prepare for an important presentation. However, feeling too much pressure and anxiety can lead to a meltdown or a mental stoppage. Have you ever sat down for an exam, job interview or lead a meeting and your mind goes blank?

Children with learning and attention issues often deal with the latter. Unlike their peers, they may not have a history of success or tools when coping with stressful circumstances. Instead of feeling eager about something new, such as an academic challenge or a team tryout, children with learning and attention issues may feel anxious and often panicky. They may even completely shut down. It looks to them as one more opportunity to struggle or fail.

How can we help our children stress less? 

  •  Validate their feelings. If your child comes home and says she thinks she failed a test or didn't make the team, listen to her and empathize. When we respond with "I'm sure you did fine!" or "It will all be okay!" our children don't feel we've heard them; it can feel like we are just not getting it. Instead, meet them where they are, emotionally: "I can see you feel pretty upset and I'm so sorry it didn't go as well as you hoped". When we allow our kids and ourselves to sit with our feelings for a bit, we are able to more clearly process these emotions and move on to the next thing, more successfully.
  • Maintain a growth mindset about failing. Emphasize the process of working and learning, not the outcome. Praise and reinforce your child's effort and persistence. It's important to remember that failure and missteps are part of the learning process - getting better at specific skills or learning something new is hard! (check out December's blog on growth mindset to learn more about this critical point).
  • Conscious Breathing. Breathing exercises are a great tool to help manage stress. We all have the ability to feel calmer, more relaxed, and more alert at any given moment. This ability is called “Conscious Breathing”. When we use it, we are less stressed, more creative and calmer. These breathing techniques help improve focus and emotional regulation. There are many different conscious breathing exercises which can be practiced anywhere, anytime! 
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation offers a great way to relieve stress. This is accomplished by tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in your body. Like conscious breathing, these exercises can be done anywhere, anytime and are most effective when practiced regularly. Encourage your child to take a minute or two before an exam or presentation to practice. It will help them to relax and clear their mind. There are quite a few muscle relaxation techniques that involve only subtle movements; assure your child that no one can see them doing this, should they feel self-conscious. 

Every student has a different learning style. For an individualized plan customized to your child's needs, please contact Dana Aussenberg at danaaussenberg.com or email dana@danaaussenberg.com.