Keep stress at bay

Keep stress at bay

From the pressure to succeed at an earlier age, to jam-packed weekdays and weekends filled with homework, sports practices, music lessons, play dates, birthday parties and other extracurricular activities, it's easy for kids to feel frazzled.

"The problem is, with so much stimulation, kids are often more 'on' than off ," says Dr Kristen Race, child psychologist and author of Mindful Parenting. And when they have so much on their plate, they may feel like they're in a chronic state of fight or flight.

This can influence their mood and behaviour, ability to form relationships with others, and prevent them from enjoying being kids. It can also affect their intellectual potential.

"The stress response can inhibit the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain children rely on to learn in the classroom," says Dr Race.

It's a vicious cycle. The more the stress response gets triggered - when the brain's limbic system floods with chemicals, the heart pounds faster and muscles tense - the more sensitive the brain becomes to it.

As a result, feeling stressed can become your kids' go-to response to not just life-threatening events, like the threat of an oncoming car, as it was intended, but everyday life, such as being called on in class or having a pop quiz.

Still, exams, extracurricular activities and the pressure to achieve aren't going away. "There's a lot we can't do about the society our kids are growing up in," Dr Race says.

"But we can teach kids to be more resilient to the stressors that modern life presents."

These tension-taming tactics can help your children stay calm amid the chaos.

1. Structure in downtime

Having little to no unstructured, self-directed time may be the norm these days. But many kids would benefit from doing nothing much.

"Kids need more downtime than adults," says Dr David Schonfeld, chair of the paediatrics department from Drexel University College of Medicine. From a child's perspective, lack of downtime "can feel like it's 10 days before Christmas and you haven't done your shopping, sent out your cards, or put up the tree", he says.

Taking a breather gives kids a stress outlet, the latitude to develop their creative side and learn to become problem solvers.

After all, when children engage in free play, they call the shots, make up the rules for their games, set the boundaries and adapt to changing situations.

It may also help kids and teens learn to connect with others. Dr Schonfeld suggests quarantining at least one day each week that's free of outside events, including outings on the weekends such as visiting a park.

"Many parents equate quality time with doing something special. But when you add pleasurable activities to an already full schedule, it's exhausting," he says.

"Carve out time to just be together, talk and do simple things at home."

How much you put the brakes on your children's schedule can depend on their temperament. Some kids can naturally handle more without going into overload.

"Every child is different," says Dr Tanya Remer Altmann, a paediatrician and author of Mommy Calls.

"But when I hear mums say things like, 'My daughter has a play date, then I'm taking her to gymnastics, and then she's starting her homework', I think, 'Whoa! That's way too much'. I recommend no more than one activity per day after school."

Dr Race takes a similar tact. She suggests limiting after-school activities to two a week, especially for children aged 10 and under.

2. Heed stress signals

Stay attuned to signs that your child is overscheduled or under too much pressure from school, friends, or other sources.

Children react to stress differently, but there are tell-tale signs.

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