Stress must be the number one scourge of modern life. It's probably the most common reason for missing work, and one of the most common for making an appointment to see the GP.
There's a lot of confusion about exactly what stress is, and how it differs from anxiety. When I refer to stress, what I mean is anything that may give rise to anxiety. Some examples of stress are news that a relative has been taken ill, or finding yourself stuck in a traffic jam, or being given an impossibly short deadline at work. Anxiety, a frequent reaction to stress, manifests itself in thoughts of helplessness or fear, a pounding heart, breathlessness, nausea, sweating, dizziness, and/or distractibility.
Of course, we all recognise that adults can react badly to stress - that is, by becoming anxious. But when does stress first affect children? And what, if anything, can be done to teach them how to regard stress as a challenge, a problem to solve, rather than as a threat?
From the moment of birth, all normal human beings are stressed by unfamiliar and threatening events. When babies hear loud noises, experience sudden changes, or - most threatening of all - are separated from their principal carer, they become frightened and cry out. It's important to understand that this reaction, unlike anxiety, is adaptive and protective. Babies are incredibly vulnerable, and they depend totally on adults for their well-being. When they sense danger, they know only one way to survive, and that's to cry out for the help and protection they need.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is subtly different. Anxiety arises from thoughts about what might be, not what is. What if my cousin dies from the illness he has? What if I can't meet this work deadline? Therefore, in order to become anxious, the child must be cognitively advanced enough to imagine different futures. This ability begins to show itself first at around 30 to 36 months, and it's fairly well established by seven to eight years of age. Therefore, the time to start focusing on your child's reaction to stress is around the same age that they start school.
From birth and until a child reaches puberty, a child's parents are by far the most important people in their life. Classmates, teachers and friends all matter of course, but parents are central to their sense of well-being. Because they're so critical to these feelings of safety and security, children are delicately attuned to their parents' state of mind. Therefore, the best way to prevent your child from becoming anxious is for you to approach problems as calmly and confidently as possible yourself. Your sense of calm will allow your child to feel secure. Furthermore, what you do will be keenly observed and diligently copied by your child. Never again will "not what I say so much as what I do" be so applicable as it is for parents when their children are young.
Therefore, the most powerful thing you can do to ensure that your children will turn threats into challenges they intend to overcome is to make sure they see you approach difficulties in that way yourself. This means spending time together. What you do, and how long you do it for, are less important than how you do it. Have fun together, and simply don't expect to let any problems stand in your way for long.
A second way to minimise the chance that your children will react anxiously to demands that are made of them is to establish, and keep to, fairly predictable routines at home. "Fairly predictable" doesn't mean "rigid"; but if a child is well rested, and well fed, and living according to a pattern that's familiar and predictable, they're more likely to face up to difficulties with reason rather than to allow their emotions to flood their problem solving abilities.
Establish a regular bedtime, and follow a pleasant and predictable bedtime routine. Try to have at least one meal together at roughly the same time each day. Not only does this encourage good eating habits, but it also gives your children a regular opportunity to talk about any stresses they may have encountered recently. This means that such stresses can be dealt with before they get out of hand.
Outside the home, the place where your child is most likely to encounter stress is, of course, at school. The first few years of formal schooling are particularly challenging because of the many adjustments children must learn to make. Physically, they have to learn to adapt to the school routine of eating and going to the loo at set times, and must learn to sit still for long periods. Academically, they have to master the basic building blocks for all further learning. And socially, each child must learn to get along with other children, to be considerate of their needs, to listen carefully, and to take turns.
How can parents ensure that their child will acquire these skills without feeling overwhelmed and anxious? You'll already have done a great deal if you take a positive attitude when you face difficulties yourself, and if home is a healthy, happy and predictable environment. But in preparing your child to start and to cope with school, there are a number of additional, more specific ways you can also help.
Practice sitting calmly for a period of time each day, perhaps reading a story or chatting. Demonstrate good social skills yourself: take the time to look at your children and listen attentively when they speak to you, and try to avoid interrupting them. Ask questions that show you've listened and that you're interested in what they have to say. Ask them to help you whenever appropriate, and thank them when they've done so.
If starting a new school year, try to find out who else will be in the class, and invite at least one of them over so they can play together in a familiar environment. That way, when the child arrives in their new classroom they will already be familiar with and feel comfortable with at least one other classmate.
Even if you work full time, try your utmost to arrange to collect your child from school at least one day each week, and particularly on the first day of each term. The details of the school day fade quickly in a child's mind. If you're on hand when those details are fresh, you'll learn a great deal about what troubles - as well as what delights - your child. You'll also get to know first hand who the best friends are.
Academically, there are several things you can do to encourage self-confidence and discourage anxiety. An early and regular bedtime encourages adequate sleep. A good breakfast that includes complex carbohydrates and some protein (low sugar cereal with milk, or nut butter on bread, for example) means children will arrive at school alert and ready to learn. TV is best avoided in the mornings before school, as it encourages inattention.
Some mild exercise will do wonders to wake up a child's mind. This can be arranged even if you live a long way from school. Simply park several blocks away and walk in together from there.
Finally, make a point of praising efforts rather than the results achieved. This minimises anxiety, because your child can decide for herself how much effort to put into their work. Results, on the other hand, are not in their control because they're determined by comparing her work with that of all the other children, and your child has no control over the performance of the other children. Praising effort and determination also builds self-confidence, and ensures that your child will be able to please the most important people in their lives.