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Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety and Stress

The beginning of the school year and the changes that come with it can sometimes cause stress for children and parents alike. Whether it's first-day jitters, adapting to schedule changes, homework, tests, or other issues, stress sometimes intensifies at this time of year. For some kids and teens, however, worries and stress can be more serious issues. According to recent research, about 13-15% of children and teens meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder -- a startlingly high prevalence rate for any health or mental health problem (and much higher that just 15 years ago). Signs of anxiety disorders can include persistent worries, frequent crying or irritability, changes in sleep and eating habits (for example, difficulties falling asleep), and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches.

Though stress and anxiety can feel overwhelming, we can choose how we respond to it.  here are some ways we can help kids and teens deal with stress and prevent anxiety disorders:

Think positive! Help your child or teen identify and change patterns of thinking that might be extreme, absolute, or pessimistic. For example, it is usually not helpful to us when we think thoughts that begin with "I can't" or include words like "always" or "never." Try to replace these with more positive or flexible thoughts.  

Coach your child through basic problem-solving steps. instead of telling your child how to handle a particular challenge, guide him or her through the problem-solving process by helping your child ask and answer these questions: 1) What is the problem?; 2) What are all of the different things I could do?; 3) Which action should I take?; 4) How did it work?

Help your child cultivate stress-busting habits. Adequate sleep, exercise, proper diet, and quality time with supportive friends and family are things that can help us prevent and manage stress. Help your child acquire and keep these good habits.

Encourage through your actions. Don't try to do for your children what they can do for themselves, but may lack the confidence to do. Instead, serve as a cheerleader for your child by using encouraging words and actions that say, "I know you can do this. I believe in you."

Help them learn how to relax. Slow, deep breaths (sometimes called "belly breaths") can help us in ridding the body of tension, as can step-by-step muscle relaxation techniques, such as focusing on one muscle group at a time, and relaxing those muscles. Imagining a peaceful place can also be helpful in relaxing the mind and body.

Be a good example. Make sure you are a helpful role model when it comes to managing stress. Children and teens often do what they hear and see.

Help them learn to take their worries to God. I Peter 5:7 says, "Cast all you worries upon him because he cares for you" (NAB). God is a loving parent, and if we ask him he is ready to give us the grace to work through even the most stressful of challenges.

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