As life becomes more fast paced, with less time to relax, less space to run and explore in, less sleep and less day dreaming it is no surprise that there has been an alarming increase in the stress levels of our children. This is true in most developed countries but in an environment like Singapore where space is limited, the population keeps increasing and the pressure to succeed is immense, it is even worse.
From 1990 to 1998 there was an increase of 250% in the number of children who received treatment from psychiatrists for stress-related disorders. This has steadily increased since then. Most of the children were in primary or secondary school with the anxiety disorder related to the pressure to perform well in school. These stress related disorders can be in the form of depression, self-harm, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or other behavioural issues.
At Chiltern house Mountbatten, students are treated like family in this warm environment in order to let them feel at home and welcome.
In the past 20 years mental health problems have become much worse in Singapore with more than double the number of young people being treated for stress related problems. Doctors are seeing a rise in younger children being treated and more complex disorders. There is now a major concern that this could lead to a major health problem in the future unless steps are taken to reduce stress in our young children.
Childhood is indeed a precious time and one where children should be able to delight in the wonder and amazement of new and exciting experiences. Some of these experiences will cause some anxiety and that is perfectly normal. For some children starting primary school, joining a new enrichment class, learning to swim without armbands, being left at preschool without mum are all events which will cause a great deal of anxiety. In most cases, with lots of encouragement and support the fear will vanish and confidence will grow.
For some children the anxiety may not go away and parents should be aware of any changes in behavior and temperament which are common signs that the child is experiencing stress. Other signs could be:
As parents we cannot guarantee our children are having the time of their lives every day but we can be aware of what is likely to cause them stress and take steps to minimize that for them.
The most likely causes of stress during childhood are:
Family disruptions – this could be in the form of divorce, death in the family, moving or even the arrival of a new sibling.
Overscheduling – children that are rushing form one activity to another with no downtime are very likely to experience stress. If this routine goes on for a prolonged time that stress can become chronic.
Media trauma - being exposed to an inappropriate movie or book at a young age can cause distress or anxiety. I saw the Hitchcock movie ‘The Birds” at birthday party when I was 7 and I was terrified for months after. Even news events can cause anxiety. During the Tsunami in 2004 I banned the TV being on in the daytime in case my 3 year old son was caught watching the news coverage.
Social pressure – pressure to be part of the ‘right’ clique, being teased or bullied at school can cause immense pressure to some students. Often they won’t want to talk about this for fear of looking weak or being teased further.
Self-inflicted stress – some children have a certain temperament that may mean they are perfectionists and want very badly to fit in, do well and please others. These children are more susceptible to experiencing anxiety and will need much support from parents so they can roll with the punches life can throw.
Stress is a natural part of life and what we want is for our children to be able to manage stress and remain resilient in the face of adversity. The pressure cooker that the Singapore education system can be means as parents we have to work even harder to ensure our children remain happy and confident. If there was one thing we need to remember it is that the most important thing a child needs is confidence. This is far more important that good grades, ability to play the piano or speak another language. Often in our pursuit of these goals we dent our child’s confidence and that is tragic.
Maureen Healy wrote a book called “Growing Happy Kids” ; in it she looks at how we can help our children develop the habits that will be the building blocks of confidence.
Eat well: Look for ways to improve your child’s diet. Reduce sugar and processed foods and increase fresh fruit and vegetables.
Exercise: Look at how much fresh air and physical exercise your child gets.
Sleep well: Ensure your child gets enough sleep. Make sure no PSP or Itouch is smuggled under the covers! Sleep is needed for optimal brain development.
Connect to wisdom: Make an effort to expose your child to a way of thinking that empowers him or her. This could be empowering quotes and affirmations or sharing a spiritual tradition.
Think confident thoughts: Be a role model of inwardly confident thoughts and teach your child how to think these thoughts too.
Feel confidence: Give your child opportunities to feel confident and help him or her remember that feeling of being able to to do anything!
Remember that when you think confident thoughts, the feelings follow: Teach your child that his or her thoughts will directly create his or her feelings.
Positive self-talk: Create a fun, regular practice of reciting positive sayings hat an plant a seed of self-confidence in your child.
Create an uplifting community: Appreciate the uplifting people in your child’s life. Recognise the draining influences and minimize contact with them.
Design an uplifting space: Make your child’s bedroom a place to celebrate their successes and happy times through photos, art work,certificates and trophies.
Believe in something greater: Introduce your child to God, Spirit, Source Nature or whatever you believe in an infinite power in the universe. Let your child understand that this infinite power or greatness is within him or her.
One of the largest pediatric health services in the USA states that, “social and emotional skills developed in early childhood are fundamental to academic and life success, and in fact may be more important than specific academic skills”. We know that children are highly sensitive and develop rapidly in the first 6 years of life. Making those years as positive as possible will impact how they view themselves and the world they live in.
Helping your child develop the skills needed to manage stress, to see the world as positive place and to bounce back from a blow will carry them far further than a high grade and at the same time ensure they have a childhood to look back on fondly.
At Chiltern house Mountbatten, students are treated as family in this warm environment in order to let them feel welcome and at home.
Ways to help your child cope with anxiety and stress:
1. Provide Security
Young children gain a huge amount of self-confidence when they can predict what is going to happen next. By sticking to a predictable routine of bedtimes, dinnertimes, breakfast time and TV times children feel confident and not anxious about what might happen next.
2. Protect Playtime
Children can so easily be overwhelmed by an exhausting schedule. Remember how precious childhood is and make sure there is time set aside every week for your child to freely play and explore.
3. Put Away the Gadgets.
It is easy to find that you always have one eye on your phone, computer or Ipad. Stop that! Give your child your undivided attention everyday. Either at dinner or bedtime, whatever works for you but make sure you are present in the moment with your child.
4. Celebrate Success
Be sure to focus on what your child does well and not only what you think they could do better. Make sure enrichment classes are not only to improve their performance in subjects they may find challenging but that they also get to do what they love, like dance, music or martial arts.
5. Take time to Talk
Spend time listening to your child. Discover what may be a cause of concern for them and look at how you can support them. Don’t tell them they are being silly or overreacting, remember the stress or fear they feel is real to them. Sharing their worries maybe all it takes to feel better. It also encourages them to be open about their feelings, this is a valuable life-skill when dealing with stress.
Q. My preschooler has suddenly started biting and kicking his little brother of late. How do I manage this behavior?
A. Be very clear with you preschooler that this is unacceptable behavior. Remove him from the little brother and try to find out what is triggering such a reaction. Often a conflict can come when the younger sibling is old enough to want what the older sibling has and is doing. However if these attacks are completely unprovoked it may be that the older child is taking out frustrations or anxieties on his younger sibling. Try to find out the reason behind the attacks so you can avoid or remove such a trigger.
Q. My older daughter has been complaining of recurring tummy aches when we start preparing her for kindergarten. The doctor says there’s nothing wrong with her. Help!!
A. If you have reassurance that there is no medical reason for the stomach pain from the doctor then you can bet it is nerves. Let your daughter know that it can be exciting and a little scary to start a new school. Share with her your fears at starting school, or even a new job, and how it all worked out well. Let her know how happy you are about her going to kindergarten and how you know how much she will enjoy it. By letting your child know you understand her anxiety but at the same time letting her see how sure you are that this is an exciting and positive move her fears will diminish and so will her tummy aches.
Q. My daughter was very upset that she got the lowest mark in the class in a recent Maths test, even though she got 85% which was wonderful for her!. How can I keep her spirits up when the class teacher focuses only on results and not effort?
A. By doing the opposite! Unfortunately many elements of the school system today rewards results over effort but as parents your role is to inculcate the value of trying your best in all you do. Your child’s pride may have been knocked and she is likely to feel really disappointed that all her effort lead to the lowest marks in class. Be understanding but don’t allow her to dwell on feeling bad. Point out what she is good at and explain we all have areas we need to work harder at.
Q. My 8 year old son has been to visit his grandfather in the hospital and he now is very worried about death. He is constantly asking when will Grandad die and when will my husband and I die. Is he developing a phobia?
A. It is very normal for children to have certain worries or fears at different times in their childhood. Being aware of aging and death around 8 and 9 years old is very common. Your son may well be anxious about his loved ones passing on but that does not mean he is developing a phobia. Fears or worries only become a concern when they interfere with the child’s ability to manage daily life in the way their peers do. Be sensitive to your son’s concerns but at the same time answer honestly. For example tell your son, ‘Statistics show that ladies live to 78 years old that means you will be 40 years old when I might die. You will have your own family and I might be a grandmother!”.
“Keys to Parenting Your Anxious Child” by Katharina Manassis MD, 2008.
“The Enneagram of Parenting – The 9 Types of Children and How to Raise Them Successfully” by Elizabeth Wagele, 1997.
“Growing Happy Kids” – How to Foster Inner Confidence, Success and Happiness” By Maureen Healy, 2012.