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Challenge: Back to School 2020

Stress response: get to know how your body responds to stress, and teach your children to do the same

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(Photo by p_ponomareva)

When you live in Houston, or any other coastal area, for that matter, you know how to prepare for a hurricane. For me, preparing for a hurricane is something I learned in my adult life, as I was raised in West Texas where we prepared for tornadoes instead.

The good thing about a hurricane is that, most of the time, you have plenty of time to prepare. Sometimes you have over a week to watch a little “x” start out on the map way over on the western coast of Africa and gradually make its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

So you get batteries for your flashlights and lanterns. You need bottles of water because the city water might not be safe to cook with or drink for a few days after the storm. You need non-perishable food that doesn’t require a refrigerator to store or an oven to prepare (since you generally don’t have power after the storm).

Three of my friends recently came over for a COVID-safe-gathering on my deck. At the time, what is now the devastating and recent Hurricane Laura was just a small “x” on the map, just off the western coast of Africa. I’m not sure they even knew there was an “x” on the map at that time, but you’d better believe I knew.

My friend went into my garage to get herself a drink and came out laughing at me, saying she almost couldn’t reach the refrigerator for all the drinks in the garage. I had bottled water, LaCroix, Diet Coke, Izzy, Coke, Gatorade, cranberry juice, and beer blocking her path to the refrigerator. She made a crack about how she didn’t need to buy any drinks. She would just stop by my garage if she got thirsty.

We all have our responses to stressful situations. At this stage of my life, I can recognize that I decrease my internal stress about a situation by preparation and controlling what I can. We might be hunkered down in an interior closet waiting for the wind to pass. We could be leaving our house in a canoe as we did in Hurricane Harvey. But we’re not going to run out of batteries or drinks!

When we are facing a stressful situation, it is normal for anxiety to flare. And anticipation makes the anxiety worse. How do you respond to stress? How do you think your children respond to stress?

One of the most helpful things I have heard a child psychologist say to an anxious child was to ask: “How are you feeling about school starting?” The child answered that she felt fine about school starting, it didn’t bother her at all, and it was “no big deal.” The psychologist, wise and experienced in dealing with anxious children, said, “There’s 100% chance that before school starts, your body will feel anxious. You might not sleep well. Your mind could start racing.” Basically, she was teaching the child to learn the way her body reacts to stress so that the child could recognize and acknowledge the response and be able to handle it.

When the child came to her mother a couple of weeks before school started and told her that she was unable to go to sleep because her mind was racing, the mother was able to say: “Remember the psychologist said this would happen? It’s your body’s stress reaction, and it’s OK.” The child said, “Oh yeah!” and went to bed knowing there was nothing wrong with her. She still needed a meditation app to quiet her mind, but she was able to recognize the stress response, acknowledge it, and know what to do next to quiet her mind and go to sleep.

What a gift it is to learn as a young child what your body’s stress reaction is to uncomfortable situations. It is a gift to be able to recognize that, while you may feel “fine” and “OK” and “no big deal” on the outside, your internal self recognizes stress and anxiety and reacts to it without your conscious permission. When you are able to put this into words for yourself and for your child, the stress becomes more manageable.

It is helpful to talk about your own stress in an appropriate way. Falling on the kitchen floor wailing about the family finances might be too much for a child to hear. Definitely there are adult problems that kids aren’t ready to handle. But teaching our children about our own stress (preparing for a hurricane) and anxiety can be incredibly helpful as they learn to recognize their own (getting ready for school to start).

As your 3-year-old is starting a new preschool, you could start the conversation with, “Sometimes when I go into a new place, I feel worried. Do you feel worried?” As the kids get older, I think it’s OK to point out what you observe. “I notice that every time you are up to bat, your shoulders get tense. Is it stressful to have everyone watching you?”

It can also help the kids to know about situations that made you feel stressed growing up. Knowing their smart, powerful, bigger-than-life parent also felt nervous when he was up to bat can help a child believe that he can survive it, too.

So know your stress response. Get to know your child's stress responses, and teach him or her to acknowledge them as well. Some people get irritable and rude. Some have headaches or abdominal pain. Some can’t sleep because their minds are racing. And, of course, there are some people who hoard water and batteries.

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