Help!! My Child is Having a Meltdown

Alarming as it is, the United States Surgeon General estimates that as many as 1 in 8 children suffer from anxiety and stress disorders between the ages of 9 and 17.  These stress disorders easily lead to adult stress and anxiety disorders in a reported 55% of individual children affected.  Since chronic anxiety is a progressive disorder, each phase builds leading to another even worse phase.  The good news is that by teaching early childhood coping skills, much of it is preventable. 

Signs and Sources

Many of the typical childhood signs become categorized as "growing pains" yet, are potentially signs of childhood stress. While it is true that some stress is simply a part of growing up, recognizing the possibility of a need to teach life skills will prevent the possibility of progression into something much worse. Parents typically excel at reading their children and have the innate ability to help them. By understanding the signs and erring on the side of caution, parents can make a big difference in the way the child develops into an effective adult. As important as it is to understand the signs, parents should recognize the sources of childhood stress as well.

As reported by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), ACE study findings reported that two-thirds of the 17,000 adults interviewed indicated exposure to at least one of the risk factors to childhood stress. Further findings clearly showed that increased number of risk factors not only increased the outcomes; they also increased the prevalence of risky behaviors. Obvious risk factors include child abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction such as alcoholism and imprisonment of a parent. However, seemingly normal situations can create an overall feeling of stress in a child. While many can easily cope with the rigors of childhood, many need help learning how to cope.

The normal factors of pressure in school and family life, friendships, and self-pressure elicit a feeling of being overwhelmed in some children. Overwhelming stress leads to the progression of anxiety, low self-esteem, and habits that create anger. Varying degrees of stress can be normal, yet some children find it difficult to cope with even a minimal amount.

Levels of Stress

Minimal amounts of stress exist at all times.  Coping mechanisms determine whether it is a positive and tolerable degree of stress or a toxic form.  Fortunately, many children and parents have the necessary skills to keep stress within the positive, short-lived framework.  When stress is allowed to flourish into a long-term habit, it becomes toxic while producing a constant underlying level of anxiety.  This constant feeling of anxiety creates an onslaught of stress hormones that are damaging to the child.

Hormones drive a stress reaction.  We are made to prepare for adverse conditions in our lives.  When a child becomes continuously overwhelmed, that preparedness is not reserved for only serious issues.  Hormones are released in the body with minor and major situations alike.  Those hormones have the ability to impair brain function. 

The CDC notes that cortisol, the main stress hormone, released in a child has the ability to affect the vulnerable, developing brain of a child in such a way that the child becomes overly reactive.  In children that are extremely affected by stress, development of the brain can be arrested to result in smaller brain development and reduction in cognitive learning abilities.  These effects on the brain further increase the stress reaction and the framework of poor coping mechanisms that the child takes into adulthood.  The effects on the nervous system and immune system are long-term.

Methods of Prevention and Change

Children taught coping mechanisms early on create habits that instill confidence and calm.  With the prevalence of stress occurring between the ages of 9 and 17, prevention can occur for many years before that.  Parents can teach the same coping skills to combat anxiety and stress as to prevent it.

1.       Be consistent.  When wisdom is used to establish a good example and a good lesson, just telling it once is not good enough.  It takes time to create and instill a habit.  The habits that you are consistent with, whether good or bad are the ones that they will parrot.  It may be difficult to uphold the standard that you want your child to meet, but it will pay off in the end.

2.      Teach and reflect empathy.  Speaking and thinking poorly of one's self begins in the childhood years.  Often a child will chastise himself for what he perceives to be wrong, simply based on what he supposes someone else thinks of them.  By teaching your child to be empathetic and kind to himself, confidence will increase while decreasing negative thoughts. 

3.      Mistakes happen.  Children affected by stress and anxiety often take mistakes too seriously.  Help your child to realize that mistakes will happen by pointing out that learning about what went wrong can prevent future problems.  Teach your child to correct the mistake, but do not do it for him or her. 

4.      Help your child take responsibility for his/her actions.  Blaming other people or other things creates anger and anxiety.  Teach your child that not only is it acceptable to make mistakes but it is important to take responsibility for them.  Taking responsibility for our actions leads the learning process.  It is very important that empathy be used while teaching this lesson.

5.      Research and teach your child relaxation skills.  There are many from which to choose.  While one may work for your child for a short time, it may be necessary to change the method often.  For that reason, it is important to have an arsenal of different relaxation techniques.  Remember that what might take 15 minutes for an adult is typically tolerated in a child for only five minutes.

6.      Recognize that fear is normal.  Children are learning new things and are having new experiences that could invoke some fear.  While some fear is normal, it does not take long for fear to inhibit a child's life.  Help your child expose himself to the fears by working through them to find what the real fear is.  For example, the fear of meeting new friends might be a fear that the friend will not like your child.  In this case, ask your child about people who do like him or her and about the characteristics that your child likes about those people.  Help your child to see his own good characteristics to use in the new situation.

7.      Teach your child to be assertive.  Children often misunderstand the difference between respect and setting their own boundaries.  That perceived lack of control can cause much stress and anxiety.  Teach your child how to respectfully say no to others and stand up for himself.  In doing so, he should learn that there are consequences in the way another child will behave when your child asserts his boundaries.  Each time your child asserts boundaries in a kind way, it will become easier to do in the future.  In addition, your child will be confident and gain respect.

8.      What is the worst that can happen?  Children worry more than we realize.  They hear what we say about our worries.  They worry about their own circumstances, as well.  By teaching your child to consider the worst-case scenario, they will learn not to worry.  Once a child figures out that even in worst-case scenarios there is a solution, they will become solution oriented.  For example, if your child loses a homework assignment that is due that morning, ask, "What is the worst that can happen?".  Once they find out the worst that can happen, ask them to figure out what to do in that instance.  As we all know, most of things that we worry about never end as badly as we imagine they will.

As parents, we are the defining factor in how our children turn out.  Each child has distinct personality traits that determine who he will be.  However, we are able to teach them how to use what they have for their best benefit and confidence to become less affected in life and more effective as adults.

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Comments 2 comments

eve 4 years ago

excellent. written so simply and smartly.

eve 4 years ago

we will keep in mind and use it. Even though none of this is unknown it is so well summarized that i feel i can keep it in mind even in the middle of the melt-down.

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