Many believe that everyday pressures are greater now than they were in the past. This may or may not be true, but stress is a huge concern today, and it’s taking its toll on our bodies. High blood pressure, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, all can be linked to high stress. If adults are feeling this stress, it’s not surprising that our kids are, too. Creating mind/body awareness in our kids today is critical to ensure they are healthy tomorrow. Here are five ways to teach kids mind/body awareness so they can recognize physical and mental symptoms of stress and take appropriate action.
#1. Explain stress. Explain the difference between good stress, a birthday party for example, and bad stress, or distress, such as a bad grade. Ask them how each of those experiences makes them feel. Many will describe the physical experience before and during a birthday party as wanting to jump up and down, or scream with anticipation. A bad grade may bring the emotion of fear or anger, which in turn can make a child want to kick at something or say things in anger, or withdraw physically or emotionally from the stressful situation. Half of handling stress and distress is the ability to recognize it.
#2. Create body awareness. If you ask most children “What does your body feel like when you’re distressed?” most will not know the answer, even if you put the question in words they readily understand, such as, “When you are afraid or very unhappy, do you notice any changes in how your body feels?” They haven’t learned to listen to their bodies yet. One way of explaining how stress affects them is to say their bodies are “talking” to them when they feel emotion. Have them tell you about how they have felt in different situations, such as being barked at by a dog behind a fence or when they have to get up in front of the class to give a speech. Ask them if they have ever felt themselves feel “red in the face” when they were embarrassed or very angry. Give them other examples, such as “feeling butterflies in their stomach,” or breathing very quickly when they were nervous. Throughout the day or week, when stressful situations arise, practice by asking them “What is your body saying to you right now?”
#3. Find an outlet. Learning to recognize distress is one thing, but being able to stop, listen to the body’s response, and choose to counteract it is another. Suggest things that will make them feel better after a stressful situation. For example, they can use a variation of Dr. Herbert Benson’s well-known Relaxation Response-saying a short silent prayer. It’s a clinically proven stress-reducer. So is a variation of the Relaxation Response-repeating, over and over, a favorite memory verse, or a short “courage” quotation from a favorite story or movie character. Other techniques, such as taking a deep breath and counting to ten or visualizing a favorite place can also be helpful. Having them pretend they’re a peaceful animal can also help, like a fish in a fishbowl, or a bunny, can have a calming effect. Of course, being able to talk to Mom or Dad is a first line of defense against distress!
#4. Think positively. Teach your children how to build their self-esteem. If they believe in themselves, they will cope better with distress. Tell them to mentally visualize themselves smiling and happy in an upcoming situation, such as a speech, or have them repeat to themselves positive phrases like “I know I can do this well” or “I will succeed”. Explain about how Olympic athletes succeed-they believe in themselves and know they can win.
#5. Add balance to activities. Activities that require balance such as gymnastics, ballet, martial arts or ice skating are great ways for kids to focus on what their bodies are saying. Full mental attention is needed for balancing, and often kids are detached and disconnected from the use of too many stimuli such as television and video games. Fitness balls can be a fun and inexpensive way for kids to practice balance every day.
Living is stressful, and it is unrealistic to expect today’s children to live in a stress-free world. Children will not always have someone around to help them through stressful situations, so it is critical to teach them the mind/body connection and a set of workable responses so that they can one day cope with stress on their own.