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How not to handle stress in kids

The Straits Times | Joyce Teo | Tuesday, Mar 28, 2017

Photo: The Straits Times

Today's children learn more than their parents did in school.

They also spend longer hours in school and face greater expectations to take on activities outside of schoolwork, all of which eat into their personal time.

Apart from academic pressure, other stressors for school-going children are often relationships with family and friends.

"As children grow older, peer relationships become more important as this is the stage when they forge their own identity," said Dr Lim Choon Guan, deputy chief of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health.

"Children also have to manage expectations from their parents," he added.

Some common stressors for teens include the pressure to fit in with friends, learning to adapt to bodily changes during puberty and having to make important decisions on academic courses and future careers, he said.

Yet, some parents unknowingly add to their child's stress by becoming a part of the problem.

Children who are confident in their parents' love and acceptance are best able to cope with stress, said Dr Vicknesan Marimuttu, a consultant at the child and adolescent mental wellness service of KK Women's and Children's Hos- pital's psychological medicine department.

For instance, parents can support their child during exams by reassuring him that he is loved unconditionally and that any setbacks or disappointments can be managed, he said.

Parents can also lend a listening ear to the child's problems, and demonstrate stress management and coping skills.

In addition, they can help the child take breaks from exam preparations by supporting relaxing activities such as hobbies and exercise, said Dr Vicknesan.

Here are some common mistakes that parents may make.

1. Communicating with your child only when he has a problem

Communicating is not something that is done only when your child has problems or reaches a certain age. By then, it might be too late.

Find the time to talk to him as this gives comfort and builds a sense of confidence and security. It also offers him a natural outlet to express his thoughts, feelings or worries, said Dr Chua Siew Eng, a specialist in psychiatry and consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre.

Parents can chat with their child over dinner about what had happened during the day. They can be involved in recreational activities with their child, like playing computer games. These are opportunities for parents to communicate and for the child to talk about his problems.

Dr Lim said: "Keep communication lines open with your child, as understanding the nature of the problems can help you decide on the next course of action."

2. Becoming a part of his problem

Children often face a lot of academic pressure because they want to meet or exceed the expectations of their parents or teachers, said Dr Lim.

It is more important to recognise the child's effort and not just his academic results, he said.

3. Burdening your child with your problems

Some children feel stressed when they know about their parents' conflict or marital problems.

They even refuse to go to school because they want to stay home to ensure their parents are safe, said Dr Lim.

If the parents are making a major decision, such as a divorce or separation, they should speak to the child to help him make sense of the situation, he said. "This is important so that he does not develop a fear of abandonment."

It is also important to think about what is appropriate for the child to know.

If a parent is severely ill, it is important to provide appropriate information to avoid making the child worry unnecessarily, he added.

4. Being too quick to give advice

"One common mistake that many parents make is to jump to conclusions too quickly or dispense advice too readily," said Dr Lim.

Instead, he added, they should take the time to listen to what their child is saying and then paraphrase or repeat what they have heard to check if they have understood him correctly.

And there will be times when he just needs a listening ear, so parents do not even need to say anything, he said.

5. Solving his problems for him

You should work with him to come up with solutions instead, said a Health Promotion Board (HPB) spokesman. This helps to build his confidence in dealing with future challenges independently.

The HPB shares four ways to build resilience in your child.

  • When he faces a challenge or a setback, get him to use it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • When he experiences intense feelings, identify and label how he is feeling before finding ways to help him manage those feelings. This can include deep breathing, counting to 10 or walking away from the emotional situation.
  • Get him to manage stressors by leading a healthy lifestyle. This means eating right, sleeping well and getting enough exercise.
  • Be there for him when he needs help and support.


Seeking help

Get professional help when you see significant changes in your child's behaviour. For instance, he may:

  • Become more withdrawn
  • Lose interest in activities he used to enjoy
  • Become aggressive
  • Seem emotional, moody, depressed, irritable or scared most of the time
  • Lose his appetite
  • Feel anxious and restless
  • No longer sleep well
  • Refuse to attend school (or his school results may plummet for no apparent reason)
  • Express negative thoughts such as suicide

When seeking help from a mental health professional, parents should not push their child too hard, even during counselling.

While it helps for the child to share his problems, he needs to be given the time and space to do so. Earning his trust cannot be rushed.

You can seek help from school counsellors or child psychiatry services of the Institute of Mental Health or restructured hospitals.

Older teens can approach CHAT (Community Health Assessment Team) for help. It provides free mental health checks and professional help for adolescents and young adults aged 16 to 30.

CHAT Hub - *SCAPE Youth Park: Call 6493-6500 or 6493- 6501 or e-mail CHAT@mentalhealth.sg or www.chat.mentalhealth.sg

Source: Dr Lim Choon Guan, senior consultant and deputy chief of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health

This article was first published on March 28, 2017.
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