Keep children free of stress

With GCSE results now out and the new school year looming, British kids are understandably starting to feel the strain. And despite their best intentions, ‘pushy parents’ who put their children under constant academic pressure, are being warned that they are actually doing more harm than good by actively contributing to the growing problem of childhood stress. School exam stress has risen by 50pc to an all-time high over the last 12 months alone, according to a major new study, which investigated the problem of escalating stress levels in children as young as five. Even the simplest school tests are culprits, with around half of all kids – and a similar percentage of parents – admitting that tests and exams make them feel downright miserable.
The Cambridge University Centre for Family Research report, commissioned by Bold 2-in-1 Lavender and Camomile, also discovered that boys in particular get very stressed if made to do homework or prepare for exams with their parents. Dr Terri Apter, social psychologist at Cambridge University and co-ordinator of the new Soothing Family Life report, warns that the balance between encouraging children to do their best and becoming a pushy parent is a hard one to achieve. “We know girls generally tend to do better in exams than boys and our findings show that now might be the time to reconsider how we treat boys and girls in order to soothe their academic stress,” she says.
“Generally, families need more soothing moments together to ensure kids don’t get stressed out.”
Celebrity gardener and busy mother-of-two Kim Wilde, 44, who was part of the report’s panel of experts, wholly agrees. She says the study has helped her to understand how best to soothe the stresses that her two young children – Harry, six, and four-year-old Rose – will face as they are growing up. “There’s no doubt that today’s busy lifestyle makes it more important than ever to create soothing family moments,” says Kim. “Small things can go a long way when it comes to helping our children feel safe, loved and cared for.”

Spotting the symptoms

Different children show stress in different ways, so it isn’t always easy to recognise when your child is affected. But parenting expert Dr Pat Spungin advises watching out for the following signs.
Short-term behavioural changes including a change in eating patterns, tiredness or lethargy.
Mood swings – the research shows that girls tend to become quieter and introspective whereas boys tend to act out and perhaps become aggressive or petulant.
Changes in sleep patterns or bedwetting.
Some children experience physical side effects, including stomach-aches and headaches.
Trouble concentrating on or completing schoolwork.
Becoming withdrawn or spending a more time alone than normal.
Younger children may pick up new habits such as thumb-sucking, hair twirling or nose picking.
Older children may begin to lie, bully or defy authority.

Stress busters for kids

“The new report convinced me more than ever that families need soothing moments together,” says Pat Spungin. “Supporting our children will soothe any stressed behaviour, by giving them the natural and healthy confidence to believe in themselves as we believe in them. Listening to them will help improve your relationship, meaning they feel they can confide in you, discussing worries rather than becoming stressed about them.
“Make absolutely sure your child understands that there are lots of ways to succeed in life – it’s not just academic measures that matter,” she says. Encourage them and put emphasis on their positive character traits, skills and aptitudes.
Make time for your kids at the end of your working day and try to get them into a wind-down routine every evening – routine is essential for a child’s well-being.
Discover relaxation techniques that work for you and your family – the most simple method involves tensing and relaxing different muscles or breathing deeply, but some find a shower, bath or massage highly effective.
Remember the HALT sign – feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired will increase children’s feeling of stress. Children should eat a balanced diet and take regular exercise, and avoid fizzy drinks or anything with caffeine.
If one family member is stressed out, it is easily picked up by one another – help everyone keep calm to combat the problem, and remember that a good night’s sleep is vital.
Parents, don’t be pushy – it can do more harm than good. Listening to your children without interrupting, giving advice or warnings, can let you get to know them in a new way. They’ll open up and confide in you, which will strengthen your relationship.
Try using soothing natural essential oils such as lavender and camomile. A couple of drops of lavender essential oil used sparingly on your child’s pillow or bedclothes at night can work wonders.

Pressure points

As well as academic pressure and pushy parents, the report identified three other main stress factors facing children in the UK today.

Increased parental stress: Parents’ anxiety rubs off on the kids and means they can’t cope as well with their own problems or angst.
Life events: Any traumatic event – such a death in the family, a divorce, or even the birth of another child – will add to a child’s stress and, of course, their ability to handle it constructively.
Family dynamics: Boys tend to be more stressed if they don’t have a strong male role model, and girls start to show the strain if they don’t have a close parental bond with either or both parents.

Self-help for kids

Books aimed at children can be an excellent way to educate them about stress management.
The Anxiety Cure for Kids by Elizabeth Dupont Spencer, Robert L. Dupont, Caroline M. Dupont, is published by John Wiley & Sons at £10.50.
Taming the Dragon in Your Child by Meg Eastman and Sydney Rozen is published by John Wiley & Sons at £10.95.
Cool Cats, Calm Kids by Mary Williams is published by Impact Publishers at $8.95.
Hot Stuff to Help Kids Chill Out by Jerry Wilde is published by Lgr Publishing at $9.95.