Ask an Expert: Q: How do children deal with stress and how should parents respond?

Top child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg gives her thoughts on how children deal with stress and how should parents respond

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg of Priory Wellbeing Centre 

Bullying, school pressures, sibling rivalry, divorcing parents: increasing numbers of children are suffering from stress. The Mental Health Foundation estimates as many as one in six young people experiences an anxiety-related problem like stress.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a top child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centres, treats many such children.

She says: “Every child has stressful situations to cope with, including arguments with friends, bullying, and disputes with parents. These can’t always be prevented, but young people can learn to cope in a healthier way. Young people are often ‘catastrophising’; they believe they will fail spectacularly at school or at friendships. This can lead to behaviours such as self-harming. But helping them look at the true evidence can challenge irrational thinking.

“Remind your child you love them unconditionally and if children have intense emotions and turn to self-harming, tell your child to hold some ice really tightly (it feels like it is burning but will not do damage). As the ice melts they might feel their tension melt away. Let your child know they can always contact a charity such as ChildLine anonymously by telephone or via a web chat. Parents can also help by ‘scheduling unscheduled time’ for their children and cutting back on their children’s extra-curricular activities.”

Dr Van Zwanenberg suggests some pragmatic tips for parents to help keep children’s stress in check:

  • Walk and talk – use weekends and holidays to get outside, without the distraction of the TV or tablet. Use the time to chat openly; laugh and maybe broach sensitive subjects that have been off limits
  • Get board, not bored – from Scrabble to Snap to Uno, Pointless to Pictionary, board games are back and can be a great distracting, bonding experience for all the family, playing as equals.

Keep reading: How to deal with stress in children 

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