Kids are stressed by being overscheduled, having too much homework, by family expectations and the trials of growing up. Not surprisingly, they're also stressed by having to navigate the social scene. Dealing with peers is like playing for keeps in a game with unwritten rules. Isn't it strange that we never teach our kids how to handle stress? We assume that it's something they'll all "get" naturally.

Children often make social mistakes because they don't have time to think - they react emotionally. They're threatened, hurt, anxious, angry, sad, or some combination of these feelings. The response seems instantaneous. Wouldn't it be great if we could help them relax, so they could more calmly think things through?

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University has worked in mind-body medicine for years. His book, The Relaxation Response, explains how our bodies automatically respond to stress. He teaches a simple meditation of breathing and repeating a word or phrase. Any calming word or phrase can do.

Many people, and especially younger kids, need a more structured approach. I suggest checking out relaxation CD's available online. You can go to websites like Amazon or Google and search "children's relaxation CD" to find a variety of choices. Relaxation works for all ages. The only difference between a children's CD and the grown up version is the language and style used.

Relaxation is for the mind and the body; both have to be de-stressed. Watching TV might relax the mind, but it doesn't teach the body to let go of tension.

It's not hard to talk a child through relaxing. Start with some slow deep breaths. Then tell him to breathe normally and to relax starting from his head, relaxing each part of his body down to his toes. Speak slowly and in a soothing tone.  After physically relaxing, some children enjoy visualizing a special place or image. You can help an image become vivid by suggesting the child imagine the color, texture, sounds, and shapes he sees and feels. I worked with one little girl who liked to relax imagining a mint ice cream cone slowly melting, and a little boy who liked to imagine being in the cockpit of a plane at night, seeing the dark sky and bright stars. Both kids had trouble with over-reacting when they felt peers were teasing or unfair. After practicing relaxation, they were more able to take a deep breath, relax for a few moments and calm down enough to think. It made it easier to ignore a tease or walk away from someone rude to find a friend.

Relaxation techniques can be a great part of a bedtime ritual. An advantage to including relaxation at bedtime is that it's easier to be consistent, which is important. That way, when the child uses his relaxation technique or image, his body says, "I know what this is. I'll calm down a little." Why don't we teach this to all kindergarteners?

About the Author

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who specializes in autism spectrum disorders and anxiety.

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