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Stress

Helping Your Child Cope with Holiday Stress

Seeing increased tantrums, anxiousness, irritability, or defiance in your child?

While the holidays can be a fun and joyous time for children, many factors can contribute to increased stress for children, which often manifests as temper tantrums, defiance, anxiousness, irritability, or feeling down. Holiday-related factors include changes in school/play routine, delayed bedtime hours, increased sweets, and parental/caregiver stress. Learn how to help your child cope with holiday stress by using a set of science-supported techniques called relaxation training.

Pixabay/Abbie Paulhus, with permission.
Source: Pixabay/Abbie Paulhus, with permission.

Research has demonstrated that when a child imagines an experience, he or she may experience the same physical sensations as if the experience actually occurred in real life. A well-known imagery exercise that succinctly exemplifies this mind-body connection involves guided imagery using a lemon. Close your eyes and imagine a newly sliced lemon in your hand. Imagine that you’re bringing the lemon to your mouth and squeezing the lemon juice onto your tongue. Following this imagery exercise, most people will describe that their mouths physically produced saliva in an automatic response to imagining the lemon juice dripping onto their tongues. This exercise can be used to explain and demonstrate to children the mind-body connection; that the mind can imagine an event, and the body can respond to that imagined event as if it were occurring in real life. This example can be used to educate your child that while imagining events may cause a physically stressful response (e.g., heart racing, fast/shallow breathing), your child can also use their imagination to slow down their heart rate, calm down, and relax their mind and body.

Relaxation Strategies:

The following is a list of relaxation strategies that you can teach your children to help them calm down their bodies. Be creative in teaching relaxation strategies to your children in order to increase their motivation for learning the strategies. For instance, if your child enjoys puppetry, use a puppet in role-playing the breathing techniques. If you have a child who loves using the computer and tends to be highly motivated to use one, you may decide to teach the child relaxation techniques by showing them a video on YouTube that teaches deep breathing. A recommended child psychologist-approved app is Breath-Think-Do by Sesame Street. You can also find a YouTube video that has examples from the app.

Pixabay/Cheryl Holt, used with permission
Source: Pixabay/Cheryl Holt, used with permission

Deep Breathing: When children feel stressed, they often inadvertently take shallow breaths, which can cause the children to experience panic. To counter this shallow breathing, the child should learn how to take deep breaths. One teaching strategy is to use “bubble breathing.” You can easily teach this strategy by having at least two bubble bottles with wands on hand and engaging the child in a contest to see who can blow the biggest bubble. Teach the child that deep breaths (rather than shallow breaths) are required to learn how to blow the biggest bubbles.

A second game is to use pinwheels. Engage the child in a contest of who can spin the pinwheel the longest. Teach the child that in order to get the pinwheel to spin for an extended period of time, you have to take a deep breath, and breathe out slowly. Always link the skill to a scenario that the child can use the skill. In this instance, have the child identify situations in which deep breathing (or “bubble breathing”) may be used to help calm down the child's body.

Parents may also use a balloon to teach their children how to practice diaphragmatic breathing. Here is a sample script you can use:

Pixabay, used with permission
Source: Pixabay, used with permission

“Close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. Imagine your stomach is a balloon, take in a big deep, slow breath as if you are filling up your stomach like a big balloon. Your chest is not moving, just your stomach. Now, let out your breath slowly, and watch as your stomach deflates like a balloon with a slow leak. Now, take in a big deep breath, keep breathing in until I count to 5.”

Learning how to visualize calming scenery may also aid in decreasing a child's anxious arousal or even stop anxious thoughts. Here is a Visualization/Guided Imagery Sample Script:

Parent: “What is your favorite place in the whole world?"

Child: “The beach is my favorite!”

Parent: “OK, we are going to practice a relaxation game. Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Pretend you are at the beach. You are sitting on the warm sand. You can feel the warm sand in between your toes, feel the warm sun against your face, and the salty smell of the ocean water in your nose. You feel the breeze against your skin. Notice the waves crashing in front of you; listen to the sounds of the seagulls flying by above you. Take a slow deep breath in through your nose, now hold it, then release very slowly out your mouth. Let's try that again, even slower this time. Imagine you're sitting at the beach, and taking slow breaths."

Pixabay, used with permission
Source: Pixabay, used with permission

Another science-supported breathing strategy is 4-7-8 breathing. This entails teaching the child to breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, holding their breath for 7 seconds, and then slowly releasing their breath through their mouth for 8 seconds. Go Zen has a short video that children can watch to help learn this strategy.

 Paolo Sergio de Oliveira Rosa/Pixabay, used with permission
Source: Paolo Sergio de Oliveira Rosa/Pixabay, used with permission

Additional strategies include meditation and yoga, which can be done via classes or by viewing developmentally age-appropriate videos online.

And remember, the best way for children to learn these strategies is by your own modeling of the relaxation techniques. When they see you using these strategies, especially during times of stress or anxiety, children are more likely to use diaphragmatic breathing strategies themselves.

References

Alexander, A., Miklich, D., & Hershkoff, H. (1972). The immediate effects of systematic relaxation training on peak expiratory flow rates in asthmatic children.Psychosomatic Medicine, 34, 388–394.

Bergland, B., & Chal, A. (1972). Relaxation training and a junior high behavior problem.School Counselor, 19, 288–293.

Brown, R. H. (1977). An evaluation of the effectiveness of relaxation training as a treatment modality for the hyperkinetic child.Dissertation Abstracts International, 38(6B), 2847.

Elitzer, B. (1976). Self-relaxation programs for acting out adolescents.Adolescence, 44, 570–572.

Richardson, G. E., Beall, B. S., & Jessup, G. T. (1982). The effects of a high school stress management unit on student's heart rate and muscle tension.Journal of School Health, 52, 229–233.

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