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Marilyn Wilcher, Senior Director at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, discusses how parents can help their children with stress

Stress Awareness: How Parents Can Help Their Children with Stress

Using the Relaxation Response to help kids with stress

21/May/2012

There is a wealth of information on the topic of stress management on the internet and on various blogs, and with good reason! It is estimated that stress contributes to 60-90 percent of visits to a healthcare provider. However, very few of these resources address the problem of stress in children and adolescents. Many studies show that teen stress is increasing. According to a 2009 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, teens’ stress levels had increased significantly over the past year, however parents underestimated their stress levels. Nearly half of teens ages 13-17 who participated said that they worried more than they had in the previous year, but merely 26 percent of parents realized their teen’s stress had increased.

Some teens often feel overwhelmed with stress associated with school, family or their social lives; they could be preparing for a test, a big paper, a school party, an athletic event or something going on in the family. 

This is problematic because stress during childhood affects teens’ health and well-being as well as their ability to learn. When young people are stressed, they cannot learn, and this negatively affects academic performance. Furthermore, poorly managed stress can lead to depression, anxiety, withdrawal and aggression as well as unhealthy coping strategies such as drug and/or alcohol use.

One simple way for parents to help their children and teenagers to manage stress is to teach them how to elicit the relaxation response. The relaxation response, a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, the Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, is a physical state that is the direct opposite of the stress response. It is a state of deep rest where the mind is quiet, breathing is slowed, metabolism decreases and muscles relax.

There are two basic components involved in eliciting the relaxation response:

1.  A mental focusing tool, such as watching your breath, or repeating a word, phrase, prayer, or sound. You can also engage in a repetitive exercise such as running, swimming, or weight lifting, or think of a soothing image to help you shift your mind away from thoughts and worries.

2. A quiet, aware, ‘non-judging’ attitude, which involves gently directing your mind back to your point of focus when you notice yourself caught up in other thoughts.

Relaxation exercise

Parents can use the following exercise. Just ask your child to sit down in a comfortable position and narrate as follows:

1. Pick a word, phrase, or image. You may also choose any word or phrase that you like. You can also choose an image to focus on. Imagine a place you've been to, seen a picture of, or a place from your imagination.

2. Sit or lie quietly in a comfortable position.

3. Close your eyes.

4. Relax your muscles.

5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, repeat your focus word or phrase or    picture your chosen image as you exhale.

6. Assume a non-judging attitude. Don't worry about how well you're doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, "Oh well," and gently return to the repetition.

7. Continue until you feel comfortable with the relaxation.  If you’re practicing at home, you might want to have a clock nearby to check how much time has passed. Note: This script can be read to your child verbatim.  Eventually children will be able to do this relaxation on their own.

Relaxation response exercises should be performed once or twice per day.  You can start with 5 minutes and work up to 10 to 20 minutes. Although there are other ways to elicit the relaxation response, this is a simple way to begin.

It is important that parents be aware of the negative effects of stress in children and teens and to encourage them to reduce stress. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, there are several additional steps that parents can take to help their children to overcome stress:

  • Monitor if stress is affecting their teen's health, behavior, thoughts, or feelings
  • Listen carefully to teens and watch for signs of stress overloading
  • Learn stress management skills and set a positive example
  • Support their involvement in sports and other pro-social activities

About the Education Initiative at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine

Since 1989, the BHI Education Initiative has worked with students of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, in groups and individually. In our training program, we teach students about the stress response and its opposite state, the relaxation response. We also teach them how to recognize irrational and/or negative thinking and focus on the positive.

Research performed at the BHI has found that children and teens who went through our mind body training program developed more efficient work habits and felt less stress and anxiety. They also increased their grade point average, self-esteem, and feelings of control.

The BHI frequently directs educational trainings in schools for children, adolescents and teachers. We also continue to conduct research on the effects of relaxation response training on stress and academic performance in young people. In fact, members of the BHI research team presented the results of a recent study on stress reduction training in teenagers at the International Research Congress on Integrative Medicine & Health in Portland, Oregon in mid-May 2012.

Our next program will prepare teens who are scheduled to take the June 2nd SAT test. If your teen is scheduled to take the SAT and is feeling apprehensive, this program can help. The program will take place on May 29th from 4:00 – 5:30 at BHI.

For more information about the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, call 617-643-6090.

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