Every Wednesday evening between 5:15 and 5:30, my 13-year-old son becomes “ill”. Sometimes it’s his stomach. Other times it’s a headache and sore throat. Tonight, he had to take his temperature, because he felt like he was having a “hot flash” (his words).
My son has a voice lesson on Wednesdays between 5:45 and 6:15. He claims he doesn’t dread these lessons, and every week at 6:17 when he slides into the passenger seat, he is full of good cheer and positive anticipation of the songs he is working on.
For some reason, however, by the time the next Wednesday rolls along, he has worked himself into a nervous ball of energy. He himself refuses to see the connection, but it’s like uncanny clockwork, the malaise that befalls him during the late afternoon on Wednesdays. “This time it’s different, Mom, “ he tries to reassure me. “I promise, it has nothing to do with my voice lessons. But I don’t think I can go.”
My son loves to sing. He auditions for solos in his choir and sings with confidence to loud applause at concerts. He’s participated in musicals for the past 3 years, often in a leading role, performing with ease and certainty on stage in front of both peers and parents.
Somehow, however, singing in front of his instructor gives him some kind of subconscious anxiety. He denies it, of course, and yet, every Wednesday, he feels sick.
Naturally, as a mom, I am concerned and must quell the feelings of self-doubt that creep into my thinking. Am I pushing him too hard? Is he overscheduled and stressed out? But no.
He has not other commitments outside of school this month as soccer is on hiatus for the winter and the musical has not yet begun its rehearsals.
I ask if he’d like to quit. No. He’s committed to continuing.
How do I know he’s not really sick?
What should I do?
What should I say?
How can I, and other parents in similar situations, know how much stress and anxiety is acceptable for our children?
No one wants their child to suffer from worry and fear that manifests itself in physical symptoms. Yet on the other hand, many of us recognize that feeling discomfort at the thought of participating in activities that stretch us out of our comfort zones into situations we may find intimidating is natural. We know that when we have persisted in doing hard things we feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride when we successfully complete and accomplish our goals.
While some may want their children to avoid such stressors, I believe it is both healthy and helpful for kids to learn how to identify stress and to learn to persevere within the context of their supportive and caring family.
When children express feelings and display symptoms of stress and anxiety parents can:
Check to see if basic needs are met. Sometimes children may be hungry, thirsty, tired or simply in need of some attention and affection. These needs can be assessed and remedied simply by asking a few factual questions. Moods can change quickly when hungry children are fed or when sleepy kids have had a nap.
Remain calm. Just as small children look to parents after falling down to check to see if they should cry or simply bounce back up and keep moving forward, older children also look to their parents to guide their reactions. When offered a listening ear and engaging sympathy, kids can take their time in describing their feelings and pinpointing the cause of their worries.
Validate the child’s feelings by taking their symptoms seriously. Check for measurable symptoms and suggest proactive steps for home remedies. Bring out the thermometer. Check the swollen glands. Offer water and rest for headaches and suggest a trip to the toilet or a rest for a few minutes on the couch. After offering sympathy, as long as no urgent symptoms remain, parents can feel confident in moving forward with scheduled plans.
Recognize patterns of behavior. Is there a sudden need for bathrooms right before every soccer game? Does the child dissolve into a puddle of tears before bed every Tuesday night? Is there a noticeable elevation of grumpiness and are tempers super short at a certain time of day? Careful reflection and observations can lead to the discovery of patterns that may help parents uncover previously hidden truths about their children’s anxiety and perceptions of stressful situations.
Identify the source of the anxiety. Choose an alternate time when the child is relaxed and has the energy to engage in a private conversation. Share the observations of both the cause of the child’s stress and the patterns of related behavior and symptoms that has been observed. Spend some time listening and talking about why the child may be having the negative feelings. Brainstorm possible strategies and solutions together that may help eliminate the stress related feelings. Think of solutions that can change the child’s approach to the stress or perhaps modify certain aspects of the situation without removing it completely. Sometimes taking a few intermediate steps before making drastic changes is key to overcoming the anxiety.
A certain amount of manageable stress is good for children and teenagers as long as they remain secure in the knowledge that they supported, cared for and listened to. Within the context of normative child development, parents help their children best when they give them tools to manage the stress and the opportunity to overcome it.
My son will continue with his voice lessons. We remain committed to communicating with each other about his feelings regarding the lessons and ways to power through his slight anxiety.
An important note regarding stress and children: toxic stress is harmful to children when they continually suffer in pervasive and persistent stressful situations and their physical, emotional and intellectual needs are not being met. Some children may suffer from anxiety and clinical depression despite the best of circumstances. If your child shows severe symptoms of stress and anxiety that persist over time and do not seem to connect to any particular pattern or event, please consult with your pediatrician or other professional.