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Managing your child's stress:
Listen, don't lecture. Give your children a chance to tell you what's bothering them.
1) If the stress is positive, like a really hard class at school, explain how learning stress can help their brain grow new neurons and make them smarter. Teach them breathing exercises to calm their nerves.
2) If the stress is negative and avoidable, by all means do what you can to help your children avoid it. (This could be everything from putting a stop to bullying at school or staying calm instead of yelling when your child flakes on her homework to finding a new school where your child won't have to observe daily fights in the hallways.)
3) If the stress is negative and avoidable, explain to your children that though you may not be able to eliminate the problem overnight, you take the issue seriously and will do what you can. Then, make sure that your children get enough exercise — whether it's playing at the park, a pillow fight, or a vigorous walk in the woods.
By Hank Pellissier
Stress: it's catching
Is it enough for parents to keep the house in order, avoid spanking (and other corporal punishment), and refrain from verbal abuse? This is certainly advisable, but experts suggest that this may not be enough to protect your child from stress-related brain drain in the home. Parents' own stress levels can affect their children's cognition because tension is "contagious," explains David Code, author of Kids Pick Up On Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic to Kids. Cole asserts that in extreme circumstances, parental stress can weaken a child's brain development.
John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School echoes this sentiment: "The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse."
Parents may do their best to protect their children from stress, but sometimes life's twists and turns make stress unavoidable. Luckily, experts say they aren't calling for parents to cloister their children in a stress-free bubble.
Can you cure stress with more stress?
Instead, they say, it's good to expose children to the right kinds of stress and teach them ways to deal with the potentially harmful kinds.
"Not all stress is bad," claims Steven Finkbeiner, professor of neurology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. "The act of 'learning' is a stress of sorts on the brain, but this sort of mental stress can be good… [it] can lead to the production of factors that support neuronal health and synapse formation."
It's also important to note, these experts say, that it appears that damage to children's brains caused by stress might not be permanent. "Stress effects are not 'brain damage' but reversible or treatable," claims Bruce McEwen, neuroendocrinology researcher at The Rockefeller University.
A powerful antidote
The cure? All of the experts GreatSchools contacted seemed to agree. "Exercise," says McEwen, pointing at studies that claim physical activity stimulates hippocampus growth, and group exercise (think team sports lke soccer and games like tag) fosters neuron development.
Medina concurs: "Exercise is one of the best things children can do to combat stress. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress." Monica R. Fleshner, Ph.D., integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado, also agrees, explaining, "maintaining regular physical activity is one way to help promote both stress resistance and stress resilience."
It makes sense, doesn't it? Eons ago, our ancestors boldly reacted to danger using the fight-or-flight response. Afterward, they celebrated their victory with cardiovascular dancing and chest-thumping. Moonlight dancing isn't required to relieve your child's stressed-out brain, but exercise, in its myriad forms, has remained the best tension relief for humanity's offspring.
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