Habitot Children's Museum                                                                                                                      February 2016
"HELPING CHILDREN DEAL WITH FAMILY STRESS"
February 2016 Parenting Topic of the Month
Not all stress is bad but parents need to protect their children from negative stress. And when family life is stressful, adult-initiated play can diffuse all kinds of stress and can be restorative for young children.

For toddlers, "positive stress" results from encountering challenging situations like entering a new childcare environment or meeting a large animal for the first time. These experiences are crucial to healthy growth and brain development because they motivate children to deal with new circumstances and to learn how to manage their emotions and behavior. Engaged adults are often important helpers in this process, which gives children confidence to meet the next challenge ahead.

"Negative stress" results from situations in which children (or adults) have no control over circumstances, or are not equipped to meet the challenges. Long-term illness of a parent or loved one, parental separation or divorce, difficult family finances are all "tolerable stress" but they can can have potentially lasting negative effects on a young child. If not improved or resolved, they can even diminish brain growth in young children.

Play is nature's antidote to stress. According to famed developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, children's positive sense of self hinges on their ability to take initiative and autonomously use their bodies ... in other words, it hinges on play! Physical play, in particular, helps children under stress because it supplies the brain with glucose energy, raises the level of endorphins and helps the body burn off excess adrenaline. Play in which the child is the leader lets a child experience control - very important in times of stress. Physical play also builds a child's confidence in his or her body. Social and emotional growth is activated by play behaviors like sharing, taking turns, self-advocacy and resolving conflicts. But surprisingly, stress often shuts down a child's ability and interest in play, which is why it is so vital to have supportive and playful relationships with adults.

Engaging with a toddler or preschooler at their energy level, especially if you are under stress yourself, can seem daunting, but the rewards can be lasting and healing, both for children and for you.

Here are someways to use physical play to diffuse your child's stress:
• Set up physical activities in the home or yard where children can test their limits and explore safely. Create an simple obstacle course with boxes, hula hoops,ropes., cones, etc. Use a broomstick for a limbo line and dance to music. Your child will gain confidence by being challenged, and by completing tasks successfully.

• Tell your child that you want to play a game where he or she is the leader. Let your child tell you how to move and use your body. Be prepared to be silly! Children love to feel that they are in control, even just for a moment, and their sense of of self flourishes when they are able to be the leaders in play.

• Engage in gentle wrestling and tumbling on the floor or bed together. Let children crawl all over you. Parents set safe limits and let kids know when they've gone too far.

• Promote self-advocacy during play. Many children who are exposed to stress and/or trauma have a difficult time asserting themselves and setting limits,especially with adults. Play games that give your child choices about what they want to do or how they would like to interact with adults.

All children should have the change to become healthy, loving, socially-connected adults. Allowing them to feel safe, loved, powerful and playful can help them overcome life's greatest challenges.

RESOURCES:
Books and Articles for Adults:
Effects of Stress on Brain Development. (2007). Better Brains for Babies Web Site: http://www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/bbb/stressEffects.php
Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Brain. (2005). National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child Web Site: http://www.developingchild.net/pubs/wp/Stress_Disrupts_Architecture_Developing_Brain.pdf
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