Category Archives: Mental health and wellbeing

My tummy hurts…

AND OTHER CLUES YOUR CHILD IS STRESSED OUT


“I don’t want to go to school! I’m sick (fake cough). I just want to stay at home.” 

Most mornings, at least one of my kids refuse to get out of bed. And with deep breathes, I aim to get through the morning routine without everything falling apart in and around me. Cooperation is the name of the game when you have 3 small boys (currently 5, 4 and 3) to get ready and out of the house before the peak traffic closes off all exits of your neighbourhood rendering you LATE, yet again. And thatphrase immediately tells me, cooperation is out of the window for today. It’s stressful! It’s stressful for me. It’s stressful for my husband. It’s stressful for my kids. And no one is happy by the time we leave the house. On these mornings, my response can be summed up as – this is life, suck it up, we have a job to do now, let’s get going. And when we finally get in the car, I realise how I gave into my base emotions, let absolute chaos reign and apologise for turning into the mom-monster yet again. (Is it just me?)

But every now and then, I can see that this “I don’t want to go to school” is a bit more serious, and a sign that things are just too much to handle right now. On these days, things run a little differently… 

We all have stress – in today’s society, I think this is an understatement. We all have A TRUCK LOAD of stress! But at what point does it become a problem? And how do we know we’ve crossed that line? How do we know if our children have crossed that line, and how do we help them?

What is  fear / anxiety / stress?

These three emotions are very closely linked, and can often feel like the same thing.

Fear is a reaction to a present threat, with negative emotions and motivation to escape or avoid danger or threat. (That ice cold, heart thumping feeling when an angry strong individual starts walking straight towards you at a pace.)

Anxiety is a reaction to a future threat, again with negative emotions. The future event can be perceived as something important or difficult. (That uneasy feeling and questioning, ‘will I pass the upcoming exams?’)

Stress is a reaction to a demand that one feels one cannot cope with, or threatens to disrupt one’s life in some way. (That panicky feeling when you have too much to do, in too little time – like loads of homework, along with all the extramural activities. Or getting 3 uncooperative little ones ready before being late.)

All three can be good and necessary for survival  and moving forward through difficult circumstances. For example, avoiding confrontations with stronger people, can keep you from physical harm. A little nervousness about an exam or sport event, can encourage you to study or practice harder, and develop your skill. A challenging task can cause you to push yourself to new heights. 

The problem is when they become overwhelming and lead to further disruption, or dysfunction (this is where we may to enter into psychological disorders). For example,  avoiding all sports or parties or school events because I’m afraid of being attacked. Not being able to concentrate because you believe you will fail the exam no matter how hard you try, till eventually you don’t bother at all. Not being able to sleep because you have too much to do, and your adrenaline is pumping that you can’t shut off at night, and then can’t stay awake in class. 

In short, there is definitely a problem when:

  • fear remains after threat has disappeared or fear is bigger than the situation warrants
  • when worrying about something so much that one can’t even face normal daily tasks
  • feeling one cannot cope with daily life and withdrawing from all activity 
  • becoming physically ill because the body’s defences are depleted from continuous stress. 

What are the clues that my child has a problem?

If some stress, fear or anxiety is good, then allowing children to experience it is necessary. We often want to protect our children from what is negative – but a healthy dose is necessary for learning, growth and future success. But, knowing when our children are heading towards something that is harmful, allows us to intervene before it becomes devastating. So how do you know when your child (or yourself) might be headed for the unhealthy version of stress, anxiety or fear? Children express themselves through behavior. If we spend time with our children, and know them well, we will be able to pick up on their behaviours which are out of the ordinary. When children don’t understand what is going on inside of themselves, or they know something is wrong but don’t have the words, they act out. Stress, anxiety and fear may show themselves in the following ways:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits (too much/too little, nightmares, fears about sleeping, waking odd hours, not falling asleep)
  • Physical complaints (stomach aches, headaches, constant illness)
  • Change in mood and behavior (demotivated, restless, forgetful, irritable, fighting, bullying, avoiding places/people, clinginess, tantrums, disobedience, oppositional, self-injury, alcohol/drugs)
  • Change in school performance (drop in marks, disruptive, impulsive, inattentive, dependent on teacher, incomplete work)

When you notice a significant change in your child, over a period of time, start to ask questions. 

What causes of stress/ fear/anxiety?

The causes of stress or fear or anxiety are numerous. In fact, anything can cause a negative emotion. A stressor can happen once, or it can happen over, and over. It can be big and it can be small. Some stressors include:

  • Universally threatening events – things generally considered dangerous – crime, bullying, including cyber-, natural disaster, gangsterism, violence in schools
  • Major life events – anything that causes disruption – divorce, moving house, changing school, friends leaving, choosing subjects, examinations, parent’s absence, displacement, change of caregivers
  • Daily hassles – the small everyday things, that can build up and become taxing – homework, sports, relationships, friendships, traffic, aftercare, change in routine, social media, technology, transport, rushing to get ready
  • Demands of life – high expectations to excel, to have certain possessions, popularity, expectations of customs and culture
  • Lack of resources – unemployment and poverty, large classes, lack of academic support,  lack of parental involvement, personal disconnection due to technology and busyness

What can be done to help a stressed child?

In as much as an event can cause stress, stress is is also caused by the way we think about and interpret events, how we are able to handle our emotions, as well as our temperament and physical response to stress (hormones, brain structure, etc). If we think about children, the younger they are, the more at risk they are – immature brain structure, unable to understand or manage emotions yet, unable to cognitively process events. So as adults, our role is to bring external resources around our children, to reduce the stress they are exposed to, as well as to equip them with coping skills to be able to face stressors and manage them well. Some things we can do as parents, teachers, or whatever role you may have in a child’s life to help include:

  • In the moment – stop and breath (this helps the body calm down and process stress physically). 
  • Talk through daily problems (what they are feeling, why, what can they do, what do they need help with) – find solutions together
  • Create time for fun, relaxation and gratitude – this allows the body to produce ‘happy hormones’ and redirect mental focus onto the good.
  • Parenting/teaching towards empowering children – develop their strengths and learn how to problem-solve. 
  • Spend quality time with your child and create a structured and stable environment – children need a safe space, where they know what to expect and need to feel loved and accepted as they are.
  • Learn to manage your own stress well, and be an example of how to work through challenges and focus on what is good.
  • Make necessary changes – when you come to the place where you or your child are doing what you can to cope, you may need to consider getting away from the stressor. 
  • When you notice stress/anxiety/fear is becoming overwhelming and interfering with everyday life, ask for help. Speak to someone who can assist you and your child in recongising the causes, understanding the feelings and developing coping skills. 

So back to those mornings where not wanting to go to school is a clue that life is just too tough right now… in the midst of the chaos, we stop.  We breathe deeper. We risk being late. We ask questions. We hear what the problem is, talk through solutions and end with connection and reassurance. For the most part, we’ve successfully managed to overcome these challenges then and there – other times, we’ve had to make some changes to our lifestyle or have had some tough conversations. Being aware of the clues means we can step in and assist our children before it becomes unmanageable. So be mindful, be present and be aware of what your children are communicating to you. And as you help them navigate the little stressors, you help them develop skills for the long term.

‘Ummm, Can I talk to you about something…?’ Creating openness and trust at home.

When life gets tough, we want our children to know that they can come to us with anything. But an open and trusting parent-child relationship isn’t something that happens by accident. It takes a few intentional choices. Here are 5 things that can add to a healthy, trusting and positive environment that invites openness.

1. Be consistent

Consider an anchor on a ship. It’s role is to hold fast below the surface, when nothing is steady above. It is dependable and will keep a ship from drifting. Consistency in parenting creates a space where children know that what they see is what they get, no matter what. Values are consistent. Rules are consistent. Consequences are consistent. Mom and dad’s response is consistent. It doesn’t matter what might be going on – good or bad – your child can be confident that when they engage  you, they know what they are going to get. This creates security. There isn’t an insecurity about the kind of mood you’re in, or if they’re catching you at a good time, or if it might be better to just leave it and not engage, just in case it’s one of ‘those days’. The security of consistency allows children to know that you are you, and they are welcome to approach you with anything and they know your immediate response will not be a guessing game. 

2. Discipline firmly and fairly

Discipline is about guidance – not punishment, as many assume. As parents our role is to guide our children through the many opportunities, decisions and circumstances which they encounter and equip them to manage them well. Linked with consistency, if children know that each decision carries consequences, they will in time learn that their choices have power and determine outcomes in their life. This again builds confidence and security. When we discipline fairly and firmly, as opposed to inconsequently and emotionally, our children learn that they have power to be themselves and determine their outcomes instead of being controlled by a powerful ‘other’. Being free to be oneself is part of a healthy relationship. 

3. Be honest, genuine, transparent 

Nothing ruins a relationship more than dishonesty. For any relationship to thrive, both parties need to have a certain level of trust of one another. Trust is built on honesty, genuineness and transparency. What you see, is who I truly am. This is probably one of the hardest things to do – be the real you. The truth is that we are flawed individuals on our own journey’s towards our full potential. When we put up a front we break trust, we become judgemental and have double standards. Children are very perceptive and quickly realise when adults don’t ‘practice what they preach’. As far as possible, live up to the standards you set for your child – be a good example. But when you fall short, apologise, explain why you did what you did, and what you will change for the better. Use your weaknesses as opportunities to grow, and let your children get a glimpse (age appropriate) of what that growth journey looks like. When children know that you are human, they will feel comfortable sharing their weaknesses and shortcomings, fears and concerns, questions and opinions with you as well. 

4. Practice empathy 

Empathy is more than feeling for a person – that is sympathy. Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective. In fact, it actually goes further than that. Empathy is communicating this understanding to the other person in such a way that they are able to understand what is going on inside of themselves, and empowers them to act on that understanding. Empathy is like being a mirror and providing a reflection of the truth. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we gain understanding as to our present condition and we can choose to do something about it – make-up, hair gel, or nothing. Using every opportunity to understand and reflect what is happening within our children helps us know them for who they are, but allows them to develop a healthy sense of self, and then empowers them to make the necessary changes for positive growth. Empathy might take the form of giving words to emotions when a child is having a tantrum – “I can see that you are angry. Not getting what you want doesn’t feel very nice. But sweets before supper is not allowed. You can be angry, but screaming at me will not change the rule”. It might take place during or after a play date, “It seems that you were disappointed when your friend didn’t want to play the game you wanted. You didn’t say anything and just went along with them anyway. Why was that?” These moments can lead to teaching moments for better choices of behaviour or conversations about deeper issues. 

5. Respond to their needs

All people have basic needs. Our behaviour is driven by our needs. If we are observant, our children’s behaviours and responses can tell us what it is that they need. Needs can be anything from basic survival (highly emotional outbursts could be because your child is hungry – a term we at home refer to as HANGRY), safety (your child may need to feel a sense of security by hovering, reach out and hug them, hold them close, rather than sending them away because they’re irritating), belonging (children may need to know you love them no matter what, trying behaviour may be testing whether or not you will truly love them as they say or trying to fit in with the crowd at school), esteem (the move for independence is frustrating when they want to do it their way, but without that space they will never achieve, and we all need to feel a sense of achievement), and self-actualisation (ultimately we all want to be all we can be, meeting the other needs helps a child towards this). Children also have love needs such as quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. Sometimes their behaviour is communicating that one of these areas are lacking. By responding to our children’s needs we fill up their love tanks and ensure that they are emotionally satisfied. This brings two people in a relationship closer. In healthy adult relationships both parties should seek to fill one another’s tanks. In the parent-child relationship, this responsibility lies solely with the parent. Children may respond to your love with love, but if they don’t remember parents unconditionally love their children but seek personal fulfillment from other adult relationships. Be careful not make your child your emotional crutch by relying on them for love. 

As you engage with your child, creating a space where you child knows who you are, and where they can be who they are, where they are loved and their needs are met, and where they are able to understand themselves better and are equipped and encouraged to make choices and move towards better outcomes, you are creating a place of openness and trust and a place where they can feel safe no matter what is going on in their lives. 

Life is a patchwork of friends

Take a moment to recall some of your childhood memories. I’m sure that many of them contain at least one other person – a friend, an enemy, a family member, a stranger. Life is made up of moments where we engage with others.

From birth, children are in need of human relationship. At first, there is a complete dependency on our parents and caregivers. As we age we become more independent, but our need for relationship continues. A key aspect is developing a healthy balance of interdependence. Our experiences (good or bad) in childhood lay a foundation for our adult choices, including relationships. So learning how to form healthy relationships early on will guide children towards forming healthy relationships later in life.

Social skills, as with any skill, need to be learnt. For some it may seem to come naturally, while others need to diligently practice. Social skills also change as societal norms change. As parents we need to help our children understand and manage the social rules that guide interactions. 

Social skills cannot be developed in a vacuum, and therefore interactions with others are necessary. These interactions take place in any social setting, at home, with extended family or friends, in shopping centers, parks, walking down the street, driving in the car, etc. Anywhere where a child might come into contact with another person, social skills can be developed. Children learn from watching our interactions with others, and they learn from their own experience, with ongoing adaptions.

Peer relationships play different roles at different stages of childhood. This is because of children’s emotional, cognitive and behavioural development and how they are able to understand their own and other’s feelings, behaviours and perspectives.

  • In early years, friends are momentary – you’re a friend as long as we are together having fun.
  • In early primary school, friends are those people who do nice things for you.
  • Later in primary school, friends are based on social rules such as mutual benefit, but are often termed “fair-weather friends”. Falling out is common, and emotions are high, in-crowd vs out-crowd thinking comes to the fore.
  • Through primary school and into early high school, children can develop friendships with genuine care for the other person. More often it is in high school that children can develop friendships that last through thick and thin and that encourage character development.

So as a parent, reflect on how you interact with others. Are you portraying the social skills and values you would like your children to learn? Commit to making some changes if you need to.

Observe your children as they interact with others. Engage with them and help them to see what they are doing that is helpful or harmful in building healthy relationships. Let them practice by engaging with others and trying new things – greeting other adults (respect), saying “no” when they feel uncomfortable (boundaries), explaining their position on something when they disagree with a friend or sibling (assertiveness), having to share or take turns when others are playing with them (cooperation), etc. 

Help your child understand what kind of friendship they are involved in – this also helps them manage expectations. Is it momentary? Is it one-way? How do they feel? How do others feel? What consequences can they expect from their behaviour? How can they respond to other’s behaviour? How do they feel being on the outside? How can they help others feel like they belong? How do their friends help them grow in character? How can they help their friends grow?

As we help our children navigate friendships when they are young, we help them develop the tools they need for healthy interactions for life.

Living on the other side

Expectancy – anticipatory belief or desire; thinking or hoping that something, especially something good, will happen.Is it any wonder we refer to the time just before having a child as “expecting”. 

 Some people have endured many months of frustration and worry, trying to fall pregnant. Others have simply been surprised to find two little pink stripes – followed by the words “I don’t know how it happened!” Many await a phone call, “The adoption has gone through”. For others though, there is no waiting. It’s a sudden shift in life, often in the wake of tragedy and loss. Regardless of how of the journey of parenthood begins, prepared or unprepared, most have no clue what lies ahead in the parenting realm.

Becoming a parent is much like immigration. Whether by free choice or necessity, you are moving to a new country – new cultures, people and experiences await you. You’re perhaps excited and nervous or scared and confused. Perhaps you’ve read up about the country or heard things from those who have been there before. You talk about all the things you’re going to do, what your house will look like, what the people are like… on the other side. But in truth, you have no idea until you get there. As you step off the plane, ship or vehicle in this new land, you realise this is no holiday destination. It’s not a momentary experience. It’s a permanent arrangement. You can’t continue as you have before – you are a citizen of a new country and you now have to learn how to live there. 

Strangely enough some people think that changing into a parent comes naturally – about as naturally as changing nationality. It takes time, effort and an openness to learn. As you enter this new arena of life, here are some things to consider…

  • Acknowledge your feelings. 

When changing from one country to another, there is a lot of emotion: excitement, grief, fear, curiosity, confusion. Allow yourself to feel. If you find yourself overwhelmed or insecure, you’re in good company. Most new parents do (most seasoned parents do). Baby blues are quite normal post-birth as hormone rage. Anxiety and low mood can be expected immediately after a major life event. Missing your partner, your pre-parent life, your sleep… yes, you’re allowed to grieve what is gone, or feels gone. Get all those feelings out in the open! Burying your emotions only allows them to morph into bigger, more complex ones. Recognising what we are feeling and why we are feeling a certain way helps us to find ways to work through them and find resolution. Some are highly gifted in being able to do this for themselves, but most of us need help. Talk to your spouse or partner, a friend or a health professional to help you understand where you are at emotionally and walk a journey with you to finding healthy ways to deal with those emotions. 

  • Explore your surroundings.

When you move to a new place, at first your world is small. You know the route from home to the closest shop, work and maybe one or two other places. But if you want to become part of the community, you need to step out and explore. You take a different route, discover some interesting restaurants, entertainment areas and community hang outs. You start to gain confidence and become settled in your environment. Some of your pre-planning may be in place and can be an anchor that gives you stability in this season of radical change. But sometimes it can also be a weight that holds you down and keeps you stuck in an ideal that is unrealistic. Some things you need to recognise are outside of your control and you need to explore your reality and figure out new ways to manage it well. A sleep routine is important to create stability for you and your new baby, but if your child is screaming for hours and hours in the cot, maybe considering co-sleeping is the better option for you all. What works for your friend or neighbour may not work for you. Consider your personality, pre-existing routines and habits, current needs and long-term goals. See what is working and enjoy the wins. What changes do you need to consider that will be beneficial and practical to ensure your own and your child’s wellbeing? In what area can you compromise? What issues are actually irrelevant? And what are you doing that may actually be harmful? What other ideas are out there that can be helpful? Parenting is a journey of discovery, so don’t be afraid to try and learn.

  • Talk to the locals.

The best way to understand a new place and its culture, is to get to know the people. Yes, some seasoned parents are opinionated, judgemental know-it-all’s. But some are open, generous and happy to walk the journey with you, because they’ve been in your shoes, and they remember how hard it was. Reach out to friends who have children, in the same age group or older, and ask them what worked and what didn’t. Speak to the older generation, listen to their wisdom – hindsight is 20/20. Get in touch with parent groups online or in your local community. It is such a relief to know you are not alone, and that your experiences are common experiences. 

  • Take it all in.

When you first move to a new area, you feel like a tourist. You make the most of the sights and opportunities, because it is all new. But after a while you take it for granted, and miss what’s right in front of you. Every day will hold new tasks, challenges, places to go and things to do. While being a parent is permanent, the stages of childhood fly by faster than you think. Take time to enjoy your child. In the busyness of the day to day, take moments to be present. Watch your baby. Stare into their eyes. Soak up their gummy smile. Hold their tiny hands and kiss their miniature toes. Cuddle your kids. Smell their hair. Listen to them breathe as they sleep. But don’t let this practice dwindle, especially in the challenging times. Mindfulness (being present in the moment) is well known in psychology as a key part in being happier, calmer and less stressed. Throughout the day, make time to just BE with your child. 

  • Ask for help

Relocating is considered one of the biggest stressors a person can experience. Often because one’s support system is left behind. In order to thrive you need to rebuild a support system around you, and this takes time and effort. As a parent, you need a support system. It takes a village to raise a child. Don’t try and parent on your own. Reach out to your support network of family and friends. Take their offers for date nights, meals and baby-sitting. Ask questions when you visit the baby clinic, social worker or your paediatrician for check-ups. The more questions you ask, the more you are able to learn. Read parenting books and blogs (be careful not to overwhelm yourself with too much information though). Seek parent guidance or therapy from a health professional if needed. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it is a sign of emotional intelligence – a healthy awareness of one’s strength and weaknesses, and engaging in helpful relationships leads to wellbeing. 

So, as you start (or maybe you are already well into) this journey of parenthood, may you engage in your parenting experiences with confidence. As you discover this new way of life with another (little) human being, may you create precious moments and fond memories. And as you settle into your new status, may you be brave enough to join with others, create community and together raise your child to be a valuable part of this world.