How to help your son cope with stress
We’re more than halfway through first term and hopefully your son has settled back into school life. However, for some, this is a stressful time of year. Perhaps your son is trying out for the footy team, auditioning for the lead role in the school musical, or struggling to get used to a new school. Maybe he’s worried about an upcoming exam.
While your son won’t be able to avoid stress, there are things you can do to help him deal with the ups and downs of life, both in and outside the school gates.
So what is stress?
It’s important to remember that stress is a personal psychological response. Stress is in the eye of the perceiver, which means that what is stressful for your son may not be stressful for his sibling, or for you. If your son is opening up to you about what he finds stressful, it’s important not to undermine him, even if don’t necessarily understand his stress.
Stress can also be positive (eustress) or negative (distress).
Eustress tends to result in a higher performance or a more positive, desirable outcome. This could include preparing for a part-time job interview, training for a big sports event, or asking someone out on a date. Eustress often results in positive feelings, such as enthusiasm, motivation, and excitement.
Distress includes hassles or events that are non-beneficial or undesirable, such as the break-up of a relationship, failing a subject or test, financial pressure, or lack of time. Distress often results in feelings of anxiety, anger, frustration and resentment.
Strategies for dealing with stress
In 2015, a national survey by the Australian Psychological Society found that people who are better equipped to cope with stress have a greater sense of wellbeing.
Encourage your son to have a few stress-busting tools up his sleeve and remind him to be flexible – if something’s not working, try something else.
Exercise uses up stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin, and encourages healthy functioning of the body. Exercise also improves the cardiovascular system, releases endorphins (so we feel great), and promotes relaxation (tense muscles get a work out and are usually more relaxed following a session of exercise). Exercise also regulates breathing, and can be quite meditative when a rhythm is involved e.g. rhythmic breathing or rhythmic movement.
Remember, exercise doesn’t have to involve competitive sport, which some boys can find stressful. Find something that works for your son – bike riding, dancing, taking a walk in nature, or jumping on a trampoline are all great non-competitive stress busters.
At times, taking our mind off the stressful situation can help us deal with negative stress. Distractions may include sleeping, reading a book, listening to music, watching TV or surfing the internet.
Distraction can be useful when we have no or little control over the stress, for example, when your son is waiting for exam results that won’t be released until a set date.
However, distractions are not beneficial if the stress is something that can be, and needs to be, dealt with. For instance, if your son is stressed about an exam because he feels unprepared, distractions will not help him tackle the much-needed study.
Unfortunately, research shows that for many teenagers, distraction is their go-to stress coping strategy, no matter what is causing the stress. What’s more concerning is that this avoidant behaviour can later turn into potentially destructive behaviours, such as drinking, drug use, and gambling. In many situations, it’s important to encourage your son to try approach strategies rather than distraction when dealing with stress.
Approach strategies include any strategies that deal with the stress or its consequences directly. Often, stress comes from a place of fear or confusion. Approach strategies allow your son to take control of the stressful situation, which helps him feel empowered.
Back to that exam prep. Your son’s approach strategies could include:
- finding out what’s likely to be on the exam paper
- confirming the time and date of the exam and how he will get there
- seeking out help with his study or studying with friends
- seeing his teachers regularly and asking for study advice
- doing practice questions and measuring his own progress
- setting up a study area and creating study cards
- prioritising study time over parties or social events.
As you can see from this example, approach strategies are often actions or behaviours. They act towards the stressor and give your son a sense of control over the cause of his stress.
Every single one of us experiences unhealthy stress at some point. As your son’s ultimate role model, it’s important that you talk openly about stress and show him how you personally cope with stressful situations. This teaches your son about resilience – a life-long skill that will enable him to enjoy the ‘ups’ and cope with the ‘downs’. After all, life isn’t always ‘up’. The ‘downs’ that stress can bring are part of being human and there is beauty in those times too – you can’t have the rainbows without the rain.Meg Adem is a science and psychology teacher, writer and athletics coach at Brighton Grammar, an all-boys school in Melbourne. This article is about Wellbeing
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