The little boy squeezed my hands tightly and refused to let go. He then leaned into me as if his entire existence depended on it. His face was ashen, and his eyes darted away in a bid to avoid me. “It’s ok, C,” I said. “If you’re not ready to meet your new friends, you can just stand here with me.” With those words, I felt his grip tighten further, his face turning away to avoid me.
My wife and I took in this young boy just this week. The child, who is being fostered by another couple, is staying with us for a short period of time in order to allow his foster parents the space to sort out some personal matters. He had seemed to adjust well to our home, but when we took him out for a meal with a group of friends, he suddenly refused to sit with us at the dinner table. Instead he morphed into the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, completely frozen because of fear.
Responses to Stress
Foster children are likely to have gone through many difficult situations. Through C’s behaviour that day, I could tell that he was displaying classic symptoms of a child experiencing stress. Psychological theories refer to this as an acute stress response, also known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This is a primal response of the body to stress, where the amygdala region of the brain (which deals with emotional processing) sends out a distress signal to the hypothalamus (which serves as a command centre). The rest of the body is then mobilised to either deal with the stress by fighting or fleeing. There is a third stress response, which is to freeze; this was what was happening in C that evening.
Stress is a natural response to a challenge in the environment. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a reaction to stress.
Understanding stress and anxiety
While stress and anxiety are closely related, they are not entirely the same.
Stress is a natural response to a challenge in the environment. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a reaction to stress; it could be associated with something specific, such as a fear of Math, or a more general sense of discomfort that may affect much of day-to-day life.
While it is normal to experience both stress and anxiety, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to a long-term health disorder. As such, it is important to help our children to deal with any stress or anxiety before they snowball.
It is important to help our children to deal with any stress or anxiety before they snowball.
The AAAbc of Stress Management
How do we help our kids deal with stress? The AAAbc model is a powerful way that we can adopt. According to the model, you can choose to either Alter Stress, Avoid Stress or Accept Stress by building resilience and changing perceptions.
In order to alter the stress level, we would need to remove the stress by changing something in order to remove the associated negative feelings. Problem-solving and time management are common techniques for altering stress, and I conduct many such sessions with my students to help them better organise their time and manage their lives.
For example, if they identify that they’re easily overwhelmed when their work piles up, I then work with them to plan their study schedules by listing all their tests and projects down on a large monthly planner, breaking them up into smaller tasks, and setting calendar reminders to work on each task early.
To avoid stress, we need to remove ourselves from stressful situations. For instance, there was a point in time when we felt that our children were going for too many co-curricular classes. While they enjoyed many of these sessions, the schedule was taking a toll on them and they were finding it hard to keep up with the classes physically. We realised that if we removed just one class a week, the stress that they felt was markedly reduced, as they were also less tired and therefore in a healthier overall mental and emotional state.
Accepting stress involves equipping and preparing ourselves to face the challenges ahead. Studying and academic stress is an important aspect of our kids’ lives. By helping our children accept that they need to face these challenges, and by being present and showing our support for each step of their academic journey, they will be able to better cope with stress.
This strategy involves helping our children build their physical, emotional and mental resilience. Physically, this means eating healthily and exercising adequately; emotionally, learning how to communicate clearly and develop close relationships; and mentally, through words of affirmation especially in times of failure.
It also involves helping them change their perceptions about the situation and to do away with unrealistic expectations and irrational beliefs. Let’s say your child is afraid of asking the teacher when he doesn’t understand the Math concept being taught, simply to avoid getting scolded. You can first get them to write down their worry: “The teacher will scold me for not knowing.” And then change it to something more realistic and positive, such as, “The teacher may not be happy that I asked, but she could explain it in a different way, and I may get it this time round!”
Slaying the Stress Monster
The young boy staying with us has many fears. One of the behaviours I have observed is that he likes to come to me every 5 minutes or so to tell me about a toy he is playing with or to share with me about something that he is doing.
I have two sons, and I know that children love to approach adults to tell them about what they are doing. However, the frequency of this behaviour indicates to me that things are far from normal.
It is likely that the boy is doing this because he is feeling insecure and is looking for acceptance. Knowing his background has helped me to decide how to be there for him. I know that he has been placed in foster care, and I cannot control or change his circumstances. I can, however, continue to affirm and encourage him while he is under our care.
All children need to feel loved and secure. A child can sometimes behave badly because he or she doesn’t know any better, and may be adopting a “fight-or-flight” (or freeze) response to stress. This is possibly a symptom of an emotional turmoil or unmet need.
As parents, we can address this by taking the time to talk to our child; expressing empathy by raising our concerns and simply stating our observations. We then give our children the time and space to share whatever they are feeling or going through. By doing so, we become our children’s “safe space”, allowing them to develop and grow in a secure and loving environment.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 9 and 7.
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