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Stressed-Out Kids: Learning to Deal with Life's Ups and Downs

"You can't be brave if you've only had wonderful things happen to you."
– Mary Tyler Moore

One of the most unusual phone calls I have ever received jarred me from my reverie at six-forty one morning in December. When I picked up the phone, the caller desperately asked, "Is this the woman who wrote the book?" "Yes, I write books," I replied tentatively, not quite sure what to make of this.

"You've got to help me!" the caller pleaded.

"I'll do my best," I stuttered, still groggy with sleep.

"It's my four-year-old," she continued breathlessly. "He's whacking baby Jesus with a pirate's sword!"

I have to admit I was taken aback. In more than twenty years of working with families, I had never run into this problem before. I was speechless and stumbled. "Does he have a history of going after baby Jesus?" I asked, unable to think of a more intelligent question.

"No," she replied seriously, "but he's always been intense."

I paused, trying to get my wits about me. The caller filled the gap in the conversation. "This is serious! The church across the street just put out their nativity scene. Every time I turn around he's out the door whacking baby Jesus with his pirate's sword. I've sent him to time-out I've taken away his sword. It doesn't matter. He picks up pencils, rulers anything he can get his hands on, then dashes out the door and across the street. This is a small town; people are starting to talk!"

My mind raced. Why would a child be whacking baby Jesus? He must be very angry about something, I thought, and asked, "Has your family experienced any significant pain or stress lately?"

"My father died six weeks ago," she replied softly.

"Was your son close to him?" I questioned. "Oh, yes," she answered. "They saw each other every day."

"What did people tell him when Grandpa died?" I asked. She paused, sighed deeply, and slowly responded, "That baby Jesus took Grandpa to heaven."

This child was grieving, but he didn't know how to tell his parents. Instead, he acted out. Kids don't tell us when they're experiencing emotional pain and stress. Instead they whack baby Jesus with their pirate's sword, whine, complain, beg for help with anything and everything, or become downright nasty. It's easy to immediately slip into the intimidator's role in response. And to make matters worse, 90 percent of the time our kids stress is tied to our own. Trying to cope with our own inner turmoil and at the same time be patient with our kids can be a huge challenge. And even if our child's stress isn't related to our own, it still distresses us because we hate to see our kids hurting.

Learning how to deal with life's ups and downs is an essential life skill. When you understand the physiology of stress, it's easier to be the sensitive emotion coach that your child needs and stay out of the power struggles.

The Stress Hormones
If a parent tells me his child has been awake thirty minutes and ha already been sent to time-out three times, I always ask about the family's stress level. That's because researchers have found that when we're stressed, our bodies become aroused, ready for action. There are actually two arousal systems: short term and long term. The short-term sys tern is activated when your child spills a glass of milk or drops he Tonka truck on your toe. You quickly get intense and just as quickly get over it. The long-term system of arousal is governed more by longer acting hormones. This system goes into action just as fast, but it's main by-product is a brain chemical called cortisol. Cortisol keeps the brain on alert and lingers much longer in your system. Because cortisol remains in the system even during sleep, it can make you and you child much more vulnerable to blowups.

When you're stressed, cortisol levels rise, which leads to neural static. You can't think, and you forget things. You're more excitable am more sensitive, which can disrupt sleep and make crowds unbearable noises louder, and surprises harder to handle. The cycle feeds itself – you get more stressed out and your brain reacts by releasing more cortisol. That's why the more stressed the child, the less he'll sleep; and the less sleep he gets, the more cortisol his brain produces. The result is kid who wakes up ready to battle.


From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.

Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.

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