It is often said that things aren’t the same as they used to be. Our schools are no exception. Just last week, a threatening note was found in a South Florida classroom and was investigated seriously by law enforcement. That same week, schools in our area held state standardized testing, and many students are preparing for AP tests — the culmination of a full year’s study.
Being a child in 2015 is no easy task, and being a parent is no cake walk either. As both a pediatrician and mother to two teenagers, I understand the stress our children can feel to achieve academically and socially — and these days, the anxiety they sometimes have for their safety.
When anxiety begins to creep up, it isn’t just a brain phenomenon. Anxiety has physical effects. We can make those effects worse by eating poorly, losing sleep, skipping exercise and trying to stay awake or getting more energy with caffeine. Ironically, all those things sap us of energy. They make us more stressed, more irritable. Eventually, students can’t focus as well. They don’t learn well. If it goes on too long, I see them in my office with physical symptoms of headache, stomach ache, hair loss and worse.
While things aren’t exactly as they used to be, getting back to the basics might be just what you and your child need to relieve anxiety. To avoid a trip to the pediatrician, try these tips:
▪ Eat healthy at home as a family. Stack your diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and quality proteins. Drink plenty of water; avoid sweetened beverages. Research shows that more meals at home lead to healthier weight. Eating as a family also gives everyone a chance to take a break from texting and the media barrage. You might actually get your teen to talk!
▪ Exercise. When you or your child are feeling extra stress at school or work, it’s tempting to skip the exercise, but that is when you most need it. Take 10-minute movement breaks for every hour of study. Walk briskly; dance to a favorite new tune. Turn the music up while making dinner or cleaning the dishes. And certainly think about a physical family activity every weekend.
▪ Get enough sleep. As the to do list grows and stress climbs, we push further to get things done, limiting sleep. The blue light of monitors and cell phones can stimulate our brains, keeping us up even longer. Yet, we need sleep. Children, including teens, need nine to 11 hours a day; adults typically need eight hours. Few in our society get that regularly. Turn off the monitors. Remove cell phones from the bedroom. Stick to bedtimes, starting a wind down routine at least 30 minutes before bed.
▪ Avoid energy drinks. Pediatric and adolescent research, including studies done at the University of Miami, have made it clear that energy drinks may pose risks to school-aged children. Water is always the preferred beverage. If your child needs an energy boost, try a quick jog, a healthy snack or getting him or her to bed earlier that night.
▪ Create time and space to listen. Our children navigate a complex world with many demands. The single greatest thing you can do for your child is to open safe lines of communication so they can ask questions or let you know what’s going on. To get conversations started, avoid questions with simple one-word responses, such as, “Did you have a good day today?” Instead, try open-ended prompts like, “Tell me something that made you happy today, and tell me something that didn’t.”
Of course, some teens won’t respond to questions at all. If that’s the case, then find a way to be around, or take them somewhere — a walk, sitting somewhere quiet together — and say very little until your child does. Teenagers push a parent away sometimes. Still, they need you. It is important to not forget that.
Sometimes, though, even the healthiest lifestyle might not be enough to alleviate your child’s stress. If that is the case, don’t hesitate to seek advice from your child’s pediatrician, the expertise of a specialist in adolescent medicine or counseling from a child or family therapist. As you open up the lines of communication with your child, also open up the lines of communication with your health care providers. We are here for you.
Judy Schaechter, M.D., MBA, is interim chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miller School of Medicine. UHealth – University of Miami Health System is nationally and internationally acclaimed for education, research, patient care and biomedical innovation. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.