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EXERCISE THOSE MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL MUSCLES

October 5, 2009
Times Observer
BY JANN BALL, DIRECTOR OF THE COMPEER PROGRAM, CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY

Are you tired about hearing of ways to reduce stress? Honestly, even hearing about stress reduction tips causes me stress. One more thing to add to my “to do” list! Well never fear, just to add stress to a parents life, I am going to talk about stress and children. Sorry, gotta do it.

I am coming at this from the perspective of what is needed for emotional and mental wellness. There is much discussion today on holistic approaches to wellness both mental and physical. We all have mental health and ways to exercise for your emotional/mental health are as helpful as physical exercise is to keep your heart healthy.

One of the first steps to help our children is for parents to listen, really listen and pay attention to behaviors. What we might think is bratty or moody behavior could be unhealthy ways of expressing stress. Now I am not suggesting that all negative behaviors are stress related, but it is helpful to take a look at the big picture to see what is going on in your child’s life and consider addressing the root of the behavior which may be stress. Encourage your children to talk to you about how they are feeling. Help them find words that fit how they are feeling. Once self-awareness begins, they can put words to their feelings. With your help you can help your children develop mental and emotional fitness by teaching them stress reducing or relaxation activities that may be useful.

The following are some thoughts for you to explore to tailor to your child’s unique makeup.

Help your child learn deep breathing. This is a highly effective way to reduce stress. Learning a deep breathing technique would be an especially helpful tool for you to practice together. The Internet has many sites to help walk you through the process.

Yoga is touted as very helpful for adults, but it is also provides relaxation for children as well. Once again this could be something you could practice with your child. Put in the tape and have a relaxing time together. Other physical activities such as swinging, shooting hoops or riding bikes, can be encouraged. When the weather changes and the snow comes out they can go sliding, building snow forts, making snow angels and eating icicles (from where you probably don’t want to know).

Massage is another wonderful way to unwind. There is a cost for that, but what about the home grown kind of massage. I think of my younger granddaughter and her pleas to, “rub me ticklish,” as she plops on my lap. The moments that we spend as I tickle her back sends her into a peaceful state that is a respite from the demands of school, sports, multiple family visits and her own very active mind. Combing hair, rubbing feet, or a gentle back massage goes both ways in my family. The expression my girls and I use is “do you want to trade?” Then we each take about 15 minutes to rub or tickle each other’s backs. Oh how nice that is.

There are many creative activities that are almost a form of meditation that can help a child unwind. Children love to cook and bake. The stirring of cookie dough, the rolling it out and of course tasting the results is a real simple relaxing pleasure. Bath time can be a great time to relax and play in the water. The sandbox, as messy as it is when the children come in is also another great creative outlet. My other granddaughter loves to spend what seems like hours creating her own world of painted, glued, sewn, or knitted creations. Keep materials available and encourage your children’s artistic endeavors. Some children enjoy the challenge of puzzles. Some families I know have a designated puzzle table with a puzzle always out for ongoing puzzling.

One of the components of wellness is learning how to unwind. There are many ways to so in a healthy manner. Listening to music has always been therapeutic. I wonder if all the I-pods we see not only in our children’s (or at least teenagers’ ears) as well as adults are attempts to soothe oneself in the midst of busyness. Sometimes just daydreaming is helpful. Reading for some children is a great get away. What may seem non-productive may be the most productive wellness activity your child can be doing at the moment. It’s helpful to understand and appreciate your child’s unique nature to help cultivate their own “Calgon take me away” experiences.

Another way to reduce stress is laughter. Comics, funny stories, watching a movie together that tickles your funny bone and makes you laugh out loud relieves physical tension and stress. Keep a tape in the car of silly songs to pop in and have a silly sing-a-long when the car ride is l-o-o- ng! My daughter loved Calvin and Hobbes as well as Garfield. My son at an early age “got” The Far Side and enjoyed sharing the humor with us. It’s fun to have an interest in something you and your children both find humorous and to giggle together. Humorous family stories are great to share as the laughter is anticipated waiting for the story to be told once again. Much to my son’s annoyance his sisters love to retell some of his antics growing up that had us in stitches. Now he is a real cut up and has us all in hysterics. He keeps the whole family laughing till the endorphins are released and we are all feeling fine!

Some of the stress reducing activities need to be facilitated, especially at first by the parent. This is multi-purpose, it teaches a helpful technique, is special time together and also models taking care of oneself as an adult for your child.

We cannot prevent our children from experiencing stress, but we can help them learn how to cope in a healthy manner. We also can do our part to make sure that we keep tabs on what our children are watching and hearing. Young minds are not equipped to deal with TV news that is frightening and disturbing or violent shows and video games. While we can’t control what is happening in the world, we can control what is seen and heard in our own homes.

This is not intended as just one more thing to add to the daily list of “things to do” for children. It really could be considered a respite from these things. Learning how to cut back on busyness and fill in with quiet creativity may be just the needed component for your child to be able to withstand daily pressures. One of the best things we can offer our children is to help them become self reliant even to the extent that they learn how to “read” their own emotions and be equipped to deal with them in a positive manner before things get out of hand. It is a path you can take together, and both benefit from the journey.

Jann Ball is the Director of the Compeer Program in Chautauqua County that provides friendship to youth and adults experiencing mental health difficulties. Jann resides in Falconer with her husband Marshall and son Michael.

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