Stress Relievers for Young Children

Worried girl and adultIn an earlier post, we learned that young children are not immune from stress – they experience it in much the same way that we adults do. Even the youngest children in military families experience the stressfulness of major changes like the absence of a parent during deployment or moving to a new home. They are also very sensitive to the stress of the people they are around most often. When the homefront parent or caregiver is sadder or more anxious than usual or very preoccupied because of concern for the military parent, the child will notice the change and become anxious himself. Of course, major changes and stressors happen in many children’s lives, so learning how to help reduce the negative impact of stress during those times will be helpful as you care for all children.

Signs of Stress or Anxiety in Children

As a child care provider who regularly cares for children from military families, you are very likely to have times when you notice behavior clues that a child is feeling anxious or stressed. Those clues will look different depending on the child and the situation, but there are some common indications of stress in very young children:

  • Changes in appetite or napping;
  • Regressing to earlier behaviors like thumb-sucking or wetting her pants or bed;
  • Changes in mood, having less fun than normal, being irritable, or being more withdrawn or aggressive than usual;
  • Recurring troubling themes in artwork or pretend play (one sign that a child is especially stressed is when they keep replaying fear-themed scenarios without feeling any enjoyment or relief from the play).

Any or all of these clues might indicate anxiety or stress in a child. But they might also be the result of other things, such as illness. The important point is to notice changes, jot down your observations, and pay attention to how long they go on. Talk with the parent or caregiver about what you’ve noticed and how you are planning to help the child. But be sensitive to the fact that he or she is also under stress. Communicate calmly, positively and with confidence that together you will provide the support the child needs to cope well.

Stress Relievers for Children

Although it’s likely that you won’t be able to change the circumstance that is causing a child’s stress, there are some ways that you can help children calm themselves and reduce their body’s response to it. Besides doing your part to make sure they are well-fed and rested, there are also certain kinds of activities that have been found to reduce stress and anxiety.

 Sensory experiences: It’s no surprise that a soft blanket or cuddle toy can calm a baby. Beside the fact that it’s a familiar object, it’s the soft feel of the object that somehow stimulates calming chemicals in the brain. In fact, you can probably think of things you still find soothing to touch as an adult! Sensory experiences that focus on touch can be very soothing to young children. Playing with water, sand, playdough, goop (cornstarch and water mixture), fingerpaints, or modeling clay can all provide sensations that help reduce stress. Repetitive movements like rocking in a rocking chair, swinging, or being patted on the back provide a different, but also calming, sensory experience.

Girl waving her arm in the airLarge physical movement: Any kind of physical activity that gets kids energetically moving their whole bodies for a good amount of time helps reduce stress. Increased breathing and blood flow, as well as the release of feel-good endorphins in the brain, combine to help children’s (and adults’!) feelings of well-being. Regular exercise has the added benefit of helping children sleep and eat better, too, which all works together to make them more resilient in the face of stress.

 Music:  Music can be used in a couple of key ways to reduce children’s stress. Slower, soothing music, especially instrumental music, has been shown to slow breathing, lower blood pressure, and reduce amounts of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain and body. Soothing music can be played softly in the background during quieter periods of the day. You can also use it in a more direct way by helping children breathe in time to the beat, close their eyes and imagine floating or flying, or slowly move their bodies to the music. More energetic, upbeat music can be used to get children moving, dancing, and laughing – all of which create “feel-good” chemicals in the brain that counteract the stress chemicals.

Humor:  Humor is an anti-stress tool you may not have thought of before. Researchers are finding more and more evidence that laughing results in actual physical changes in our bodies – lower blood pressure and heart rate, better breathing and digestion, and the release of endorphins in the brain. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to get most young kids to laugh! Goofy silliness reigns supreme in the preschool world of humor. Find what tickles the funny bone of the child you are concerned about and be sure to provide regular opportunities for laughing. As it turns out, laughter really is good medicine!

Not every strategy will work equally well for every child, so apply what you and the parents know about a child’s personality and preferences as you put strategies in place to help reduce his feelings of stress and anxiety. The good news is that every one of the stress-reducers described above is also good for all kids, any time! Music, movement, laughter and sensory experiences should all be a regular part of an early childhood program. But for children who are in a particularly stressful situation such as the absence of a deployed parent, be especially sensitive to their need for these experiences and their response to them. And then be sure and share what works with the homefront parent or caregiver so they can try these strategies at home. By using them at home, too, the whole family can benefit from their stress-reducing effects!

Steps to Financial Freedom

Contribution by Molly Herndon and Carolyn Bird

Digging out of a mountain of debt can seem like an impossible task, and many resist asking for help. Service members may feel anxious about their options or be unaware of the wide range of services provided to them on base and, increasingly, online. As a PFM you may ask yourself– how do I help a service member find the motivation to stick with a financial management plan? Over the next few weeks, we will be going back to the basics by outlining steps and strategies you can use to help your clients who are looking for financial guidance to get on track.

Step 1: Assess the Situation
The first step is to assist the service member in getting the finances under control by assessing the current financial situation. The service member, and you, must know what you’re up against before you can create a plan to get out of the cycle of debt using a net worth calculator.

Depending on the specific circumstance, you may recommend your client consider consumer credit counseling, debt consolidation, refinancing or transferring balances to get a handle on existing debt. Each of these strategies comes with advantages and disadvantages. It is important that the client be aware of and ask the lender for an explanation of any increase in the number of payments and interest rates or fees. A clear explanation of costs or extended periods of indebtedness will help the client to evaluate whether the plan is in their best financial interest. Credit repair agencies often promise to remove negative credit information for a fee. Be sure your clients know that the only legal method of improving a credit score is through a history of on-time payments or the removal of false negative information. Steering clients away from credit repair agencies is good practice, saving your clients valuable time and hard earned money.

These initial meetings may be a good time to suggest creating a monthly budget tracker. Tracking every penny that comes in and goes out is the only effective measure toward changing spending habits. Providing clients with an easy-to-use worksheet may help clients get started with this new habit.

Step 2: Find the Motivation
What’s really important is what happens after the service member leaves your office. One way to motivate might be to show just how much the debt truly costs. Using the credit card calculator on myfico.com, I experimented with a balance of $3,000 at an interest rate of 18 percent and payments of $75 a month. Guess what? This debt costs $509 a year! Before you run the calculator, ask the service member about favorite hobbies or something he or she would like to buy. Run numbers on the calculator and show the service member just how much the debt at minimum payments is costing them each year. Ask if they wouldn’t rather use that $509 toward that hobby or purchase.

Step 3: Recruit Your Team!
While PFMs are part of the service member’s team for financial fitness, the most important team member is the service member’s spouse. Discuss with the service member how he will discuss this with his spouse to get her motivated too. Ask about the spouse’s favorite things and help the service member devise an approach that rewards both of them for working together toward a financial goal.

These are just the initial steps in working toward financial freedom. Later we will discuss saving, investing, and raising financially fit kids. There are many approaches to debt solution. What strategies have you found works well in helping service members turn their financial situations around?