The first day of school brings as much stress and anxiety as it does excitement and anticipation. Stress affects the body and mind, making it impossible to react quickly and appropriately to all of the new stimulation and challenges of the new school year. As one of the participants in my social skills groups put it, "I'm in a knot! I'm a knot on an edge!".
One of the most effective things you can help your child do is to recognize the somatic signs of tension and stress so that they can start enacting one of the relaxation strategies in their toolbox. Stress manifests differently in each person, but often involves an elevated heart rate, flushed skin, shallow breathing, and tensed muscles.
Here are five techniques for untangling those knots. You can guide your child to these strategies when they need them and use them yourself to model healthy behaviors and keep yourself a calm foundation, able to meet your child's needs.
1. Exercise: Sometimes you just need to run, jump, or shake it out. It releases endorphins and brings oxygen to the major muscle groups. You can add yelling to the exercise for an even quicker release of tension.
2. Connection: When we are under stress, connecting with someone who is calm and grounded is a good way to bring perspective to the problem. Pets can be a great connection. They are usually calm and always offer unconditional acceptance.
3. Visualization: Find your happy place. Think about the smells, the temperature on your skin, the ambient noise you would hear. If you commit to this, your body and mind will react in similar ways to actually having the experience of being these.
4. Mindfulness: Instead of taking a mind vacation, try being fully in the moment. Bring your awareness to what's going on around you outside your body and inside your own skin. Notice your breathing and tense and release each major muscle group from your head to your toes.
5. Mantra/Affirmation: Find a word or phrase the makes you feel good and calm and practice repeating it until it becomes second nature. It can help to tie it to your in and out breath.
Be sure to supplement your relaxation routine with some regular renewal activities. The main difference between relaxation and renewal activities is that relaxation is something you to when you are feeling stressed in order to decompress, and renewal activities are something you do to "recharge" when you are feeling baseline alright. Renewal activities are just things that make you feel good. Drinking tea, playing with the dog, listening to music, etc.
Techniques for staying calm can be taught and practiced, but like everything else there is more power in seeing than in hearing about it. As you work to give your child the building blocks for a calm, resilient life, remember to practice self care so that you can be a beacon of calm when they need it most. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince said, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Aaron Weintraub, MS runs child-centered social skills groups with a focus on children and teenagers with Pervasive Developmental Disorder,Asperger Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Shyness. Strengths-based approach in a community based setting. Groups available in Tolland, Mansfield, Willimantic, Hartford, Vernon and Coventry Connecticut.