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Helping children learn to manage stress

This week Bobbi Conner talks with Dr. Sara Ritchie about the health benefits of a physically active lifestyle for children and teens. Dr. Ritchie is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and a pediatrician at MUSC Children’s Health.
Dr. Sara Ritchie, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and pediatrician at MUSC Children’s Health

This week Bobbi Conner talks with Dr. Sara Ritchie about helping children learn to manage stress in their everyday lives. Dr. Ritchie is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and a Pediatrician at MUSC Children’s Health.


Conner: I'm Bobbi Conner for South Carolina Public Radio with Health Focus here at the radio studio for the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Children may show signs of stress in different ways than adults. Doctor Sara Ritchie is here to talk about how stress impacts children and what skills they can learn to deal with stress when it occurs. Doctor Ritchie is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, and she's a pediatrician at MUSC Children's Health. Doctor Ritchie, tell us about typical episodes of stress that are quite common in childhood.

Dr. Ritchie: In general, we think of stress as a normal response to changes and challenges in our life. So, for kids and teens, brief stress is really honestly part of how they learn and they grow. And, they can experience these kind of stressors in a variety of ways at different ages. So, for example, going to a new playground can be a form of stress for a toddler, but challenging homework or social issues can be a source of stress for older children or even teens. The good news is, that young people who have the chance to practice addressing stress in a supportive environment can really develop resiliency. They can develop the tools they need to handle future stressors.

Conner: And what are some of the common signs and symptoms if a child might be really struggling with a lot of stress?

Dr. Ritchie: We do really worry about stress that is continuous or stress that is particularly intense or serious, and we really worry about the toll it can take on our children's body. on their mental health. They might seem chronically fatigued. They maybe could have poor sleep, or maybe nightmares, poor appetite. They might start with unusual acting out, or maybe irritability. Grades might start going downhill. They might even show signs of depression or anxiety. And these would all be reasons to check in with your child's primary care provider for further evaluation that these stressors are overwhelming.

Conner: How can parents teach their kids some age appropriate stress management skills?

Dr. Ritchie: We really can teach our children best when we, as the adults, intentionally manage our own feelings and experiences. So, you might discuss your own appropriate stressors and demonstrate a technique to manage them. So, for example, I'm feeling overwhelmed by what's going on right now. I'm going to take a few deep breaths and have a quiet minute to help myself calm down. And repeated modeling of this kind of behavior has been shown to be reflected in the children picking up on those techniques.

Conner: Any other tips that might be helpful, particularly to adolescents dealing with stress.

Dr. Ritchie: Similar to our younger children, we also want to help them learn to create positive experiences to offset stress. So, for example, finding time for regular one on one time to talk with your teen can be helpful. They definitely crave love and support, and they are looking for somebody to listen to their problems rather than trying to solve them. And a few other things that I recommend for helping teens connect to a positive experience is helping link them to a community of some sort. So, a community of peers or mentors, for example. Maybe think about sports, volunteer groups, maybe musical or spiritual groups, all sources of positive energy that can help adolescents manage stress. And of course, physical activity at any age is a great way to help our young people learn to offset stress.

Conner: Doctor Ritchie, thanks for this information about helping kids deal with stress.

Dr. Ritchie: You're welcome.

Conner: From the radio studio for the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, I'm Bobbi Conner for South Carolina Public Radio.

Health Focus transcripts are intended to accurately represent the original audio version of the program; however, some discrepancies or inaccuracies may exist. The audio format serves as the official record of Health Focus programming.

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Bobbi Conner has been producing and hosting public radio programs for over 30 years. She was the longtime host of the national Parents Journal public radio program. Conner has lived in the Charleston area for over twenty years.