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Teach Your Children Well: Lessons in Stress and Self-Esteem for Kids

By Antonia McGuire
Network, Winter 2007

Christine Chenard has a new perspective on kids and stress. Her head shakes in her hands while recalling the day her son came home after a full day of junior kindergarten with homework. She immediately sat Joseph down to practice spelling his name, but they both got upset. ‘He wasn’t listening and I was getting frustrated. And then I realized he was tired from school and wanted – needed – time to relax and unwind,’ says the 44-year-old Sarnia resident. She admits to being a perfectionist, but she didn’t realize what impact it had until the first parent-teacher interview. ‘I was told he was quite anxious in class.’ His little hands were shaking during arts and crafts, the teacher told her.

The stay-at-home mother of four has since scrapped her old ways and made changes to help reduce her kids’ stress. Christine and her husband Guy enrolled their bundles of joy in junior and senior kindergarten part-time. They also cut out weekday extracurricular activities after a year of rushing through meals and homework to get to karate, Beavers and swimming lessons. Hurried children don’t get time to digest their day, she observes.

Christine isn’t the only one concerned about stress in children. Many educators, support staff, researchers and policy-makers are promoting the idea of stress prevention by teaching kids ’emotional resiliency.’

Andrée Michaud is a community nurse assigned to three schools just outside of Montreal. She created a stress awareness workshop two years ago when elementary students, as young as Grade 1, complained of sore tummies and headaches around test time. ‘Some feel stressed earlier than others because they put pressure on themselves. These ones tend to have a more competitive personality,’ says Ms. Michaud. While personality is part of it, she adds, parents also play an important role. ‘I think they are an example. When parents are stressed, the kids are too. Not everyone stops to realize.’

Dr. Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Douglas Hospital, McGill University, says it’s a matter of perception. ‘If people are stressed themselves or don’t think kids can be stressed, they won’t recognize it as a potential problem in their child,’ says the Montreal researcher.

Stress is not about being pressed for time, says Dr. Lupien. ‘If we put time pressure on people in the lab, they won’t get stressed. But if we trigger the four characteristics – novelty, unpredictability, threat to sense of self or ego, and poor sense of control – they will snap 100 percent of the time,’ she explains.

Dr. Lupien and her team recently designed the De-Stress for Success program to help kids understand how stress affects learning and how to cope with the changes of moving from elementary to high school. A pilot project began in January 2007 in a handful of elementary and secondary schools in Montreal. Rather than resorting to how-to articles on getting a stress-free life, Dr. Lupien believes what it really takes to combat those overwhelming feelings is battle tactics and perspective. ‘The reverse of stress is not meditation or relaxation,’ she says, ‘it is resilience and plan B.’

Measuring the prevalence of childhood stress is a thorny issue among experts. ‘It is difficult to provide solid numbers for stress in children because stress is defined and measured differently across studies,’ says Tania Schramek, coordinator of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress.

One expert says children who lack skills socially, intellectually or developmentally tend to experience more school stress. ‘Our society is not for the fragile children because there is a lot of pressure and expectations,’ says Dr. Patricia Garel, a children’s clinical psychiatrist at Saint Justine Hospital and professor at l’Université de Montreal. ‘So if you don’t have appropriate skills, it will be harder.’ The way children cope depends on the potential and the environment of each child, she adds.

When asked for an opinion on whether child stress is increasing among the general population, Dr. Garel said she believes so. ‘I believe that the increase is related to many factors, among which are the rapidity of changes in our society, the easy availability of information, the lack of stable landmarks, and the frequent insecurity of the adults who are supposed to reassure and to protect the children.’ Observes Dr. Garel, ‘Parents are always important in helping their children by offering a ‘buffer’ and an understanding of the external world.’

There are exercises you can play with your kids to help ease their stress levels, says Dr. Lupien. Transitional phases like the first day of kindergarten can be especially stressful for children dealing with separation anxiety. ‘When my daughter was going into kindergarten, I said to her, ‘You’re going to go and it’ll be great.’ To give her a sense of control, I said to her, ‘You can put anything in your lunch – as long as it’s healthy,” recalls Dr. Lupien. ‘It worked like a charm.’

While it is normal for children of all ages to experience spurts of anxiety, ‘certain personalities are more reactive to stress,’ says Dr. Lupien. ‘We’ve found those with low self-esteem will be more reactive and snap.’

Indeed, studies have observed that low self-esteem is closely related to feelings of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal tendencies. A 1995 study of ‘Self-Esteem Deficits and Suicidal Tendencies among Adolescents,’ published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, concluded that ‘assessment of adolescents should include an evaluation of self-esteem, and therapy should attempt to address any self-esteem deficits.’ A 1998 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that high levels of anxiety lead to depression in children and adolescents.

To reduce the risk of mental health problems in the future, many educators are teaching life skills that will enable their students to cope with difficult situations in a healthy way. Marilyn Yee, area school counsellor for the Vancouver School Board, has been delivering an anti-anxiety and early intervention program for elementary students called FRIENDS for Life. It is a cognitive-behavioural program that teaches skills such as positive thinking, problem-solving, using peer support and conflict resolution. Roughly 75 percent of BC school districts have adopted the program for classroom use.

FRIENDS stems originally from the research work of American psychologist Phillip Kendall, who developed the Coping Cat Workbook in the late 1980s. Coping Cat was used to individually treat children with a diagnosis of over-anxiety, separation anxiety or avoidant disorder. Kendall was the first researcher to conduct a randomized treatment study of general anxiety disorders in children. His work was adapted and extended in Australia by a research group of clinical psychologists into the Coping Koala program, which added a family intervention component. Coping Koala was further refined by Dr. Paula Barrett and fellow researchers at Griffith University, Queensland, who tailored FRIENDS into a teacher-friendly intervention to promote psychological resilience.

Developed through extensive scientific research and clinical validation over the past 10 years, the program is appropriate for use by trained teachers, guidance counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals. In its 2004 report on ‘Prevention of Mental Disorders: Effective Interventions and Policy Options,’ the World Health Organization recognized FRIENDS as a ‘promising prevention of anxiety programme for children from 7 to 16 years of age,’ one that supports the WHO-endorsed strategy of ‘strengthening the emotional resilience and cognitive skills needed to avoid the development of anxiety disorders.’

In southern Ontario, educators have been welcoming guest instructors into their classrooms for almost a decade to teach a Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) program called Self-Esteem Is Elementary. Designed for kids in Grades 5 to 8, the six-week classroom series promotes positive self-esteem and teaches them how to function better in relationships. It gives children the confidence to face life’s challenges by focusing on self-esteem, feelings, communication styles, anger management, conflict resolution, stress management, and bullying.

‘We explain that stress is very different for everyone – where one stressor might be difficult for one individual to handle, another person may have multiple stressors but feel that they can cope,’ says Julie Acker, a mental health promotion specialist at CMHA Lambton County Branch in Sarnia. ‘From a mental health perspective, we believe if we can teach children resiliency skills now, they can be building blocks for emotional and mental development.’ Each year, the CMHA branch teaches roughly 25 sessions in schools across the county.

CMHA Lambton County Branch also delivers another popular program, called Kids Have Stress Too! Developed by the Psychology Foundation of Canada in collaboration with Toronto Public Health and the Toronto District School Board, the program is designed to help parents and caregivers understand childhood stress and how to teach their kids to deal with stress effectively. By tackling the issue at both ends – with children and parents alike – CMHA is boosting the odds of a better outcome.

Veteran teacher Antoinette Pachlarz hosted the Self-Esteem Is Elementary program last spring in her Grade 7 class at John Fisher Elementary School in Forest, Ontario. ‘My first impression was that the topics selected were right on,’ Ms. Pachlarz says. Advocates of the program say the high participation rate, as well as pre- and post-program evaluations, show that children are receptive to the lessons. In one segment, the instructor challenges students to think of compliments to give out to people in class throughout the week and then talk about it. People have a tendency to focus on the negative, observes Ms. Pachlarz, but this program dwells on the positive. ‘Once students feel good about themselves,’ she says, ‘they are more capable of caring for others.’

Schoolteacher Ted Janssens agrees. ‘If a kid doesn’t feel good, he’ll target others to make himself feel good.’ Janssens is a teacher at Dawn Euphemia School in rural southern Ontario, where a CMHA session wrapped up last month. ‘As soon as students feel more included,’ he observes, ‘they are more apt to be successful both academically and personally.’

Antonia McGuire is a freelance writer who lives in Ottawa.

A Shared Responsibility: Ontario’s Policy Framework for Child and Youth Mental Health

Noting that mental health services today focus primarily on intervention and treatment, the Ontario government recently released a new mental health policy framework for children and youth that places ‘increased emphasis on health promotion, illness prevention and earlier identification.’ By enhancing services that promote optimal health and prevent mental illness, the goal, over time, is to ‘reduce the need for more intensive, costly services/supports, reduce the duration and severity of mental illness, and improve the life trajectory of children and youth.’

The framework identifies five guiding principles, including the need for ‘community driven’ services and supports, provided as close to home as possible. ‘The broader community should be responsible for the well-being of their children, youth and their families/caregivers and be engaged in planning services and supports within their local communities.’ To ensure that practices and programs for children are effective, they must be ‘evidence-based and accountable.’

The new framework is a hopeful sign of change.

See ‘A Shared Responsibility: Ontario’s Policy Framework for Child and Youth Mental Health’ (November 2006), at

Recognizing the Signs of Stress

According to Thelma Maxwell, public health nurse for the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, the key to recognizing stress in children is to understand their level of development and personality. While some children might appear visibly stressed, others keep their anxiety undercover and worry silently.

The two most common signs that children are under stress are:

  1. any change in their normal behaviour, and
  2. a regression in their behaviour.

Here are some other signs to look for:

  • Reoccurring headaches, stomach aches, neck pain
  • Nervous habits such as nail biting, temporary twitches, deep sighs
  • Sweaty hands
  • Nausea
  • Accelerated heart rate and breathing
  • Clingy or impulsive behaviour
  • Becomes more quiet than usual
  • Constant worries or sensitivity to changes
  • Excessive energy or restlessness
  • Increased irritability, anger, panic, sadness
  • Daydreaming or distracted
  • Trouble falling asleep and/or oversleeping longer than usual
  • Facial cues like frowning or strained looks
  • Nightmares

Sources: KidsHealth (, Kids Have Stress Too! (, Dr. Katharina Manassis, Keys to Parenting Your Anxious Child (Barron’s, 1996).

Sources and Related Resources

Centre for Studies on Human Stress

Canadian Mental Health Association, Lambton County Branch

Children’s Mental Health Ontario

Kids Have Stress Too!

Cole, D.A., et al. (1998). A Longitudinal Look at the Relation between Depression and Anxiety in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 66(3): 451-60.

Overholser, James C., et al. (1995). Self-Esteem Deficits and Suicidal Tendencies among Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 34(7): 919-928.

World Health Organization, Prevention of Mental Disorders: Effective Interventions and Policy Options (2004).

» Return to Network, Winter 2007 – Contents