Helping children cope with stress

Parents play an important role in reducing kids' stress levels

An international study reported last year suggests that Singapore students experience higher levels of anxiety than those from many other countries.

The study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) polled 540,000 students from 72 countries and economies. It showed that 66 per cent of students across all OECD countries said they were worried about poor grades in school. Among Singapore students, it was 86 per cent.

Ms Tan Wei Yin, 40, for one, is careful not to over-emphasise academic results with her nine-year-old son.

"One way of easing stress is by not having too much expectation when it comes to the academic," says Ms Tan, an executive in the insurance industry.

But the demands of school impose pressure on her only child, Chee Tiong, as well as other school-going children.

Publishing firm Armour Publishing commissioned two Singaporean psychologists to write the recently published book, The Undefeated Parent: A Guide To Managing Children's Stress, because of concerns and media reports about children facing stress-related mental health issues such as anxiety.

Two years ago, when Ms Tan's son was in Primary 1, she set him a target of completing one chapter of an assessment book every day, on top of his school homework.

He said it was a lot of work - work that his friends at his student care centre did not have to do.

She subsequently cut down on the work she assigned, not only because of his complaint but also because she felt the assessment books did not accurately reflect what he was learning in school.

Now, she focuses more on helping him understand and revise his schoolwork.

It is one way that parents can help their children deal with a variety of stressors in their growing-up years.

Co-author of The Undefeated Parent, Dr Irena Kit Phey Ling, a 45-year-old psychologist and National Institute of Education (NIE) lecturer, says that having realistic expectations is one strategy to reduce stress. Parents also have to be mindful of how their own anxiety may generate additional stress for the child.

"To manage stress effectively, know yourself and know your child, and be respectful of your child. Parents need to be aware of whether their aspirations and expectations match their children's abilities, interests and needs," says Dr Kit, who is married with a 10-year-old son.

"This is not a prescriptive book. It seeks to help parents find solutions that fit them - no one size fits all. We have exercises in the book that are meant for parents to look at themselves because their stress rubs off on the kids."

Her co-author, Miranda Mulyana, 41, is now a housewife based in the United States. She is married to an American working in the telecommunications industry and they have a daughter, aged three.

Besides academic pressure, parenting experts say that children can face stress from diverse sources such as having too many enrichment classes and other activities, relationships with their peers, teachers' expectations or bullying.

Older children and teenagers may face stress from feeling they have to keep up with their peers online, says Ms Mok Sook Fern, a clinical psychologist at the Department of Paediatrics, National University Hospital.

Besides helping them learn when to switch off from technology, "it is important to teach children that stress is normal and expected in a developed society," she adds.

"Getting rid of stress is impossible. What is most important is how they can effectively manage their stress so that their physical and mental well-being is cared for."

Ensuring children have sufficient exercise and sleep are among the simple ways of reducing stress, experts say.

Establishing "emotional safety" and strong family relationships is also important, says Ms Kelvyanne Teoh, a principal therapist with Morning Star Community Services.

"Children need to know that help and support are available when they need them and that home is their safe haven. Having routines and keeping promises foster stability that helps children trust their parents and the world around them," she says.

Validating kids' emotions - such as acknowledging stress caused by homework - and offering support, or a vote of confidence that a child tried his best in a test, are other helpful ways to reduce stress and build resilience, she adds.

Ms Ruth Lee, 37, says she and her husband David Tay's strategy to reduce stress is to schedule time for what she describes as America's Got Talent-style singing sessions, as well as taking time daily to listen to their children's concerns.

Once or twice a week, their children - daughter Thaleia, eight, and son Jairus, six - break out the microphone at home to sing their favourite songs by singers such as Charlie Puth and Taylor Swift.

Ms Lee, who works in finance in the public sector, and Mr Tay, 43, who works in social services, act as the singing judges.

For Ms Margaret Amirdham, 41, simply being around while her child is studying helps. While her daughter was studying for her O levels last year, Ms Margaret, a single parent, sat beside Pearlin Benita Love, 19, while doing her own work, almost every night.

Pearlin says this helped her stay calm during the course of the examinations. "Having her present, I didn't feel lonely." She is now working part-time in the food and beverage industry and is waiting to enter a polytechnic.

Although her brother, Immanuel Joshua, 20, a third-year polytechnic student, has always preferred to study alone, he is thankful for his mother's thoughtful gestures, such as her offers of drinks and snacks while he is revising.

"It might not seem much, but it really helps during the stressful periods when parents show genuine concern for their children," he says.

•The Undefeated Parent is available

for $19.26 (including GST) at Kinokuniya Stores, Popular stores, www.armour and

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 04, 2018, with the headline Helping children cope with stress. Subscribe