Stress in children – recognize the signs



It is very unusual for children to be able to verbalise feelings of stress.  Instead, they show unhappiness or stress in their behaviour.  Such behaviours aren’t always the expected ones, like illnesses and depression, but can range from throwing tantrums and telling lies to stealing. Here are some signs that may alert you to stress in a child:

 Stressed children may complain of physical discomfort, for example, headaches and tummy aches. If doctors find nothing wrong, do consider fear and anxiety being possibly part of the reasons for these complaints. For example, Jan began to refuse to eat breakfast and said that he didn’t want to go to school.All of this started when his father left to work overseas a month or so ago and the stress of the separation caused his symptoms.

  • Boys especially may show disturbed and disruptive behaviour.Adults may label his actions as being naughty or undisciplined but it is worth looking for other causes too.
  • Other children may react to stress by withdrawing and being quiet.Their stress is difficult to spot because even their parents may not notice they have problems.
  • Most children have difficulties talking about their mental stress. They don’t have the vocabulary or the ability to translate strong feelings into words.Conflicting emotions and thoughts make it even harder for them, for example, when they experience anger, jealousy, hostility and unhappiness with their parents, siblings or other people.
  • Sometimes the cause of stress in children may be the parents themselves.These days, children are aware of the high rates of divorce so parental conflict may make them scared of a parent leaving them.  While it may be healthy to argue superficially in front of your children (and so model conflict resolution), personal attacks on each other should be avoided and conflict over parenting styles or how to care for children should be private.  For example, Bettie’s parents often quarreled over her upbringing and schoolwork.  She resorted to stealing sweets from the local café in an attempt to distract her parents from their frequent arguments. Unfortunately, they misinterpreted her behaviour and punished her severely.

 It’s natural for children to show emotional disturbances or behaviour difficulties from time to time.  They suffer fears at certain ages that may be stressful for them; toddlers do throw temper tantrums that have nothing to do with real stress; teenagers commonly show defiance at some stage or another.  But do be on the lookout and seek professional help

 When your child is doing something that is not expected for her age and circumstances

  • If the child is causing or experiencing suffering or a period of distress in his or her life
  • Should you notice that the child’s ability to lead a healthy, normal life has been affected.

 Stress in childhood can create much distress for not only the children but also for those who care for them.  Severe stress left untreated can delay their physical, psychological, social and intellectual development.  This in turn affects their ability to function in their daily life and may lead to underachievement at school and beyond.


Content of this post was based on information in the book ‘Help your child to cope’ by Dr C Yiming & Dr D Fung.

Raising readers




There’s no doubt that children who enjoy reading have an advantage at school.  Good reading skills simply make learning that much easier.  Enjoyment of reading, however, is difficult to achieve – especially in this day of high amounts of visual input from media devices.  Some children may resist reading instruction and consequently fall behind.

In addition, the Education Department is compelling schools to start the teaching of reading at Grade R level, which might be a little young for some children.

The result may be the development of reading anxiety, leading to less than competent reading skills. This in turn may lead to underachievement.

Dr Sylvia Rimm is an internationally respected psychologist who specialises in underachievement.  She shared tips to reduce reading anxiety in her book entitled ‘Why bright kids get poor grades: and what you can do about it’.  The following summarises her work: 

  • Children shouldn’t be forced to read aloud to their parents at home. This is because some parents are anxious about their child’s reading and may pass this on to the child. When children read poorly, most parents feel tense.Obviously a child who enjoys reading aloud may do so if he or she choose to do so.
  • Parents should continue to read aloud to their children way past the age when they can read for themselves.Sharing the enjoyment of books is important, and there is no reason to stop reading together – even up to Grade 8.
  • Children should be allowed to stay up half an hour later at night if they’re in their beds reading to themselves.They won’t miss out on sleep because they’ll most likely fall asleep with the books on their chests.  Certainly the reading time allowed will be beneficial.
  • Encourage children to read whatever they like during that half hour before sleep.Don’t insist they read school prescribed or grade-level material. Comics, cartoons, sports magazines, easy material and books already read numerous times are all good for reading enjoyment.  The important thing is that they learn to love reading.  Interest in broadening their reading repertoire will happen as their reading improves.
  • Encourage children to read stories while listening to tapes of the stories. Don’t be too concerned if it seems they are not actually reading: they will eventually.
  • Model reading by having books on hand that children see you are enjoying. Newspapers and magazine count as well.
  • Encourage children to read to their younger siblings – as long as the younger children are not better readers than they are! Try to leave the children alone while they are reading/listening. Don’t hover around them.
  • Visit and browse through bookshops and libraries when out shopping.Make sure you have enough time for these visits rather than simply rushing in to exchange books or buy a book. Obviously it’s important that children belong to a library, where they can spend valuable time.


The boss in your child’s brain

Our children are young, so we expect them to be irresponsible, to need our advice and supervision. We don’t expect them to be able to independently plan to meet their goals, do their homework, safely cross the road or to take on complex tasks while still very young.  Why not? What is it about childhood that prevents them from these responsible behaviours?

It’s all about brain development, of course. Tasks that require wise decision making, organising, planning, managing time, thinking before you act and avoiding impulsivity are part of the functions of the front part of the brain – called the prefrontal cortex.  This happens to be the very last part of the brain to develop completely – at around age 25 years.  This is why adolescence can be a difficult and dangerous age.  Young people have so much knowledge, skills and ability yet don’t have the brain development needed to always supervise their own actions in a wise, responsible way.  We call the functions performed by this part of the brain Executive Functions.  The prefrontal cortex is literally the boss of the brain.

 Most children gradually develop this brain area but some may be slower in some areas than others.  They may struggle with completing tasks, remembering what homework has been set, being able to  stay on task, recalling important detail, and controlling strong emotions.  All of us tend to develop unevenly – with some aspects streaking ahead but others lagging behind.  This is normal and not necessarily a sign of a serious problem.  It is also normal for such a child to need support while waiting for a very natural progression of brain development. 

There are ways to help.  Leaving such children alone may prevent them from reaching their potential and labelling slower development negatively may impair the very development they need.  Supporting them in positive ways can help them over obstacles.

 A useful website to visit for clear explanation of executive functions, help that works and ways that could worsen the situation is written by Seth Perler.  The website (Google Seth is available and contains a wealth of information about Executive Functioning and helping to coach children through challenges.  You might find the information valuable.


Discipline versus punishment


Here’s a quote from Carl Zuckmayer that might be worth passing on to your children. It carries a lot of truth:

One half of life is luck; the other half is discipline – and that’s the important half, for without discipline, you will not know what to do with your luck.

Sometimes people misunderstand the difference between discipline and punishment, believing them to have the same meaning. Not so.  Discipline refers to the training adults give to youngsters to bring about self-control.  Consistent, gentle discipline causes life-long changes in the mind and character of children.  Punishment is meant to cause pain or discomfort for breaking rules.  Typically children are verbally scolded, sent into time out, relieved of toys or special privileges (e.g. TV time) or even given physical hidings or smacks.

Punishment can, of course, form part of disciplining but it should never be the only way that parents use to correct wrongdoing.

Here are some ways of disciplining children

  • Ignore unacceptable behaviour.This can be useful and effective for many problem behaviours such as sulking, whining, interrupting, begging for treats, or insulting authority figures (parents/teachers).   There are situations where you cannot ignore the child, such as when they are physically hurt.  Don’t try to ignore behaviour if you are truly angry inside because children will pick up on your fury and know their behaviour has had the desired result.  When you ignore, you should try to avoid paying attention to behaviours that you have clearly explained as being unacceptable.
  • Setting boundaries. Children should have set limits that are strictly enforced with patience and firmness.
  • Give simple orders. Keep your instructions simple, clear and brief. Children are confused if too much detail is given.Also try to give instructions one at a time rather than a whole list of them. When you speak to your children, look at them and don’t call out orders from a distance.   If you have any doubt as to whether a child has understood your instructions, ask them to repeat them to you.
  • Spend time with your children.Emotional development depends on the love and attention of parents.  This means interacting with your children on their level. Reading the newspaper or watching TV doesn’t count as ‘quality time.’
  • Give choices within limits. Children want and need to feel some control.Having some positive control helps them be independent and confident.  Rather than always giving orders, set limits instead.  Parents can also involve children in determining the disciplinary process and setting consequences (punishments). This helps development of independence and cooperation. 
  • Help children understand consequences, which are the results of choices the children make.There are two kinds of consequences: natural and logical. Natural consequences just happen. For example, if children do not eat, they get hungry.  Logical consequences is created by parents, so a child who purposely hits his sister with his new toy will have to give it up.
  • Be consistent.Always treat the same behaviour the same way, no matter the place or time. The more consistent you are, the more effective disciplining will be. Parents need especially to stay consistent in public, which is usually the most difficult and unpleasant.  Don’t worry about what others are thinking but simply persist in maintaining the limits that are important to you.  For example, if a child misbehaves in a restaurant, the child should be taken outside for a while. She can return after a while but don’t keep food for her. Although unpleasant, missing her food treat helps to teach her the limits.
  • Notice good behaviour.Be sure to catch your child being good and obeying limits. Let them know you approve by positive words and actions.

The source of this information was based on the book ‘Help your child to cope’ by Dr Cai Yiming & Dr Daniel Fung.


Righting writing problems



It’s quite common that primary school learners show uneven development when it comes to fine motor skills. The small muscle coordination needed for printing and writing seems to develop more slowly than other abilities. This is more often seen in boys than girls. The boys, however, seem to be better able to manipulate small objects like Lego, computer mouses, and screwdrivers than pencils, so their skill with these objects doesn’t reflect their struggles to control a pencil.

Many of them may, as a result, develop some anxiety related to written work.  They may be fluent speakers and communicate brilliant ideas or relate experiences with gusto, but come to a halt when asked to write it down. Children typically equate ‘fast’ with ‘smart’ so when they cannot produce good written work quickly, they stop trying, work too fast and carelessly and make excuses about written work being ‘too boring.’ This develops into them disliking writing and developing anxieties about written tasks. 

Last week, I shared Dr Sylvia Rimm’s tips for reducing reading anxiety.  This week, I’m summarising the suggestions she gives for helping children overcome ‘pencil anxiety’.  The source is her book ‘Why bright kids get poor grades: and what you can do about it.’

  • Encourage the child’s use of a computer or other keyboard for all drafts when asked to write a story or complete other written tasks.The schools are more open to this these days and may even allow the child to hand in the printed work rather than struggle to write it out.
  • Allow your child to use fine line markers instead of pencils as their fibre tips run more easily over the paper. Ask the school to give permission for their use in the classroom as well.
  • Make comments that will help to change expectations. Tell the child that intelligence and speed are not the same. Some examples are:
  • Although some smart children finish work quickly, others, just as smart, are slow workers
  • Quality is more important than quantity
  • Authors always write may drafts before they feel satisfied
  • Try this ‘speeding’ exercise. It’s a personal self-competition model. They can copy written material or write out maths facts. You’ll need a stopwatch and multiple sheets of the same maths facts or written material to copy. Have them first copy the material and set a baseline time to record on a calendar.The next day they can write the same material and mark the time. The goal is to beat their own time. Writing the same material every day may get boring, but they’ll soon fine they can write much faster. They’ll become much more relaxed about times tests if timing becomes a daily habit and they can see their improvement.

Of course, some children need help to strengthen the small muscles responsible for pencil control.  Usually help can be given by an Occupational Therapist and schools are quick to refer to these professionals. 

If you don’t have access to an OT, here are two strengthening exercises that you can do at home:

  • The child squeezes and releases a stress ball in one hand several times, then changes hands. Encourage the habit of using the stress ball during times of relaxation, such as watching TV or driving in the car. The hand does get tired as the muscles feel the work-out so don’t overdo it.Doing the exercise regularly is more important than the length of time spent on it.
  • Take a length of toilet paper (start with about 1 metre).The child holds one end in his hand and crumples the length into a ball in the palm of his hand.  When he’s finished, straighten the paper and let the other hand have a turn. Even though we want to strengthen the muscles of the writing (dominant) hand, we want to work on both hands. This activity can also be done while watching TV or driving in a car.  As the hands get stronger, lengthen the strip of paper.

Be aware of air – Part 2



In last week’s post I wrote about the potential dangers to children’s developing brains of air pollution and listed the towns in South Africa with the highest levels of measured pollution.


Most of us lack the freedom to live and work according to our choice. More often we find ourselves in towns and cities because of the nature of our work and the availability of jobs.  If we are forced to stay in an area said to be heavily air polluted, are there ways of reducing the risk that pollution carries to our family’s health – especially our vulnerable children?  


Here are some suggestions:


First and foremost, you need to become an activist in supporting efforts to improve our air quality because you won’t be able to change the situation by yourself.


Improving air quality means replacing fossil fuel combustion (i.e. burning fuel, such as coal, wood and so on) with cleaner sources of energy, including solar and wind.  Support organisations fighting for this.  On a note closer to home, be careful of fires (heating or braai) that are used in areas not well ventilated. Our increasing use of indoor braai rooms may add to the poor quality of air in our homes.

Green areas, such as parks and trees within towns and cities can improve air quality, so encourage your local municipality to develop green belts and recreation spots. Wherever possible, plant trees and shrubs in your own garden. Our easy-growing plant, the ‘Spekboom’ is a natural supplier of oxygen – every garden should have a few!

Encourage recycling.  Waste that is burned in the proximity of living areas releases toxic chemicals that can reach children’s lungs.  Although lead in the air has been reduced since its removal from petrol, if car and cell phone batteries are burned, lead can be released into the air.  Use the battery disposal units set up in some of our supermarkets.

Try to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution.  Wherever possible, avoid travelling at times where roads are congested.  If your home or child’s school is in an area of severe pollution, strenuous activity outdoors should be avoided. In spite of the importance of sport and play, exercise in harmful air should be minimal – especially if your child has a medical condition such as asthma or another respiratory ailment.  Make sure your child’s school or daycare centre has a well-greened play area with trees and plants.

The quality of air inside school buildings and other community structures can be improved by ventilation and air filtration systems.  Mention this at your school and help work towards implementation of such methods.

Other indoor air pollutants should be avoided too.  The bad effects of second-hand cigarette smoke on children’s health is well-documented so homes and cars should be smoke-free zones.  Other common sources of potentially harmful inhalants include certain cleaning materials. Use products that are manufactured to be harmless to our bodies and brains.

Lastly, but by no means the least important, strive to maintain optimal levels of health in your children.  Healthy diets and lifestyles build resistant immune systems and bodies that can help reduce the overall impact of air pollution.  The healthier a child is, the less likely that he or she will develop health complications due to the exposure to air pollution.   This is partly why Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) continually encourages healthy eating patterns and other tried and tested ways of living that contribute to optimal brain development and function.


Contact Details



+27 (0) 21 873 4951
+27 (0) 82 559 9966
+27 (0) 82 414 4814
+27 (0) 86 691 0051

Email  Find an ILT Practitioner near you