Mental Health

Stress & anxiety: how to silence the monsters haunting SA's children

SA is home to some of the most stressed-out kids in the world, which is why experts believe stress-management techniques should be built into the school curriculum, writes Andrea Nagel

28 October 2018 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel
Stress can lead to depression if not managed, says Mandy Herold, head of junior prep at The Ridge school in Johannesburg.
Stress can lead to depression if not managed, says Mandy Herold, head of junior prep at The Ridge school in Johannesburg.
Image: 123RF/sifotography

"Mom, I've tried everything. I can't sleep," moans my 11-year-old daughter at 11 o'clock as I sit at the kitchen table doing research for this article. It's the third time she's gotten up since going to bed at eight.

"Clear your mind and relax," is my advice to her, but, as the words come out of my mouth, I realise that they aren't really going to help.

Before school she'll get up to finish her maths or Zulu homework and then head off to early morning swimming practice, which starts at 6am. After school she'll go to choir practice, then to drama lessons, then straight to ballet, after which she'll get home at about 6.15pm and start on her homework.

On other days of the week she does tennis, singing lessons, Hebrew classes and, in winter, netball and hockey. Next year she starts to write exams and she's worrying about that now. Who knows what a bag of nerves she'll be by the time she reaches matric. And she is the norm rather than the exception among school children these days.

Does she want to give up any of her activities? Definitely not. What she wants and needs is an effective way of dealing with the stress of being so busy.

Expert advice comes from Mandy Herold, head of junior prep at The Ridge school in Johannesburg. Helping children deal with the stresses of modern life is her passion and she's travelled to conferences all over the world to learn about techniques to help modern kids cope.

"We can't really take the stress out of modern life," she says. "That would be unrealistic, especially since the optimal learning space is high challenge and low stress - but in schools and society we're constantly increasing the challenge, but not counteracting with stress relief."

And stress, she suggests, can lead to depression if not managed. A balance between the stress hormones cortisol (nature's built-in alarm system) and adrenaline (which prepares the body for "fight or flight") and the feel-good chemicals of serotonin and dopamine is needed for optimal motivation.


"Anxiety in children is called the Master Imposter and manifests in various ways," says Herold. "It affects the fight and flight responses in the brain, causing behaviours like avoidance - kids make up excuses not to do things, like go to school - or they get very clingy, but they also can get aggressive, which is the fight response. We don't usually think of anxiety as the cause of aggression, but most often it is."

She adds that the head of paediatrics at the University of the Free State, Professor Andre Venter, has said that SA has the highest levels of anxiety in children in the world and it's on the increase. At levels, like this, says Venter, it actually burns the brain.

"The prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decisionmaking, and moderating social behaviour) only develops in one's twenties. So kids haven't developed mature inner speech yet," says Herold.

She advocates a system of teaching behaviour called Conscious Discipline, a series of skills to help children problem-solve and stay on task. But in order for kids to have the ability to learn these skills they need to feel safe (necessary for the "reptilian brain" which controls the body's vital functions like heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance) and loved (a function of the limbic system, the portion of the brain that deals with three key functions - emotions, memories and arousal or stimulation).

Stress levels start to rise around the age of four when children experience huge separation anxiety
Mandy Herold, head of junior prep at The Ridge school

"Stress levels start to rise around the age of four," says Herold, "when children experience huge separation anxiety. It usually peaks in grade 6 when kids are 11 or 12."

Instead of reassuring children or turning a blind eye to stress, Herold suggests alternatives.

"During an anxiety attack the brain starts dumping chemicals and starts responding to the environment as if the person is in genuine danger, transitioning into survival mode," says Renee Jain, chief storyteller at GoZen!, an anxiety-relief programme for kids.

"In this state, the brain puts the logical part on hold to protect the person from imminent danger. This response disables the child from thinking clearly and logically, so rationalising with her doesn't help."

Instead, Jain proposes the FEEL method:

  • Freeze - stop over-thinking and start breathing deeply with your child to reverse the nervous system response.
  • Empathise - anxious attacks can be scary. Make sure that your child knows that you understand that.
  • Evaluate - once your child calms down, figure out solutions.
  • Let go - stop feeling guilty. You are an amazing parent who only wants to help your child.

Other stress aiding techniques, says Herold, are Rest and Digest, to keep bodies focused on health and engage the executive function of the brain. In other words, don't let stress take over everything.

Also remember, she says, that our minds and bodies need to engage in restful activities and we shouldn't feel as if that's an indulgence.

Meditation is a great resource. It improves creativity and resilience and immunises children against stress by foregrounding mindfulness and breathing, which connects kids to the real and the present.


Jain says that worrying can be good - it's a protective mechanism perfected by our ancestors. Everyone experiences it now and then and it motivates us to do our best, if it's used to problem-solve instead of to perseverate, a psychological term meaning to repeat or prolong an action or thought after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.

Herold says emotional intelligence development should be included in the school curriculum. "A happy child is a learning child," she says, adding that universities across the world are taking social and emotional skills into account when admitting students.

"Students need to have empathy, have great problem-solving techniques and be able to collaborate in order to be successful and happy these days."

So along with reading and writing, life skills need to be taught on a daily basis. The goal, says Herold, is not to be stress-free, but to stress better.

"Resilience is a skill that can and needs to be taught," she says.


  1. Composure results in being able to manage anger and delay gratification, leading to the development of integrity.
  2. Encouragement develops social skills, kindness, caring and helpfulness, leading to interdependence, optimism and gratitude.
  3. Assertiveness helps with preventing bullying and creates healthy boundaries, leading to respect for the self and others.
  4. Choices help to guard against acting on impulse and help to achieve goals, encouraging persistence.
  5. Empathy helps regulate emotions and gain perspective, teaching kids to honour diversity and value honesty.
  6. Positive intent aids problem-solving and cooperation, which increases compassion and acts of generosity.
  7. Consequence helps kids learn from their mistakes and act responsibly. —


  • Eating habits: Are they eating more or less than normal?
  • Sleeping habits: Are they not sleeping, or waking often in the night?
  • School performance: Have their grades taken a dip, or they're not handing in assignments?
  • Change in behaviour: Are they acting out at home or at school? Getting into fights? Talking back frequently?
  • Moods: Do they seem angry or irritable?
  • Somatic complaints: Are they saying their stomach hurts, or they have a headache, or feel sick with no obvious signs of illness?