What You Should Know about Kids and Stress
Moping around the house. Avoiding school or friends. Lashing out at siblings. Arguing over “nothing.”
Sound familiar? If so, you may have a stressed-out child on your hands. While some stress is inevitable and even healthy, too much can negatively affect your child’s health, happiness, and academic performance. So how can you help your school-age child cope with stress—today and in the years ahead?
You can begin by . . .
Recognizing the Signs of Stress: From Toddlers to Teens
As you’d expect, a five-year old doesn’t exhibit stress the same way as a teen. For starters, young children can’t verbalize their feelings the same way older kids can. They may become clingier, whereas stressed teens may become (more) withdrawn. With greater autonomy, stressed teens also have a wider range of options for acting out that can leave parents stressed too.
So what should you be on the lookout for at different ages? Check out some of these common signs from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
|Ages 5 to 6||Ages 6 to 11||Ages 12 to 18|
Listening Tips for Parents of Stressed Children
Seeing any of these signs of stress, your first instincts as a parent may be to try to reassure your child or to reason away his or her worries. But those instincts won’t get to the bottom of the problem. They may even increase your child’s stress. Instead, your first step is to stop reassuring and to start listening—really listening.
The American Psychological Association recommends that if you want to listen actively and empathetically to stressed-out children, you should:
- Make yourself available to “just listen” when they’re most relaxed and open to conversation—often at bedtime, in the car, or before dinner.
- Avoid trying to open a conversation with intrusive questions. Instead, share what you’ve been thinking about, or express interest in your child’s activities to get a conversation rolling.
- Give your kids your full attention when they’re ready to talk. No multitasking!
- Hear them out fully before you respond. Don’t interrupt them midsentence or start immediately offering “quick fixes.”
- Keep the focus on their feelings, not on your feelings or reactions.
- Don’t get angry or defensive if they say something that “pushes your buttons.”
- Encourage them, through your gentle questions and responses, to share the full story. Remember that kids will often “test the waters” by telling you just a small part of the story first.
Finally, ask your children what they need from you. While you may think your child doesn’t want or need your help, you should know that “75% of the kids surveyed [in a KidsHealth® poll of 875 children ages 9 to 13] said they want and need their parents’ help in times of trouble.”
Stress Management Strategies for Children and Teens
Once you have the conversation flowing, you have an opportunity to teach your kids some stress management strategies they can use now and throughout their lives.
Keep in mind that there’s no one stress management solution that works for every child. Each child is unique. Parents have to match the right strategy to their child’s specific needs and situation.
The 3 Cs Method: While stress is usually caused by external changes in our environment, it’s also intensified by our internal thoughts about those changes. Many of those thoughts simply aren’t accurate or factual. With the 3 Cs Method, you train your child to become a thought detective, able to separate distorted thoughts from facts.
When stress rises, help your child to:
- Catch the stress-causing thought. Encourage your child to mentally pause to identify a distressing thought when it arises, even imagining it in a cartoon-like thought bubble.
- Collect evidence about the thought to separate feelings from fact. Is the worrisome thought true? Are there facts to support it?
- Challenge the thought. Suggest your child argue the opposite side of the stressful or worrisome issue. In effect, this opposing argument can become a road map for solving the problem at hand or a way for your child to “talk down” the anxiety.
Mindfulness Practice: Much of our stress comes from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness reduces stress by keeping us in the present.
Simply put, mindfulness involves paying “purposeful attention to the present moment and observing our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judging them.” Just by sitting still and focusing on deep, rhythmic breathing, your child can disrupt the body’s stress responses that interfere with the brain’s ability to think calmly. It’s a powerful tool that enables children to take control of their bodies and brains.
You can find instructions and resources on age-appropriate mindfulness techniques in one of our previous posts, “Mindfulness and Its Benefits to Help Students Focus.”
Exercise and Movement: While stress releases hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that agitate the brain and make clear thinking difficult, exercise releases endorphins that actually soothe the brain. So exercise is a natural antidote to stress!
For online students, parents should consider incorporating more movement into the home classroom routine. Looking for quick and fun ideas to get your stressed students moving? Check out our “Healthy Recess Ideas: 5-Minute Exercises for Kids.”
Encouraging Words for Parents
Watching a child deal with fear, anxiety, or stress can result in a lot of emotions for parents. There’s no one good way to respond to your child’s stress. So practice having some compassion for yourself. Keep in mind that you’re not the cause of your child’s stress but that you can be a catalyst to help overcome it.
What stress-relief methods do you use with your family? Help other parents and children cope with life’s ups and downs by sharing your best stress management tips in the comments.