Keep It Cool: Helping Kids Cope with Stress

Stress levels run high, regardless of your job or background – and while kids don’t have to pay the mortgage or worry about a promotion, they have their own unique brand and fair share of stress.

These days, kids are even feeling the kind of stress normally reserved for adults, with the headaches, sleep troubles, and upset stomachs to show for it. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association reports that almost 30% of children worry about their family’s finances, alongside the perennial challenges of doing well in school and making friends. More troubling, parents often don’t realize how much stress their kids are under.

Helping kids learn to deal with stress is key to their success in school and well-being at home, and it gives them lifelong tools to manage the ups, downs, and all-around uncertainties that are part of being a grown-up.

Here are some ways to do your part to help ease your child’s stress:

Tune in to the Cues

It’s a rare child who says, “Mommy, I’m stressed!” But your kids will show you, especially through sudden changes in behavior. The APA recommends keeping an eye out for irritability and moodiness, clinginess, and eating or sleeping more or less than usual. Physical symptoms—those inexplicable headaches and stomachaches—may also be expressions of stress.

Pay attention to verbal cues, too. Kids sometimes use the negative words they know, like “confused,” “annoyed,” or “angry,” to get at the discomfort they’re feeling. Or they point the negativity at themselves (“I’m stupid”) or the world (“Nothing is fun”).

If you do pick up distress signals, talking with your kids is one of the best ways to help them. The APA suggests a three-part approach: Be available. Listen actively. Respond thoughtfully. The goal is first to provide empathy and understanding, and then to help kids navigate the challenges.

Tell the Truth, Gently

It’s natural to want to shield kids from stress and anxiety—but doing so can make it harder on them, points out Lisa Belkin at the New York Times’ Motherload. Without clear information, children tend to assume the worst possible outcome.

Instead, says the APA in the Resilience Guide for Teachers and Parents, provide age-appropriate information about the situation, whether it’s a parent’s unemployment or illness in the family. Match the honesty with absolute reassurance that you will always do whatever it takes to keep them safe.

Get Everybody Moving

It doesn’t matter how old you are: exercise is the number one tool to loosen the grip of stress. A 2004 study from the University of California, Irvine, showed that exercise in children profoundly affects physical systems that deal with stress, immune response, and inflammation, which in turn promotes healthy growth.

Try a walk through a park, a bike ride, or a family dance party to incorporate playful movement into the weekly routine. Your kids will learn from you to use regular, fun exercise to dial down the tension in their days.

Put Your Kids to Bed

According to the Mayo Clinic, school-age children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night. Without enough rest, kids are much less resilient when faced with stress.

“If your kids aren’t getting enough sleep, try adding just a little more each night,” recommends Christine Carter, M.D. on the blog Raising Happiness. “Go to bed 10 minutes earlier for a few nights, then 10 more minutes, until you are in a new routine that has kids getting the sleep they need.”

Try a One-Minute Meditation

Schools around the country are using simple meditation practices to bring happiness and well-being into the classroom. This technique from the Mindful Schools program in Oakland, California, requires only a small bell and a place to sit. It can easily be done at home, where a daily minute or two of shared quiet can help your child relax, become aware of her body and breathing, and let go of stress.

  • Sit quietly with your child.
  • Tell her to close her eyes, place all her attention on the sound she is about to hear.
  • Ring a small bell, preferably one with a long vibration.
  • Tell your child to raise her hand when she can no longer hear the sound, and then slowly move her hand to her stomach or chest to feel her breathing.
  • After a minute or so, ring the bell once more to end.

Becky Karush is a writer living in southwestern New Hampshire. Visit her at beckykarush.com.

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