How to help a child cope with stress
To adults, childhood can seem like a carefree time. But kids still experience stress. Things like school and their social life can sometimes create pressures that can feel overwhelming for kids. As a parent, you can’t protect your kids from stress — but you can help them develop healthy ways to cope with stress and solve everyday problems.
Kids deal with stress in both healthy and unhealthy ways. And while they may not initiate a conversation about what’s bothering them, they do want their parents to reach out and help them cope with their troubles.
But it’s not always easy for parents to know what to do for a child who’s feeling stressed.
Here are a few ideas:
Notice out loud. Tell your child when you notice that something’s bothering him or her. If you can, name the feeling you think your child is experiencing. (“It seems like you’re still mad about what happened at the playground.”) This shouldn’t sound like an accusation (as in, “OK, what happened now? Are you still mad about that?”) or put a child on the spot. It’s just a casual observation that you’re interested in hearing more about your child’s concern. Be sympathetic and show you care and want to understand.
Listen to your child. Ask your child to tell you what’s wrong. Listen attentively and calmly — with interest, patience, openness, and caring. Avoid any urge to judge, blame, lecture, or say what you think your child should have done instead. The idea is to let your child’s concerns (and feelings) be heard. Try to get the whole story by asking questions like “And then what happened?” Take your time. And let your child take his or her time, too.
Comment briefly on the feelings you think your child was experiencing. For example, you might say “That must have been upsetting,” “No wonder you felt mad when they wouldn’t let you in the game,” or “That must have seemed unfair to you.” Doing this shows that you understand what your child felt, why, and that you care. Feeling understood and listened to helps your child feel supported by you, and that is especially important in times of stress.
Put a label on it. Many younger kids do not yet have words for their feelings. If your child seems angry or frustrated, use those words to help him or her learn to identify the emotions by name. Putting feelings into words helps kids communicate and develop emotional awareness — the ability to recognize their own emotional states. Kids who can do so are less likely to reach the behavioral boiling point where strong emotions come out through behaviors rather than communicated with words.
Help your child think of things to do. If there’s a specific problem that’s causing stress, talk together about what to do. Encourage your child to think of a couple of ideas. You can start the brainstorming if necessary, but don’t do all the work. Your child’s active participation will build confidence. Support the good ideas and add to them as needed. Ask, “How do you think this will work?”
Listen and move on. Sometimes talking and listening and feeling understood is all that’s needed to help a child’s frustrations begin to melt away. Afterward, try changing the subject and moving on to something more positive and relaxing. Help your child think of something to do to feel better. Don’t give the problem more attention than it deserves.
Limit stress where possible. If certain situations are causing stress, see if there are ways to change things. For instance, if too many after-school activities consistently cause homework stress, it might be necessary to limit activities to leave time and energy for homework.
Just be there. Kids don’t always feel like talking about what’s bothering them. Sometimes that’s OK. Let your kids know you’ll be there when they do feel like talking. Even when kids don’t want to talk, they usually don’t want parents to leave them alone. You can help your child feel better just by being there — keeping him or her company, spending time together. So if you notice that your child seems to be down in the dumps, stressed, or having a bad day — but doesn’t feel like talking — initiate something you can do together. Take a walk, watch a movie, shoot some hoops, or bake some cookies. Isn’t it nice to know that your presence really counts?
Be patient. As a parent, it hurts to see your child unhappy or stressed. But try to resist the urge to fix every problem. Instead, focus on helping your child, slowly but surely, grow into a good problem-solver — a kid who knows how to roll with life’s ups and downs, put feelings into words, calm down when needed, and bounce back to try again.
Parents can’t solve every problem as kids go through life. But by teaching healthy coping strategies, you’ll prepare your kids to manage the stresses that come in the future.
All kids and teens feel stressed at times. Stress is a normal response to changes and challenges. And life is full of those — even during childhood.
We tend to think of stress as a bad thing, caused by bad events. But upcoming good events (like graduations, holidays, or new activities) also can cause stress.
Kids and teens feel stress when there’s something they need to prepare for, adapt to, or guard against. They feel stress when something that matters to them is at stake. Change often prompts stress — even when it’s a change for the better.
Stress has a purpose. It’s a signal to get ready.
When Can Stress Be Helpful?
In small amounts, and when kids have the right support, stress can be a positive boost. It can help kids rise to a challenge. It can help them push toward goals, focus their effort, and meet deadlines. This kind of positive stress allows kids to build the inner strengths and skills known as resilience.
When Can Stress Be Harmful?
Stress or adversity that is too intense, serious, long-lasting, or sudden can overwhelm a child’s ability to cope. Stress can be harmful when kids don’t have a break from stress, or when they lack the support or the coping skills they need. Over time, too much stress can affect kids’ mental and physical health.
As a parent you can’t prevent your children from feeling stress. But you can help kids and teens cope. You can:
- Help them use positive stress to go for goals, adapt to changes, face challenges, and gain confidence.
- Give extra support and stability when they go through stressful life events.
- Protect them from the harmful effects of too much stress, such as chronic stress and traumatic stress.
What Is Positive Stress?
Positive stress is the brief stress kids and teens feel when they face a challenge. It can prompt them to prepare and focus. It can motivate them to go for goals, get things done, or try new things. They might feel positive stress before a test, a big game, or a recital. When they face the challenge, the stress is over.
Positive stress gives kids the chance to grow and learn.
Here’s an example: The everyday pressure to get to school on time prompts kids to get their shoes on, gather their things, and head for the bus. But if kids don’t know how to use that positive stress, or don’t yet have the coping skills they need, it could mean a hectic race to the bus that leaves both parents and kids upset.
What parents can do: When it comes to handling that morning school prep (or any other moment of normal stress), it’s tempting to step in and get everything ready for your child. But that won’t help kids learn how to use positive stress. Instead, teach kids how to prepare without doing it for them. This takes more time and patience, but it’s worth it.
This type of positive stress can prompt kids to adapt and gain coping skills they need. It can prepare them to handle life’s bigger challenges and opportunities.
What Is Life Event Stress?
Difficult Life Events
Many kids and teens face difficult life events or adversity. Some get sick or need a hospital stay. Some have parents who split up. Some face the death of a loved one, move to a new neighborhood, or start a new school. Any of these life events can cause stress.
When kids face difficult life events, they might feel stress on and off for a few days or weeks as they adjust.
What parents can do: Parents can provide extra support and stability. Listen and talk with your child. Help them feel safe and loved. If possible, let them know what to expect. Talk over what will happen, what they can do to cope, and how you’ll help. Give comfort and show caring. Set up simple routines to help them feel settled.
Good Life Events
Even life events that we think of as good can be stressful. A big birthday, the first day of a school year, graduation, holidays, or travel can prompt kids and teens to feel stress.
What parents can do: Parents can help kids and teens prepare for what’s ahead. Talk them through the situation, focusing on the positive parts. Give kids a say in the plans when possible. Listen to what they think and how they feel. If they feel stressed, let them know it’s OK and they can cope. You’ll be there for them as needed.
What Is Chronic Stress?
When difficult life events lead to stress that lasts for more than a few weeks, it’s called chronic stress. Chronic stress is hard on kids when they don’t have a break from it or when they don’t have the support they need or coping skills to offset the stress.
Having a serious health condition that lasts for a long time can lead to chronic stress. So can losing a parent or close family member or going through lasting adversity. Over time, stress like this can affect kids’ and teens’ mental and physical health. But there are things that can prevent the harmful effects of chronic stress.
What parents can do:
- Help kids feel safe, loved, and cared for. This is the best way to offset stress. Feeling close to you and knowing you love and accept them is more important than ever. Provide routines, like the same bedtime, eating a meal together, or being there after school. Routines provide a rhythm and let kids know there are things they can count on.
- Teach coping skills. Kids feel better when they know there are things they can do for themselves to offset their stress. Kids of all ages can learn and practice calm breathing and meditation. There are many other skills to learn too.
- Help them take a break from stress. Make time to play, draw or paint, spend time in nature, read a book, play an instrument, be with friends and family. These activities are more than just fun. They help kids and teens feel positive emotions that offset stress.
What Is Traumatic Stress?
This is the stress that comes with trauma events that are serious, intense, or sudden. Traumas such as serious accidents or injuries, abuse, or violence can prompt this type of stress.
Parents can step in to protect kids when they know they are being mistreated or bullied. But it’s not always possible to protect kids from every type of trauma. If kids and teens go through traumatic stress, parents can help them get the care they need to recover.
What parents can do:
- Give kids and teens extra support and care. Be there to listen and talk. Let kids know that they are safe. Validate and accept their feelings. Let them know that, with time, they will feel better.
- Reach out to your child’s doctor or a therapist. Some need therapy to heal from traumatic stress. Parents can take part in the therapy and learn how to best help their child.
- Spend positive time together. Encourage kids and teens to do things they enjoy. These might be things you can do together or things your teen does on their own, like enjoying music, nature, or art. These things prompt positive emotions that can offset some of the stress left over from trauma.
- Give kids and teens a chance to use their strengths in everyday life. Trauma and stress can leave them feeling vulnerable, anxious, or unsure of themselves. Knowing what they can do and who they are as a person can help kids and teens feel strong and confident.