Being a kid seems more stressful today than it was in the past.
It could be the result of our face-paced world, the pandemic, technology, or any number of other pressures … including us, as parents, unintentionally passing on our own feelings of stress.
According to APA’s latest Stress in America research:
“Children age 8 to 17 say they worry about doing well in school, getting into good colleges and their family’s finances. They also report suffering headaches, sleeplessness and upset stomachs.”
So, what can we do to help our kids learn to manage stress effectively so they live in a state of calm and not a state of chaos?
Here are ten suggestions to teach your children to stay calm if they feel stressed.
Further reading: 10 Warning signs of stress in children.
10 Ways to teach your kids to be calm if they feel stressed
1. Create a calming environment
Parents and kids usually associate “time out” with something negative, like a punishment for truancy.
Instead of a chair facing the wall in the corner, a comfortable, pleasant environment can help teach kids to stay calm or calm down faster when they’re having a meltdown. This space can be their bedroom, a chair in the garden, or a desk in the study. Sunshine Parenting suggests calming activities just for this “chill spot.” A colouring book, a relaxing puzzle or sensory toys are all good ideas.
“Instead of making the need to calm down a negative thing (like a “time out”), we can turn it into a positive by designating a place (or multiple places) where we go to calm down. We can call it a “chill spot” or whatever name sounds good, and it can be our bedroom or a patio chair outside or a comfy sofa in the living room.”
2. Validate their feelings
Validation is an act of acceptance. When you validate the feelings of your upset child, you show that you understand and accept the feeling, while not necessarily agreeing with it or trying to remedy the situation.
The simple act of understanding, listening and giving your child your full attention while they are in the middle of an anxious episode can help kids, especially those with very intense feelings, calm down faster. And the faster they calm down, the better you can reason with them.
To be an effective listener and understand the outburst from your child’s perspective, pay attention to body language as well as words.
According to Dr. Stephanie Samar of the Child Mind Institute:
“You want to be fully attuned so you can notice her body language and facial expressions and really try to understand her perspective…It can help to reflect back and ask, ‘Am I getting it right?’ Or if you’re truly not getting it, it’s okay to say, ‘I’m trying to understand.’ ”
3. Focus on the good
Paying attention to good behaviour and ignoring the bad is a great way to keep bad behaviours in check. Your child is less likely to use bad language or whine when they’re upset if you turn away or ignore them.
And, as soon as they show good behaviour, no matter how trivial, focus on praise. Be sincere and be specific when you praise good behaviours in order to reinforce them.
4. Try deep breathing techniques
Deep and slow breathing can help the stressed body and mind transition to a more relaxed state. When you notice the first signs of upset, try breathing slowly and deeply with your child. Count to five and breathe in, then count to five again and breathe out. Or try starting with shorter intervals and gradually building up to longer pauses between breaths as your child gets used to the rhythm.
Another mindfulness technique that can help a stressed child relax: focusing the five senses on the present moment. Identify things that you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. This can help take away attention from whatever they are anxious or stressed about and help them calm down.
Further reading: 15 Books to help kids with anxiety, worry and stress.
5. Give physical reassurance
Sometimes we all just need a hug after a frustrating day.
Just sitting with your child in a calm environment, holding their hand, or giving them a comforting and calming hug can soothe frazzled nerves and help them calm down more easily.
HELPING KIDS MANAGE STRESS (CONT.)
6. Keep expectations clear
Setting clear and consistent expectations is a valuable guide for children and teenagers. Consistency help kids feel in control, especially when preparing for changes in their routine or schedule.
Try to set expectations (keep them short!) when everyone is calm.
7. Plan ahead
What triggers stress, anxiety or outbursts for your child?
It helps to identify patterns of behaviour when you are calm so you can both be prepared for challenging situations in the future. If your child won’t go to school because they are afraid of a teacher or classmate, for example, talk to your child about it. Discuss what happens when you drive her to school, acknowledge negative emotions that arise, and provide coping strategies to break through the fear and anxiety. Tell your child that you understand her anxious or fearful feelings and talk about how to handle them.
8. Model the behaviour you want to see
Younger kids are great at mimicking adults. This is why modelling good behaviour is so important when you are dealing with a stressed child.
When you’re frustrated, saying something like: “I’m stressed and I’m having a bad day. I need to calm down. I’m going to sit in the chill zone for a few minutes,” can help your child manage their own behaviour the next time they are upset.
9. Practice makes perfect
Practice pausing to notice feelings and acknowledging negative emotions verbally.
For younger kids, the Child Mind Institute recommends using a visual guide. Younger kids respond well to visuals when you’re trying to understand how they are feeling. They can point to a face guide to articulate how upset they are, on a scale of 1 to 10.
10. Establish good mental health habits
Older children and teenagers can try positive activities that they enjoy doing. Some children find journaling, doing yoga or mindfulness meditation helpful for keeping stress at bay. Apps like Calm and Headspace have activities for kids of different ages to help deal with difficult emotions.
Help them get into these habits by modelling behaviour or doing things together: Spend time with loved ones, eat healthily, get quality sleep each night, and do other daily activities that improve mental health.
According to Young Minds:
“Young people tell us it helps to find positive activities you enjoy, think about something you’re looking forward to, do physical exercise, learn mindfulness and yoga, imagine your thoughts leaving your brain and floating off into the sky, keep yourself occupied, have time out, reflect on how you’re feeling, talk to other people you trust, and remind yourself you’re not alone.”