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What is Stress?
Stress is what you feel when you are worried or uncomfortable with something or someone.
It's important for children to know:
- Everyone experiences stress. It’s a normal part of life!
- Depending on how we deal with stress, it isn't always bad — it can help us rise to challenges, resolve problems, and build confidence.
What Causes Stress?
Stressors, or things that cause us to feel stress, are different for everyone. A big math test might be a stressor for one child, but another child looks forward to the challenge.
Stressors can change depending on the day or person. It is OK for each of us to feel different and have different relationships to similar situations.
What Does Stress Look Like?
Not everyone handles stress or displays stress in a similar way. Here is a list of some ways stress can display in children:
It's important for children to know:
They could have a headache or bellyache, eating and sleeping habits may look different, sweaty hands, butterflies in their stomach.
They might have trouble paying attention or remembering things.
They may feel angry, frustrated, scared, afraid, or cranky.
Here’s how you can guide your child through stressful situations:
- Remind your child that they are not alone with what they’re feeling and experiencing. Stress is a normal part of life and something that we all experience.
- In a moment when they are not feeling stressed, start the conversation by asking them, "Do you know what stress is?” “What do you do when you’re stressed to help you feel better?”
- Children with strong communication skills can seek help when they need it, and are less likely to act out, hurt themselves or others, or develop unhealthy forms of coping which can help lower their risk for abuse.
A great way to learn about your child's stressors is to observe their behavior and talk about what’s going on. This can teach them to identify their emotions and manage their feelings through communication, rather than feeling overwhelmed and expressing their emotions through their behavior .Here’s how you can do that:
- Gently call attention to what you’re noticing:
- “You seem quieter than normal today.”
- Offer a suggestion for what they might be feeling.
- “I hear that you’re angry screen time is over.”
- “Are you disappointed with your grades?”
- Validate that their feelings are OK and normal.
- “It’s ok to feel overwhelmed by a big test.”
- “I understand why you’re frustrated that you can’t go to your friend’s house.”
- Try to redirect their attention to positives:
- “You’ll have more time on the iPad tomorrow. Would you like to walk with me to the park?“
- “You’ve studied hard for this test. You should feel proud of yourself!”
- When your child shares what’s bothering them, make sure you listen to their response. Be patient while they talk and refrain from interrupting with advice or solutions. A good listener will help the child feel like they’re being heard and understood. Sometimes they may just want to vent. If your child doesn’t want to talk, that’s ok! Respect that decision while making it clear you’re still there for them. Some kids might prefer to be alone, and we should respect their boundary
- “I’m going to respect your wish to be alone – but I’m going to come back and check on you in a little while to make sure you’re doing alright. Remember, I’m here if you need to talk.”
- For other kids, just because they don’t want to talk doesn’t mean they want to alone. Instead of talking, try initiating another activity like taking a walk, baking cookies, or playing a game. Sometimes your presence and a fun activity can be enough to relieve stress
- “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. How about we watch a movie together to get your mind off of it?
Even for adults, coping with stress in a healthy way can be hard. We should expect that the children in our lives will struggle with it as well.
As a trusted adult, you can help kids cope with stress by:
Being a Good Role Model
- Be mindful of how you’re coping with and communicating about your own stress
Brainstorming Coping Strategies
- Work with your child to think of a few different ways to feel better when stressed. Helping them come up with their own solution can build a child’s confidence
- Support them when they suggest positive coping strategies, and add your ideas to the brainstorm as needed
Positive Ways to Cope
Listening to music
Talking to a trusted adult or friend
Playing outside, bike riding, walking the dog
Eating a snack
Negative Ways to Cope
Not talking about your feelings
Losing your temper
Ignoring your stress
Everything In Moderation
If they choose a coping strategy which we might consider negative or unhealthy, don’t shame them for that choice. If needed, talk to them about how unhealthy coping strategies may make things worse and affect us long-term.
Any coping strategy, negative or positive, is only a short-term solution, and can be labeled as a “Quick Fix” approach. As adults, we may cope with a glass of wine or binge-watch our favorite show – but we wouldn’t want these activities to turn into long-term unhealthy habits.
The same is true for kids. Playing video games, eating ice cream, or hiding in their room may be an appropriate coping strategy every now and then – but we don’t want it to become a pattern.
Help guide your child toward positive coping strategies to help them feel better now, in the short-term, but also discuss solutions for eliminating the stressor, which will relieve the stress long-term.
“Listening to music is a great idea! Is there anything else you can do to maybe help you feel more prepared for your class presentation?”
With the right guidance, you can help the child in your life develop strong communication and problem-solving skills.
Ask the experts
Remember, stress is normal! If the stress is impacting your child’s daily life, or you notice a pattern of negative coping strategies, you’ll want to have a more serious conversation about the root of the problem. If your child is nervous about an upcoming performance or test, or there has been a recent big life event, continue to monitor the situation and brainstorm healthy coping strategies.
It’s important that we get to the root of the problem. It might be worthwhile to have your child visit the doctor to run some tests to make sure there isn’t something else going on – your child may have a learning disability, an anxiety disorder, or it could be normal stress! It’s always best to figure out what the root cause is first. In the meantime, talk with your child about what might be bothering them and brainstorm some healthy coping strategies they could try.
As trusted adults, it’s important that we do our best to model positive and healthy coping behaviors. However, we are human after all, and may want to indulge in some of those less healthy behaviors every now and again. Depending on how old your child is, it may be worthwhile to share with them that you struggle with some negative coping behaviors and that you are working on finding alternatives. You could even suggest finding an activity the two of you could do together when either one of you is feeling stressed!
Now that you've prepared, engage your child in the conversation!