Stressed Out Kids: What Parents Can Do

If your child is stressed, you probably are, too. Chronic stress that isn't managed can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Here are some tips to help your child identify stress and strategies to cope with it. Try adopting them yourself-they work for adults.

1. Give it a name. Some kids don't have words for their feelings. You can help by explaining what stress is and that not all stress is bad. Good stress can be a motivator. For example, the stress that feels like butterflies in your stomach before giving a book report. It's a sign that shows what the child is doing matters to her. Other stress-the kind that doesn't go away-isn't so healthy. Raising a child's emotional awareness can be helpful so in the future she can recognize and communicate her feelings.

2. Use diaphragmatic breathing. Abdominal or deep, belly breathing is often used to curb anxiety and is easy to teach children. You can show them how to take in a deep breath that expands the tummy (rather than the rib cage). When teaching this breathing technique, have your child lie down and put her hand on her belly so she can feel it rise and fall. Have her breathe in slowly to the count of four; then exhale to the count of four.

3. Go to a happy place. Mental imagery can be a useful coping technique. Help your child think of a place where they feel calm and relaxed. It may be sitting in the warm sun at the seashore or perhaps it's being in grandma's kitchen. Tell him to think of that place when he feels nervous.

4. One muscle at a time. For help going to sleep, instruct your child's mind and body to relax one area at a time. Start with the feet and say slowly and calmly: "Feet are relaxing now." Move up to the ankles, then knees. Go all the way up to the thighs and abdomen to the top of the head and then back down again if necessary. Gently messaging a child's head can also help him relax.

5. Be available and interested. Encourage your kids to express their feelings by making them feel safe to do so. Use non-accusatory statements like: "It sounds like you were upset by ...can you tell me more about it?" Not: "Now what?"

6. Keep her company. If you notice a child seems sad but doesn't want to talk about it, suggest doing something together (watch a movie, bake cookies, take a drive, etc.) Just being together can make a positive difference.

American Psychological Association

Interview with Alicia Nordstrom, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology
Misericordia University, Dallas, PA

Nemours Foundation

North Dakota State University (coping with stress booklet for kids)