This is the second post in a two-part series on helping children manage stress.
Stress is a normal part of life for both adults and kids—it’s how we respond to and manage it that’s key. In part one of this series, we learned how to identify stress in children, as well as tips for talking about it with them. Below are several additional strategies for helping children successfully lower and manage stress.
Spend special one-on-one time with your child. Find calm hobbies or other activities that you can enjoy together. This will allow time for both fun and conversation, and may help you discover the trigger for your child’s stress.
Teach relaxation skills. Show your child how to relax by practicing deep breathing or meditation, or remembering and imagining pleasant situations, such as a favorite vacation or happy experience. Using iPad, iPhone, or Android apps to teach relaxation skills can be particularly helpful for digitally connected kids because it engages them visually through a familiar and comfortable medium.
Make time for play. Play is important for children of all ages, but especially for younger kids. Children need uninterrupted playtime with their peers to help develop crucial social skills, such as negotiating and resolving conflicts. Play combined with rigorous physical activity can also promote a sense of well-being. Outdoor activities might include bike riding, throwing a baseball, wrestling, or hiking. When the weather is bad, move the play indoors.
Help kids get enough sleep. Sleep is vital for everything from minimizing stress to boosting mood to improving school performance. If children aren’t getting enough sleep, it could be a sign that they are overscheduled. Reducing commitments may help. In addition, emphasize the importance of sleep and create an environment that encourages it. For instance, keep TV—and other electronics—out of your child’s bedroom and reduce exposure to electronics or screens well before bedtime.
Teach your children that making mistakes is OK. Mistakes help us learn, and it’s important to communicate the message that children do not have to do everything right, particularly the first time around. Let them know that all people, including you, make mistakes. Teach them to tolerate the disappointment and discomfort that come with making mistakes, and help them identify ways to overcome challenging situations and work through their mistakes.
Establish fair, yet firm, limits. Behaving inappropriately can be a sign of stress for some kids, and it is important to be clear about rules and consequences. Let your child know specifically what is expected for different tasks, as well as for his or her behavior. Decide together on consequences for misbehavior, and—most importantly—follow through with those consequences.
Teach ways of handling difficult situations. Talk through and role-play with your child different ways to handle stressful situations, such as a difficult peer interaction.
Tell stories about dealing with stress. For example, if your child is afraid of a new situation, tell a story about how you once felt in a similar situation and what you did to cope, or find a library book that shows a child coping successfully with stress. Look for age-appropriate YouTube clips—such as cartoons—that demonstrate problem solving and other stress management techniques.
Model appropriate ways to manage stress. We know that stress is contagious. It’s important to communicate to children both through your behavior and words that it’s OK to be stressed, and that there are effective ways to handle stress. Putting your own “oxygen mask” on first will better equip you to help your children manage stress successfully; in other words, make it a priority to take time for self care and find appropriate ways to deal with your own stress.
Rebecca Rialon Berry, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. She has extensive expertise in the evaluation and treatment of primary anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, and disruptive behavior disorders in children, adolescents, and young adults. Dr. Berry, who received her PhD in psychology from Columbia University, specializes in the provision of evidence-based treatment, including cognitive-behavior therapy, habit reversal therapy, and behavioral parent training. She completed a clinical psychology internship at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford and a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.