Stress Management for Children

Boy with crossed arms

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As much as stress is a part of grownups’ lives today, it is, alas, also increasingly a part of kids’ lives as well, which means stress management for children is an important topic for parents to understand. Child stress, like adult stress, stems from a number of factors and can be best addressed by learning about what the problem is, what may be causing it, and then taking steps to help a child feel better and more relaxed.

Why Are Children Stressed Today?

Think about all the stressors that can cause anxiety in a typical adult’s day: Noise (electronic stimulation from TVs, computers, cell phones, and other constant information-emitting devices); traffic; juggling work responsibilities, multiple activities, and family plans. We are a busy, 24-7 society.

Children who tend to be sensitive to noise and commotion are more susceptible to daily stress triggers, making the need for quiet downtime even more crucial.

For kids, school and after-school activities, the pressure to succeed (whether it comes from outside or from within themselves), family changes or conflicts, and a host of other factors that can lead to anxiety and you have the perfect recipe for child stress.

Signs of Stress in Children

Often, children—particularly younger kids—are not able to fully articulate their feelings of stress and anxiety. If there have been any major changes in a child's life, such as a move or a new sibling, parents should pay particular attention and look for possible signs of childhood stress.

Signs of stress in children may include:

  • Stomach pains
  • Headaches
  • Changes in behavior
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty concentrating at school
  • Irritability
  • Disruptions in relationships
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Low motivation

Even if you can't pinpoint a particular stress factor, your child may experience stress from something at school or other sources you are not aware of.

Keep track of their behavior and moods and watch for any signs of problems. Ask teachers how your child is doing at school and observe how they are interacting with friends and family members.

What Parents Can Do About Child Stress

It's worth talking to your child about what they may be feeling, even though they may not be able to articulate it in "grown-up" terms. Stick to questions about what they might be worried about or things that might not be making them feel good. Generally, younger children do not fully understand the concept of words such as stress and anxiety.

Let Kids Know They Can Talk to You

Encourage your child to talk to you about any problems they may be having, and to talk about their feelings openly and honestly. One of the most important and effective ways human beings can deal with stress is by talking to someone about their problem. Even if your child is unable to specifically express what they are upset about, just having you ask and encouraging them to talk can make a difference.

Listen to Your Child Before Offering Suggestions

As much as you might want to jump in and help offer solutions, allow them time to fully express their thoughts and emotions before making comments or expressing your opinions.

Consider Doing an Activity While You Talk

Some children may feel more comfortable talking about their problems while engaging in an activity with a parent. Do something you both enjoy, such as going for a walk, making cookies, or playing a round of basketball in the driveway before asking your child to discuss a problem they may be having. (Research has shown that boys, in particular, are more comfortable sharing their feelings if they are engaged in physical activity while talking.)

Suggest Deep Breathing Exercises

Encourage your child to breathe in "good" air and exhale "bad" air, and picture it carrying any worries out of their body.

Practice Yoga Together

Simple yoga poses such as downward dog, cobra, and tree are excellent for kids. Even if you do this for just a few minutes—say, in the morning before school or in the evening before bed—having a little quiet time with you can make a big difference in a child’s day.

Try Quick Stress-Relief Ideas

These can include fun activities you can enjoy together such as snuggling together with a book, giving them a massage, or playing a favorite game.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.