Consider the last time you were stressed about something. Maybe it was a looming deadline at work, a tough issue with a friend, or just your daily schedule that seems to be filling up with events and to-do items by the minute. How do you cope with the stresses of life when they seem to pile up? Do you take time to go for a walk to clear your head? Perhaps you listen to calming music or have coffee or tea with a friend?
Over the years, most of us have developed ways of coping with stress that helps us. As adults, we take these simple coping strategies for granted. These strategies are different for each of us.
But what about children? Without the benefit of life experience, most children do not have the coping strategies that we have. Their veritable “toolkit” of coping techniques is largely empty. In some cases, when children experience stress, they act out, have meltdowns or tantrums, and give up on their tackling task. With guidance from parents, however, children can learn valuable coping strategies to deal with stress more effectively. For many parents, this is one of our primary social-emotional goals for our children–helping them learn how to manage stress effectively so they can function well in their adult life one day.
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Children and Stress: Is It Real?
Many of us have an image of childhood as being carefree and unencumbered by the stresses of adulthood. While that is true to some degree, most children do experience some amount of stress in their lives. For many children, school and its academic pressures are a source of ongoing stress. Similarly, some children experience stress related to friendship or social pressures. The pressure to “fit in” or difficulties with friends pose real stress for some children. Other children may experience stress from home situations. Children might feel stress related to conflict between parents, ill relatives, or the possibility of having to move locations due to family situations.
These daily stresses of life are manageable for most children. However, most children need our support and guidance to learn how to manage stress
and not allow it to overwhelm them. If left unmanaged, stress can take a toll on children’s mental health (just as it can adults). Children experiencing ongoing serious stress that is not managed well are at higher risk for academic problems, anxiety and even depression.
The Meaning of Stress
Key to our understanding of stress and its impact on children is the idea that the perception or appraisal of stress differs for each person. In other words, the same event might happen to two different people and one person might perceive it to be more stressful than another.
In children, sometimes events are appraised as stressful because they lack control in the situation. For example, a family moving to a new city might be perceived as stressful for a child not only because of loss of friends and school but because they feel they have little control in the situation. Although we, as parents, cannot always provide our children with actual control over their situation, we can provide a supportive atmosphere in which they perceive to have more control. As with many issues surrounding stress, a perception of control is often even more important than actual control.
This perception of control and the idea that children have tools to deal with stress is key to our parenting approach to stress. Helping children feel empowered and feel as though they have some control results from our overall parenting approach. Research shows that a parenting approach which includes a great deal of controlling of children is linked to children feeling that events are outside their control. This feeling of lack of control has been linked to anxiety in children, among other negative outcomes.
Coping Strategies for Children
In addition to supporting them through our parenting approach, we can also model and teach specific coping strategies for children. Generally psychologists discuss two different types of coping strategies that individuals (children or adults) can use to deal with stress: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.
Problem-focused coping emphasizes removing or altering the problem itself. Examples of problem-focused coping might be conflict resolution, planning or seeking help.
Conflict resolution. For children, this strategy might look like parents helping a child work through a conflict with a close friend. Parents could coach them on discussing the root of the problem and how to address it with their friend.
Planning. This strategy might involve a parent guiding a child through the process of planning out their school workload so they don’t have too much to do each day. They could give them a planning notebook and show them helpful ways to use it for tracking their assignments.
Seeking help. With children, the strategy of seeking help could involve a parent supporting a child in seeking out tutoring or teacher’s office hours when they struggle with school work. Parents can foster in children the idea that seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
Problem-focused coping helps children learn an actionable approach to dealing with stress. This approach not only helps them feel more in-control of their situation, but also gives them tools to address the stressor.
In addition to problem-focused coping, parents can also foster emotion-focused coping in children. This approach to coping works well when the stressor is more outside the control of the child. Instead of focusing on solving the problem itself, emotion-focused coping helps children cope with the difficult emotions brought up by the stressor. Depending on the stressor, emotion-focused coping can focus on a variety of strategies. Some examples could include:
Breathing techniques. Simple, deep breathing is often overlooked as a powerful coping strategy. When experiencing a stressful moment, we often don’t realize we aren’t breathing as deeply as we could. Helping children notice their breathing can help them learn to calm their nervous system during stress. Child-friendly breathing exercises like pretzel breathing or balloon breathing can help children understand their body’s reaction to stress. This, in turn, will help them calm themselves.
Positive reinterpretation. When experiencing stress, it’s often difficult for us (or children) to see any potential positives that could come from the situation. One way to help children is to model this positive reframing strategy. While we don’t want to deny children’s pain or stress (that can lead to toxic positivity), you can help them see the situation through a new lens. For example, not making a sports team can be very disappointing for a child. You could help them reframe the situation by reminding them that they now have more time to spend with friends or do their favorite hobby. The goal of positive reframing isn’t to change their stressor itself but to alter how children appraise the situation.
Emotional support. Perhaps the most straightforward emotion-focused coping strategy we can offer children is simple emotional support. Offering emotional support simply means being present to listen to your child’s emotions about the stress. While recognizing that we might not be able to “fix” the situation. Many times just allowing children the space to express their emotions can help them through stress.
Emotional Skills for Today’s World
Stress is inevitable in this life, even for children. How we cope with stress has a lot to do with our life satisfaction and mental health. By modeling and teaching healthy coping strategies our children will learn healthy ways to reduce their stress. Filling your child’s coping “toolbox” with effective strategies will help them avoid unhealthy coping strategies like overuse of alcohol, self-blaming or escapism. We know it can be hard, that’s why we are committed to giving you tons of parenting resources on the BYJU’S FutureSchool blog, where you can learn more about developmental milestones, pandemic parenting, and more.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.