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Helping kids deal with stress

Christine Carter, director, Greater Good Parents | June 2, 2011

This month on the Raising Happiness blog I wrote about some scary statistics revealing the huge stress that kids are under these days. After providing all that evidence that our children are clearly suffering, I promised a follow-up post about how parents can help kids cope with school-related stress and anxiety.

Here are my three specific suggestions for how to help kids cope with stress:

  1. Help Kids Practice Mindfulness.There are loads of resources for this on the Greater Goodwebsite. You could get started with this post for parents. But also check out this step-by-step guide to teaching mindfulness, written by the director of the Mindful Schools program. It was originally geared toward teachers but is relevant to parents as well. For more on mindfulness, you’ll also enjoy the “Greater Good Guide to Mindfulness,” which is available to GGSC members (more about that here).
  2. Make Sure Kids Are Getting Enough Sleep. Teens need 9.25 hours of sleep per night; first through fifth graders need 10 to 11 hours. If your kids aren’t getting enough sleep, try adding just a little more each night: go to bed 10 minutes earlier for a few nights, then 10 more minutes, until you are in a new routine that has kids getting the sleep they need. If you need to be convinced of the importance of sleep for emotional well-being and school success, read this post.
  3. Foster the Growth Mindset. How we praise our children—and how we talk to them about their academic aspirations—is the single most important correction to the “Race to Nowhere” mentality that is wreaking havoc on our children’s well-being. Check out this post, or this videoto learn more about fostering a mindset in your family that helps kids become engaged learners.

Those aren’t the only three things I’d suggest, of course. I’ll be blogging this summer about how we can employ nature in our efforts to reduce kids’ stress. In fact, my blogbook, and online class are all dedicated to practices that foster happiness. For example, you might decide to help your kids deal with stress by working on your own stress first, or your own busyness. Or, you might try to rely less on using external rewards to motivate your kids, so that they can be in closer touch with their intrinsic motivation and their passions.

In general, remember this: Anything you do to bring more positive emotions into your kids’ lives will help them cope with the pressure and stress they may be feeling: Positive emotions act like “breaks” to our fight or flight system, slowing our heart rates and helping us feel calm again.

This all might seem hard now, when end-of-the-school-year busyness can feel overwhelming. But look on the bright side: Summer is right around the corner!

Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness, Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.

Comments to “Helping kids deal with stress

  1. Stress has been a giant concern for everyone and we should avoid it with child parenting. You provide best facts and describe solution amazingly. I think, all children are like the little god who takes birth for enjoying the life’s incidents. I fully agree with you and understand all the aspects because I also provide social care training to trainers for foster schools and children’s homes.

  2. Anxiety symptoms are common in children and adolescents, with 10-20% of school-aged children experiencing anxiety symptoms. An even larger number of children experience stress that does not qualify as an anxiety disorder. So how can you help to reduce your child’s anxiety and stress?

    1) Encourage your child to face his/her fears, not run away from them.

    When we are afraid of situations we avoid them. However, avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations maintains the anxiety. Instead, if a child faces his or her fears, the child will learn that the anxiety reduces naturally on its own over time. The body cannot remain anxious for a very long period of time so there is a system in the body that calms the body down. Usually your anxiety will reduce within 20-45 minutes if you stay in the anxiety-provoking situation.

    2) Tell your child that it is okay to be imperfect.

    Often we feel that it is necessary for our children to succeed in sports, school, and performance situations. But sometimes we forget that kids need to be kids. School becomes driven by grades, not by enjoyment of learning if an 85 is good, but not good enough.This is not to say that striving is not important.It is important to encourage your child to work hard but equally important to accept and embrace your child’s mistakes and imperfections.

    3) Focus on the positives.

    Many times anxious and stressed children can get lost in negative thoughts and self-criticism. They may focus on how the glass is half empty instead of half-full and worry about future events. The more that you are able to focus on your child’s positive attributes and the good aspects of a situation, the more that it will remind your child to focus on the positives.

    4) Schedule relaxing activities.

    Children need time to relax and be kids. Unfortunately, sometimes even fun activities, like sports, can become more about success than they are about fun. Instead, it is important to ensure that your child engages in play purely for the sake of fun. This may include scheduling time each day for your child to play with toys, play a game, play a sport (without it being competitive), doing yoga, paint, have a tea party, put on a play, or just be silly.

    5) Model approach behavior, self-care, and positive thinking.

    Your child will do what you do. So if you avoid anxiety-provoking situations, so will your child. If you face your fears, so will your child. If you take care of yourself and schedule time for your own needs, your child will learn that self-care is an important part of life. If you look for the positive in situations, so will your child. Children learn behaviors from watching their parents. So when you think about your child’s psychological well-being think about your own as well.

    6) Reward your child’s brave behaviors.

    If your child faces his or her fears, reward this with praise, a hug, or even something tangible like a sticker or a small treat. This is not bribery if you establish this as a motivator prior to your child being in the situation. If you reward behaviors your child will engage in them more often.

    7) Encourage good sleep hygiene.

    Set a bed time for your child and stick to that bed time even on weekends. Also have a 30-45 minute bed time routine that is done every night. This helps your child to transition from the activities of the day to the relaxed state necessary to fall asleep.

    8) Encourage your child to express his/her anxiety.

    If your child says that he or she is worried or scared, don’t say “No you’re not!” or “You’re fine.” That doesn’t help your child. Instead, it is likely to make your child believe that you do not listen or do not understand him/her. Instead, validate your child’s experience by saying things like “Yes, you seem scared. What are you worried about?” Then have a discussion about your child’s emotions and fears.

    9) Help your child to problem solve.

    Once you have validated your child’s emotions and demonstrated that you understand your child’s experience and are listening to what your child has to say, help your child to problem solve. This does not mean solving the problem for your child. It means helping your child to identify possible solutions. If your child can generate solutions, that is great. If not, generate some potential solutions for your child and ask your child to pick the solution that he or she thinks would work best.

    10) Stay calm.

    Children look to their parents to determine how to react in situations. We’ve all seen a young child trip and fall and then look to their parent to see how to react. If the parent seems concerned, the child cries. This is because the child is looking to their parent for a signal of how to react to the situation. Children of all ages pick up on their parent’s emotions and resonate with them. If you are anxious, your child will pick up on that anxiety and experience an increase in his/her own anxiety. So when you want to reduce your child’s anxiety, you must manage your own anxiety. This may mean deliberately slowing down your own speech, taking a few deep breaths to relax, and working to ensure that your facial expression conveys that you are calm.

    Best Regards,

    Keith Carlisle
    Medical Student

  3. I think these are great tips. I know so many parents who find that their child can’t concentrate in school and load them up on prescription and anti-anxiety drugs and it’s nuts! Try yoga or exercising first! The youth of American is over-drugged and these anxiety medications are too easily obtained. I can’t wait to read more of your blog for tips!

  4. Apart from this, I also think giving the kids time to enjoy the outdoors might help in relieving their stress. You and the family can probably go out once in awhile somewhere where the kids will enjoy the time off from school or from the stressful environment he has been to. Parents can probably consider a troubled-teen boot camp to at least rebuild their child’s self-confidence and belief in themselves. Something that can erase the stress that your child feels.

  5. Excellent information, thank you! I agree positive reinforcement is always the right approach for any situation involving stress.

    Diane Shepard

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