Easing children's stress involves working collaboratively with our children, empowering them to become aware of their stress and including their ideas in the plan to manage it.
Stress isn't something that only adults experience. It’s important to remember that while our kids may not experience the same kind of stress triggers as us, they do experience pressures that causes them to feel stressed.
Do you remember being a kid and playing with your siblings and friends, using your imagination to create the most wonderful games? Do you also remember the distress you felt when they didn’t want to play with you anymore?
How about the excitement of having a sleep over at your friend’s house, only to be overcome with fear at bedtime as you realise you have to sleep in an unfamiliar bedroom.
These are common situations where stress can arise within our children. While a little stress here and there may be manageable and can even be positive, we should be mindful of how much stress our children are experiencing because feeling chronically stressed negatively impacts their mental and physical health.
Our Children's mental health may be affected by the accumulation of little stressors throughout their day. These can all add up to leave our child feeling very overwhelmed. Chronic overwhelm can cause them to release outbursts of big emotion without much warning, and returning to calm may be very difficult. Stress can also be a trigger for anxiety, so reducing stress can help reduce anxiety.
On the physical level, ongoing stress weakens the immune system so our child may seem to catch every illness doing the rounds and their recovery time is slow. Because stress also affects the digestive process, they may experience recurring stomachache or digestion issues.
As parents we want to support our children to live happy, healthy lives. Let's look at how we can work with our kids to ease some of their stress.
Easing Children's Stress
Easing children's stress involves working collaboratively with our children, listening and trying to understand their point of view. Our goal is to empower our children to become aware of their stress and make decisions about how to deal with it.
It entails teaching our children what stress feels like in their body so they can communicate when they notice the physical sensations of stress, encouraging them to become more aware of situations that trigger their stress, helping to reduce unnecessary stress, and teaching them tools to return to calm.
Easing Children's Stress Looks Like:
Understanding how stress may be affecting our child physically, emotionally and behaviourally.
Ensuring our kids get adequate sleep and nutrition.
Spending quality time with our kids purely having fun.
Talking with our kids and actively listening to what they have to share.
Teaching our kids to recognise what stress feels like in the body so they may respond sooner.
Encouraging our kids to recognise what situations are creating stress for them.
Teaching our kids the tools they need to better navigate difficult situations and relationship challenges.
Problem solving with our kids to find ways to avoid or minimise stressful situations.
Empowering our kids with self-help ideas that promote calm.
What Stress Feels Like in the Body
Stress activates the Fight or Flight Response, which is why it's also known as the Stress Response. This automatic response has a very tangible effect on the body. Talking to our kids about the physical sensations they may feel when stressed helps them recognise when they are feeling stress.
Paying attention to our children's behaviour will help us notice when they may be experiencing the sensations associated with stress. In these moments we can draw their attention to how they are feeling in their body. With practice they'll recognise stress much sooner and be able to implement tools to ease it.
The Physical Sensations of Stress:
We may feel hot and sweaty.
We may feel our heart thumping harder and faster in our chest.
We may notice our breathing is short and shallow.
Our muscles may feel clenched and tense.
We may notice we are clenching our jaw or fists.
We may have a headache.
Our body may tremble.
We may suddenly feel the urge to go to the bathroom.
We may have a sore tummy or feel nauseous.
We may feel like hitting, kicking or stomping.
We may feel big overwhelming emotions.
Developing Awareness of Stress Triggers
Helping our children recognise the physical sensations of stress is a great first step. We can also help them notice the kind of situations where they feel these sensations. You might like to work through the list of common stress triggers with your child and ask for their input.
Our kids might be able to verbalise situations that make them feel uncomfortable, but they may need our help finding ways to express this. If they can't verbalise their discomfort, we can often tell from their behaviour.
Common Stress Triggers for Kids:
Separation from parents: first day of school, school camp, sleepovers, babysitters.
Feelings: feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions, being unable to express them, expressing them inappropriately.
Independence & Responsibility: being expected to be a ‘big kid’ now, or wanting more independence or responsibility but not being given the chance.
Not being given a choice, or a voice: feeling like they have no control over what happens in their life, feeling that because they are ‘just kids’ their opinion isn’t considered valid.
Changes to the routine: going on holiday, changing schools, new teachers, parents returning to work, younger sibling is born.
Fears: nightmares, the dark or monsters, scary stories told at school, when a pet or grandparent dies, when a family member is dealing with chronic illness, of starting school, of making new friends.
Friendship challenges: making new friends, playing fair, being bullied, teased or left out, managing being shy or bossy, being ‘dropped’ from the group.
Peer pressure: to wear certain brands, to own certain toys, to behave a certain way, to eat certain food, to speak a certain way, to enjoy certain music, to only find joy in certain activities.
Academic pressure: exams, pop-quiz, understanding concepts, learning to read, write and count.
Too many extra-curricular activities: not enough downtime to relax or just play, being too tired after school, having to squeeze homework in too, when succeeding at a hobby becomes more important than just enjoying it.
Hearing about natural disasters: learning about them at school or in the news, or being involved in one.
Illness or injury: to themselves or a family member.
Observing parents behaviour: hearing their worries and arguments, witnessing or experiencing violence, fighting with parents and siblings.
Collaborating with our Children
Speaking with our children when they're calm about areas of their life that they may be finding stressful, is a way we can show our children that we notice their distress and we want to hear their perspective. It's a conversation that can lead to working collaboratively with our children, to develop a plan that eases the amount of stress they encounter.
When we work with our child to solve a problem together, we are teaching them that their voice counts. We are also teaching them that they have the power to change how they feel which gives them a sense of control over their lives. We are also much more likely to end up developing a stress management plan that actually works, because they've had input into it.
Let's look at some ideas that we can include in our plan, that will help our children return to calm when they do feel stressed. Please note that what one person finds calming, another may not, so asking our children for their opinion is important for success.
Returning to Calm
The ability to return to calm is an important step in managing the effects of chronic stress. It's a skill that takes practice, and can be very difficult for children suffering chronic overwhelm from ongoing stress.
As parents, it requires an enormous amount of patience and inner strength to regulate our own emotions when our child is finding it difficult to return to calm. It helps to find compassion for their situation and remember that they really do want to feel calm, they just haven't mastered how to get there yet. And to be honest, many of us adults are yet to master it too!
If we begin to feel stressed out by their emotional outburst, we can consider it a teachable moment. By managing to remain calm ourselves, we are demonstrating how to return to calm when feeling stressed.
Our calm demeanour offers our children a sense of safety which encourages them to shift states, from the Fight or Flight Response into the Relaxation Response.
The Relaxation Response also has a tangible effect on the body and mind. Our heart rate slows, our breathing becomes slower and deeper, our muscles relax, our internal organs and systems operate as they’re supposed to during normal physiological function. We feel safe, relaxed, and seek social connection.
Listed below are a few calming ideas. Ask your children what helps them feel safe, relaxed and calm to help you select the right tools for your stress management plan.
Shifting into Calm:
Cuddle pets, teddy bears or loved ones.
Snuggle under a blanket.
Practice breathing exercises.
Follow along to a children’s meditation.
Follow a guided progressive muscle relaxation.
Listen to a story.
Colour a picture.
Gaze out the window.
Use fidget toys to regulate.
Create the right sensory environment for your child (consider what sensory input may be too overwhelming for your child, remove anything that overstimulates or causes discomfort and stress)
Maintain your own sense of calm.
Empowering our Children
Helping our kids learn to manage stress is giving them an incredible gift for their future. They'll experience better mental and physical health because they understand stress and how to better manage it so it doesn't become chronic. They'll also learn to communicate and develop healthy relationships as they learn to share their emotions and experiences with us.
Imagine how our children will respond to the world with this calm, empowered mindset. I have great hope for the future as I imagine what incredible adults they will become!
To help you teach your children to become calm and confident kids, I've created a short video series for you on YouTube. It looks at how we can use our body, our breath and our thoughts to change how we feel. I hope you enjoy it!
If you need extra support yourself so that you can be more patient and compassionate with your kids, consider learning to meditate. You can then teach this valuable life skill to them!
With love and gratitude,