All kids—even the happiest kids, whose lives look pretty sweet—sometimes have more stress in their lives than they know what to do with.
But one surprising thing makes coping with upsets and difficult emotions harder for them than it needs to be: They don’t recognize stress the same way we grownups do, says Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist in Los Angeles, mom of two, and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. And because they don’t understand what’s going on, they often don’t know how to help themselves before they become overwhelmed.
Kid stress signs can be sneaky.
Even though they’re all feeling it, it’s easy to miss the clues.
- Kids don’t say, “Oh mom, I’m so stressed out today!” “They don’t have the language for that,” Hurley told me. What they know how to say is, “I don’t feel good.” So look for the secret symptoms—consistently complaining of headaches and stomachaches without a medical reason, random aches and pains, anything that’s different from your child’s normal personality.” Big red flags: nightmares, trouble getting back to sleep, eating less, or acting less playful or social.
- Their stressors can look very different from ours. A surprisingly huge source in elementary school, says Hurley: sitting too much in class. That’s a growing problem due to more academic demands in early grades, less recess (or combined PE/recess), or the growing practice of taking recess away as a behavioral tool. Other common child-sized stressors: sibling bullying, a new baby, separation anxiety, wanting to fit in, and test anxiety.
- Kids’ woes feel bigger to them than we may think. “Grownups have wisdom on our side. We sometimes minimize their stress because we know some things are more tragic than others,” Hurley says. “Kids don’t know that. Failing a math test, having no one to sit with at lunch, or having a friend move can be devastating.”
- Kids pick up on our stress, too. We might think they’re not paying attention when we’re fighting about money, talking about an ex-spouse, or watching news about the latest terrorist act, “But they are,” Hurley says, “and they internalize it and don’t know what to do with it.”
3 kid-friendly coping skills that help
We can’t wave a magic wand and make all our kids’ upsets go away. But we CAN let them know that it’s okay to feel scared, nervous, or lonely about certain things, Hurley says. And we can help them learn to cope better in the moment by teaching a few basic tools.
Try: Body mapping
Great for: All ages, preschoolers to teens
What it does: Helps kids make the connection between how they feel and a situation that’s causing it. Sounds basic to us, but they don’t really know this until they’re told. Instead they slog on through headaches or other effects, until they fall apart.
How it works: Find a basic outline of a body online or have your child draw one. Explain: “When people feel upset or overwhelmed, their hearts can beat really fast…or their hands might feel cold and clammy…or they hold their muscles really tight without realizing it, like making a fist or even closing their teeth really tight.”
Share how you carry stress: “When I’m really mad or too busy, my back hurts.” Have your child color with red where on the body that he or she carries stressful feelings.
“This really makes kids aware of their emotions and health—and that a headache doesn’t only come from flu,” Hurley says.
Try: Balloon breathing
Great for: Preschoolers and young elementary-age kids
What it does: Teaches how to use relaxing deep breathing when you feel panicky. Without guidance, kids tend to hyperventilate giant, quick breaths when you tell them to “take a deep breath.”
How it works: Explain how when you blow up a balloon, you have to fill your lungs with air and then blow into the balloon in a slow, steady way. Blow too little and the balloon won’t get big; blow too hard or fast and the balloon will fly out of your mouth. Ask your child to imagine his or her favorite color balloon: “Now close your eyes and take a big, slow breath (count to three to cue how at first). Put your slightly open fist up to your mouth as if it’s your balloon and slowly let out the air into it.” When your child is done, ask him to open his eyes, tie a string around the “balloon” and watch it float away.
Try: Choosing how things turn out
Great for: Elementary age kids on up
What it does: Eases a sense of helplessness by helping kids learn that although they can’t control how other people treat them, they CAN control how they react.
How it works: Have your child draw a series of pictures about a situation that’s bothering them, like a cartoon panel. Then brainstorm alternative endings that your child wishes could happen instead. Talking about other possibilities gives kids a sense of power that can get them out of a rut in their thinking.
A few more simple ideas that help…
Hurley shares a few more of her favorite, easy ways to help kids tamp down stress:
- More playtime! “Kids of all ages are very play-deprived today. The single best gift you can give your child is unstructured time,” she says.
- “Mental health days.” Teachers may frown, but Hurley learned from her own mom that an occasional carefully chosen, just-us day off from regular routines is sometimes worth a million math and spelling lessons.
- Relaxation tips. Ready-Set-Relax, a popular book used by teachers and counselors contains dozens of scripts you can use to help kids ages 5-12 relax.
- The Stop-Breathe-Think app. Teens, who are so connected to their devices anyway, really love this tool for relaxation breathing, Hurley says.
- A chill zone. Set up a corner or nook in your home full of comfy pillows, stuffed animals, books, music, and maybe stress balls to squeeze—a place where kids can retreat not for homework or socializing but just daydreaming and unwinding.
Being armed with a few basic self-calming strategies can be the difference between a kid who feels helplessly sad about a social slight or overwhelmed with worry about a test and one who can recognize these feelings and self-soothe before things spiral out of control.
Your goal shouldn’t be a stress-free kid, Hurley says. We all have stresses big and small, some predictable and others that are bombshells. Instead your goal should be a happier, more capable kid who knows how to deal with stress.
“Happy kids,” she adds, “are kids who are prepared to handle the ups and downs along the way.”