Helping Kids Cope with Stress

You might not know this, but apparently 5th grade is the new 11th grade.  The pressure to succeed, make that excel, in elementary school is alarming.  All over the country parents are complaining of too much homework, too many activities, and too much stress.


Believe it or not, stress is not actually a bad thing.  A healthy amount of stress challenges us to push just a little bit harder.  It’s what helps us remain focused and alert in emergency situations.  It’s that little voice in the back of your head that suddenly becomes loud and yells, “swerve!” when another car is headed straight for yours.


A healthy amount of stress keeps our brains active and alert.


But children today experience very high levels of stress, even beginning in Kindergarten.  The academic, social, and athletic pressure imposed upon them is unreasonable at best.  And they are suffering for it.


Much to my dismay, I don’t think the homework thing will subside anytime soon (although the President of France is on a mission to ban homework…anyone want to jump the pond with me?), so it’s important to teach your children how to cope with stress.


**Parent tip:  Paying for good grades or punishing for poor grades both impose external stress on your child.  Be proud when your child succeeds and seek help when your child struggles.  Keep your emotions away from the grade.


It’s imperative for parents to recognize the signs of excess stress in children.  A few things to look for include:


Sadness or depressed mood

Sleep disturbance (too much or too little, frequent night-wakings, frequent nightmares)

Irritability or other mood changes

Stomachaches or headaches (including migraines)

Anxiety (nail biting, restlessness, rumination, excess worries, etc.)

Eating issues (too much or too little, significant changes that are not otherwise accounted for by growth)

Frequent colds


Whether or not you see any signs of significant stress in your child, teaching your child to cope with stress now can only help when overload hits in the future.


Kiss Overscheduling Goodbye:  If your child is up hours beyond his normal bedtime in the name of homework each night, something has to go.  Kids of all ages need to learn to set limits.  In general, one team sport and one other extra curricular (art class, theater, etc.) per semester is plenty.  Your child needs downtime, social time, and enough time to keep up with academics without losing sleep.  Kids want to do everything.  It’s up to us to teach them to set limits and prioritize.


Focus on Sleep:  If your child has to get to school between 8-9AM each morning, staying up until 11PM is NOT an option.  Even though older children can self-monitor when it comes to getting ready for bed and completing assignments, they still need a consistent bedtime.  Weekend nights should only fluctuate by about an hour.  The older they get, the more they think that bedtime is no longer a requirement.  We have to model and teach healthy habits to ensure that out kids are getting enough sleep (which will help with those pesky headaches and colds).


Put Away Perfection:  Some kids put undue pressure on themselves (I would know, I was one of them) while others react the pressure imposed by parents.  Perfect doesn’t exist.  Teach your children to strive for doing their best on any given day, and to stop focusing on perfection.  The best gift you can give your child is the freedom to perform their best without comparison.


Healthy Choices:  You know how you reach for the salty pretzels and tend to eat on the go when you’re under stress?  We seek a quick fix when we feel our blood sugar crashing, but this actually complicates matters.  Teach your children to sit when they eat (Pop Tarts on the bus will only increase the body’s stress response), make healthy food choices (eat the rainbow), get regular exercise, and lean on their support systems.  Many children feel that they need to suffer through excess stress on their own.  Communicate with your children.  Welcome their thoughts and emotions.  Offer help.  They need you more than they are willing to admit.


Reframe:  When the stress cycle sets in, many kids become overwhelmed and respond to everything with a negative (I can’t, it’s impossible, it will never get done).  Teach your children to reframe their thoughts.  Have your child repeat the stressor out loud first and then say it again with a positive spin.  For example, “I can’t do this!  This math is too hard!” can be reframed to, “I think I need a break right now, and then I can tackle this difficult math homework.”  Adding a positive statement decreases the stress response and gives your child a moment to relax.


Teach Relaxation Exercises:  The natural response to stress includes clenched fists, tight muscles, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing.  Teach your children to calm their breathing and relax their muscles, even when under stress.  Yoga helps kids learn to control their breathing and focus their thoughts.  Invest in a great Yoga DVD and use it often.  Teach your kids to count to five when inhaling and exhaling.  Teach progressive muscle relaxation (Tighten hand muscles for a count of three and release.  Repeat on other side.  Work your way up your arms, one muscle at a time.  Then begin with toes and move up.  Finish with face muscles).  It’s also important to make sure that your kids have ample time for relaxing activities (drawing, reading, walking the dog, hobbies, etc.)


Self-Talk and Scripts:  Talking back to the fear center of the brain is a great way to stop stress on the spot.  When our brains react to excess stress, we often experience anxiety.  Anxiety can cause intrusive thoughts.  Teach your child to talk back to stress.  Saying something like, “Stop!  I know I can handle this.  I can finish this homework” can help stop the intrusive thoughts from taking over.  Preparing scripts in advance to tackle common stressors is also useful.  Being prepared for stressful situations can circumvent that out-of-control feeling that often results in excessive anxiety.


Conquer Small Obstacles:  Feeling in control of the small stuff can go a long way toward building resilience.  It can be difficult to know when to step back and when to step in.  Instead of focusing on fixing or not fixing, consider providing support along the way.  Help talk your child through small obstacles by asking questions and trying different strategies together.  When you support your child along the way, your child learns when to try alone and when to seek help.


Dial back the pressure at home whenever possible.  Set realistic expectations, but know that your child is working hard at school and in extra curricular activities.  And remember that a mental health day every once in a while can really reset the soul.  

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)