Coping with Childhood Stress

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Childhood stress is on the rise.  It might seem like childhood is a breeze (they don’t have to worry about the big things in life, right?), but often it is full of stressors big and small.  Many children just keep swimming until they finally sink because they truly don’t know how to cope.  They don’t know what stress is, how it affects them, or how to ask for help.  And they definitely don’t know how to help themselves.

It can be difficult to spot signs of childhood stress, as symptoms of stress are often physical in nature.  That headache that just keeps coming back for more probably isn’t due to dehydration or allergies – it’s probably a function of stress.

Some common signs of childhood stress include:

  • Complaints of stomach aches or headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Behavioral changes (short temper, increased anger, excessive crying, clinginess, etc.)
  • Nervous habits like nail biting or hair twirling
  • Refusal to participate in normal daily activities (school, camp, sports, etc.)

Childhood stress can be triggered by any number of reasons.  Sometimes it’s something external, such as big life transitions or world events, and other times it’s internal, such as the pressure to do well in school and make friends.

Some common triggers of childhood stress include:

  • Transitions (new schools, new teachers, a new baby in the family, moving, etc.)
  • Family problems (divorce, illness, death in the family, fighting between parents, etc.)
  • Over-scheduling (too many activities = stress and exhaustion)
  • Internal pressure (wanting to fit in, wanting to get perfect grades, fear of making mistakes or disappointing parents)
  • School stress (test anxiety is very real and very stressful, bullying, poor relationship with teacher, learning issues)
  • Bad news (major world events can really shake kids up)
  • Scary stories, books, movies, TV shows, games, etc.

It’s essential to teach kids how to cope with stress.  Simply telling them not to worry goes in one ear and out the other.  They need to practice stress relief strategies that they can use anywhere at any time.

Stress relief strategies for kids:

  • Deep breathing exercises:  Teach your child to breathe in slowly for a count of four, hold for three, and release for a count of four.  Deep breathing relaxes the central nervous system and helps reduce stress symptoms such as a racing heart, feeling dizzy, or sweaty palms.
  • Exercise:  Adequate daily exercise helps reduce overall symptoms of stress and anxiety.  Aim for at least 45 minutes of kid friendly (riding a bike, shooting hoops, etc) daily exercise.  Taking a 15 minute walk or kicking a soccer ball when under stress can also relieve the acute stress reaction and help your child open up and talk about it.
  • Worry journal:  Writing down their daily stressors can help kids get their feelings out.  Leave a journal by the bedside table and encourage your child to record her daily stressors and the things that made her happy.
  • Self-talk:  Talking your way through a stressful event can help restore a feeling of control.  Teach your child to talk back to her worried brain and take control over the situation in the process.
  • Consistent sleep:  Consistent sleep helps reduce stress.  Prioritize bedtime and set a good example for your kids by making sure that you get adequate sleep (10-12 for them, 7-8 for you).
  • Adequate nutrition:  A balanced diet helps keep stress under control.  Help your child learn to make the connections between food choices and behavioral reactions.  Be sure to stock your kitchen with plenty of healthy options and teach your kids to cook!
  • Hug it out:  Never underestimate the healing power of a hug.
  • Calming stones:  My DIY Calming Stones over on moonfrye are a great way to help kids feel calm and remember that good feelings are just around the corner.

How do you teach your kids to cope with stress?

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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 the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)

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