The way we deal with stressful situations is most likely influenced by how adult figures and role models handled stress when we were growing up. Meaning, if we have little ones around, they’re most likely absorbing attitudes about mental health and stress management from us and others they interact with (in person and digitally!).
Stress levels are objectively very high right now — like really, really high. Many of our duties have quadrupled, and our well-being (mental health and physical health included) may be going altogether ignored. Previous thoughts of self-care suggesting a bubble bath or vacation feel laughably tone-deaf and indulgent in the face of current stresses.
Stressful situations are unavoidable, and while that may be like an overwhelming truth, there’s a lot of control to be gained in how we react to stressors. The best thing we can do for ourselves is building resilience to stress and fostering compassion for ourselves to overcome challenges and adversity quickly and effectively when it presents itself. Much like putting on our oxygen mask first, the best way to teach kids and loved ones to monitor their stress levels is by modeling stress management ourselves. We put together a list of ways to approach stress management with kids, all Dr. Dave MD, PhD approved.
1. Understand how stress works
First, we need to understand stress ourselves. Cliff notes: Chronic stress strains the whole body by over-activating our sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight response), releasing stress hormones like cortisol, making our breathing shallow and fast, and sending our heart rates and blood pressure up and our HRV (Heart Rate Variability) down. These days, our bodies interpret a modern-day stressor, like a stressful commute or overwhelming inbox, the same way we reacted to a growling tiger outside our den. We go into survival mode, AKA fight-or-flight.
When the fight-or-flight response is overactive, it makes it physiologically harder to focus, meditate, relax, sleep, or even exercise. This is because our body and mind are both saying we need to escape this danger, not sleep, focus, and be calm. A lot of stress leaves us distracted, overwhelmed, irritable and makes it difficult to sleep.
2. Now explain this to kids
It’s helpful to explain stress as something that challenges us. And we need challenges to grow and achieve our fullest potential. The more we overcome challenges that we come across in our lives, the better we get as humans — the more skills we learn, the more adaptable we become. Allowing children to feel challenged is the very best training manual for helping them unlock their superpowers.
It’s essential to be there for our kids to listen to them and validate how they’re feeling without judgment. This creates an environment for them to talk to us about anything and trust us as a mentor, role model, and teammate in there lives who’s going to support them through mistakes and failure. Because everyone makes mistakes. And that’s how we learn. The trick is to fail fast, fail early, and fail safely. Creating an environment where children can fail safely is really important.
A big part of failing safely is providing strategies for our kids to cope with challenges. Here are some suggestions.
- Embrace each challenge as another opportunity to grow and become harder, better, faster, and strong.
- Channel negativity. Freud called this sublimation. “Negative” emotions like anger, jealousy, and sadness can be some of the strongest most powerful feelings we feel in our lives and they come with great energy. Many creative works including incredible pieces of art and music have been fueled by these emotions. They’re not all bad! But they exist for a reason. There couldn’t be a better time to learn to express ourselves with a creative outlet than when we’re young and the brain is at its peak of neuroplasticity (forming new pathways). Creative outlets for kids can be new art projects, dressing-up, writing stories, singing or musical instruments, helping cooking, building structures out of objects found in nature … the list goes on!
Explain that stress responses may look different in different people, like friends, siblings, or adults. Be honest about how stressful events affect you, whether you get short-tempered, you’re overeating, or you have trouble focusing. Share different ways you fight stress, your stress busters, and help brainstorm ways your child can identify when they’re stressed, too.
3. Talk about health
Mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health should not be separated — as they’re all a part of the more significant idea of health that we’re seeking to improve.
Most people under stress need someone to listen to them with unconditional love and acceptance and without judgment. Someone who can hear what they’re saying and listen without waiting to speak. Listening just for the sake of listening and helping them understand the way they’re feeling is perfectly normal. As a role model, helping your child can look like “here’s what it’s called to feel that way” or “here are some things you can do to help yourself feel better” go a very long way. Remember, being stressed doesn’t always mean you need to see a mental health professional
4. Self-awareness breeds self-awareness
At some point, you’ll reveal your less-polished stress management skills to your kid. That’s okay! Did road rage get the best of you, resulting in some colorful four-letter words? That’s okay, too. A positive attitude is impossible to maintain in the age of Covid-19. Take a deep breath and explain this to your children. “Sometimes I get stressed, and I feel very frustrated and upset. I’m not upset with you; I’m just upset.” Using simple language and describing your emotions and reactions will help them understand.
5. Hear your kid
What they’re actually stressed about is most likely not the root of their tantrum. Whether they’re throwing tantrums, being defiant and irritable, or regressing in language or potty training, this is a sign they’re worried. One of the most healthy ways to support them is through extra affection; offer them a hug and let them know you’re there. When your kids talk about something bothering them, stop what you’re doing and listen. Express interest, validating their point of view but repeating what you hear them say.
6. Good stress vs. bad stress
Help kids understand good stress and bad stress. Stress is a part of life. It’s important to help kids understand the difference between stress that is manageable (even if overwhelming) and an opportunity for growth versus stress that is debilitating. Bad stress is toxic and negatively affects a child’s confidence.
7. Be their cheerleader
Remind your kids about challenges they’ve overcome in the past. That time they skied a steep trail even though they were terrified? Or how about singing in chorus despite stage fright? “I’ve done this well before, and I can do it again.” Don’t let the negative thoughts or fear overpower a potentially empowering situation.
Practice celebrating positive self-talk in front of your children. State something you’re proud of from the day or gratitude, and encourage your family to do the same. If they hear you mean-talk yourself, they’ll most likely treat themselves the same way.
8. Model relaxation techniques
As we discussed above, little ones around us mirror our relaxation and de-escalating techniques. The two best behaviors you can model for little ones are to patiently listen with undivided attention and do breathing exercises as early as possible in the face of stress. Along with undivided listening and breathing exercises, sharing, gratitude, and empathy are the best gifts to give a child.
To help kids start breathing exercises, use props, like a feather, bubbles, or a pinwheel. This way, a child actually sees the power of their breath, and it gives them something to focus on while calming down.
9. Laughter is still a powerful medicine
Keep your sense of humor and model laughter as medicine whenever possible. Don’t be afraid to laugh at the absurdity, and when in doubt, dance parties help (hey, it counts as your physical activity too).