Now Is the Right Time!
Children, teens, and adults alike experience stress. Stress can be a positive force giving ourselves and our children/teens extra energy when needed. But, our response to stress can also have negative effects causing family arguments, preventing children/teens from taking important and necessary risks, and even creating physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches.
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. Helping your child/teen learn to manage stress is an important skill they will use throughout their life. Children/Teens ages 11 to 14 are in the process of learning to manage their strong feelings, understanding the increased expectations of them at home, growing friendships, and attempting to meet academic performance standards. All these new experiences can cause stress, and this stress is normal. But, how they learn to deal with it can advance their development or harm their development. And, our support and guidance as parents matters greatly.
According to a recent national survey of U.S. children ages 6 to 12, 79% said they worry.1 Our children/teens care about what and who they encounter day to day but also are affected by larger news stories and global events that could impact their lives.
In addition to the normal stresses that children/teens face, there is another level of intense stress that can impede a child’s/teen’s brain development that is particularly concerning called adverse childhood experiences. These experiences might come from family members who are dealing with substance use disorders, mental illness, or domestic violence. Exceptional childhood stress can be experienced by any child/teen who experiences physical or emotional neglect or abuse.
You may consider whether you yourself endured an adverse experience as a child/teen (many parents have). Your own experience can cause greater anxiety in your parenting as emotional memories are triggered through everyday normal developmental challenges your children/teens present to you. As we attempt to parent in new ways from our own upbringing, these challenges arise and require our attention. If we learn our own set of coping strategies and plan and practice new strategies, we can manage even our toughest moments with self-compassion while teaching our children/teens vital skills.
There are resources listed at the end of this tool to address these more intense forms of stress – adverse childhood experiences. These can be debilitating and require help and support outside of the family.
The following steps will prepare you to help your child/teen through the kinds of stressors we all commonly face. The steps include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to guide you to help your child/teen manage stress in ways that build up their resilience and skills for self-management.
Whether it’s your eleven-year-old throwing their pencil across the room at homework time when they cannot figure out a problem or your fourteen-year-old staying up late worrying about why classmates are staring at them, stress and how to deal with it can become our daily challenge if we don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with it along with input from our children/teens.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to manage stress can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child/teen regain calm and focus;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we work together to care for each other;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our big feelings; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions; and
- develops independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency.
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen manage stress. It also builds important skills in them. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about ways to manage stress by asking open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to stress. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset is stress related; and
- can think through and problem solve through any challenges they may encounter ahead of time.
- Engage your child/teen in a conversation to understand their thoughts and feelings. You could ask:
- “What does it mean when you say you’re stressed?”
- “What are some things that stress you out?”
- “What are ways you manage your stress now?”
- Practice actively listening to their thoughts, feelings, and worries. It’s easy to skip to problem solving when it comes to our children/teens. We can have a tendency to project our own worries on our children/teens when they may be concerned with something different altogether, so use your best listening skills! The best way to find out whether or not they are stressed is by offering a safe space for them to talk about their upset without fearing judgment.
- Paraphrase what you heard them say. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. A conversation might go something like this:
- Child/Teen: “I have a huge class project coming up, and I know I’m going to get a bad grade. I just don’t have time to get it right.” Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So, there’s a huge project coming up, and you don’t think you can get it the way you want it.” If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Parent reflecting feeling: “I get the sense you are really worried about it.”
Our worries are not always our child’s/teen’s worries. Listen closely to what is most concerning to them without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Be sure you talk about stress at a calm time when you are not stressed!
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child/teen, ask, “How does your body feel when you are stressed? How does your body feel now? What’s the first tell-tale sign that you are getting stressed?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child/teen feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
- Think about challenges and your response. Consider questions like:
- “What happens during those times when my child/teen is particularly stressed?”
- “How do my current actions or responses challenge each of us?” For example, “When my teen is stressed about schoolwork, they usually snap at me. I get annoyed immediately, and the situation escalates.” Instead, try saying, “I notice you seem short with me, and I am wondering what else is going on.”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because stress is such an integral experience in our daily lives, we may not consider its role and impact on our children/teens, though it can influence every aspect of their day. Learning about what developmental milestones a child/teen is working on can help a parent know when their ages and stages might be the cause of their stress.2 Here are some examples:
- Eleven-year-olds are growing their social awareness, and their worries might increase about being liked and who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
- Twelve-year-olds may be preoccupied by disturbing news and social issues more than ever with their growing social awareness. They may find themselves more rundown by stress dealing with social, academic, and extracurricular pressures.
- Thirteen-year-olds can have worries related to their newly acquired body changes with puberty. They can be highly sensitive as they work to define their independent identity while still being dependent upon you.
- Fourteen-year-olds will have crushes, broken hearts, and worries related to the world of relationships. They may enjoy academic challenges until they feel underprepared and then become stressed that they are not competent.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model for yourself (and your children/teens will notice and learn).
- Get exercise and fresh air. Getting active in any way – whether it’s joining a workout class or gardening – can help relieve stress.
- Practice deep breathing daily. Use the smell of your morning coffee or tea to remind you to start your day taking some deep breaths from your core. Try and make a routine of taking 5-10 deep breaths to help you begin the morning calm and focused. If you run into stressful situations during the day, remember to breathe deeply in the midst of the chaos to help you better cope with it.
- Create quiet time. Busy schedules with children/teens are inevitable. However, we all need quiet, unscheduled time to refuel. Say “no” to social commitments when it’s just too much. In addition to guarding your children’s/teens’ quiet time, be certain to carve out your own.
- Set a goal for daily connection. Touch can deepen intimacy in any relationship creating safety, trust, and a sense of wellbeing. It offers health benefits as well. A study found that those who hugged more were more resistant to colds and other stress-induced illnesses.3
- Notice, name, and accept your feelings. We, as leaders of our household, can get in the habit of reassuring family members, “We’re fine,” even when we are not so fine. Yet, we need to be models of emotional intelligence if our children/teens are to learn to manage their feelings. So, notice what you are honestly feeling and name it. “I’m tired and cranky this afternoon.” Accepting those feelings instead of fighting them can be a relief. And, then if you want to change what you are feeling, you can take action toward change.
- “Stay on your own mat.” This is an expression from Yoga. It means taking responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings and behaviors and not trying to control your child’s/teen’s feelings. Ask “What is my child/teen developmentally ready to try out?” Allow for healthy risks, realize it will not be done perfectly or at times, in the ways you expect, but you can trust your child’s/teen’s ability to solve their own problems with your loving support.
- Learn together! You’ve learned what your child’s/teen’s physical signs of stress tend to be, and hopefully you’ve reflected on your own as well. Now, understanding how your brain – for both adults and children/teens – operates when feeling anxiety is critical in shaping your responses and offering supports for your child/teen. Anytime you are emotionally shaken from fear, anxiety, anger, or hurt, you are functioning from the part of your brain that developed first – the primal brain – or amygdala. During these intense feelings, there is a chemical that washes over the rest of your brain that cuts off access so that your only functioning abilities are in your survival center. This “hijacking” of your brain, as Daniel Goleman author of Emotional Intelligence refers to it, serves a critical role.4 In true survival circumstances, you are able to focus on fighting, fleeing, or freezing. If you are being hunted by a tiger, your mind focuses immediately on running away. Your body surges with adrenaline (a hormone) that gives you an extra boost of energy. Our high anxiety can quite literally paralyze thinking. Effective problem solving requires logic, language, and creativity though none can be well utilized when greatly upset. But, in family life, fighting with words or actions or fleeing out of the door is often not constructive, safe, or practical. Creating a plan (as you will be guided below) and practicing it can prepare children/teens and adults to manage stress during a crisis, big or small.
- Fears typically relate to something in our lives or our future that is unknown. So, close that gap a bit by learning more about the issue at hand. Is your child/teen worried about getting sick? Do some research together on ways to prevent getting sick. This will help provide more facts and may alleviate some of their concerns. When you get more information and learn more about the issue, you, as a parent, can pinpoint exactly what’s causing the anxiety. Then, when your child/teen learns more, that information can often lessen the worry or, at times, eliminate it altogether.
Deep breathing is not just a nice thing to do. It actually decreases the chemical that has flowed over your brain – and allows you to regain access to your creativity, language, and logic versus staying stuck in your primal brain. Practicing deep breathing with your child/teen can offer them a powerful tool to use anytime, anywhere when they feel overcome with anxiety.
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child/teen can use depending on what feels right. But, when you are really anxious and upset, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when they really need it. Here are some ideas from Janine Halloran, the author of Coping Skills for Kids: imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, draw, color, build something.5
- Help your child/teen develop a positive association with stress. When they start to feel stress in their bodies, they could say, “This is my body’s way of getting me ready for the challenge.”
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents have to become a feelings detective. If our child/teen shuts down and refuses to tell us what’s going on, we have to dig for clues. Children/Teens take longer to develop their feelings vocabulary. That’s because they hear feelings expressed in daily conversations much less frequently than thoughts or other expressions. In fact, it’s necessary to be able to identify our emotions to become more self-aware and successfully manage our emotions.
- Create a chill zone. During a time without pressures, design a “chill zone” or place where your child/teen decides they would like to go when upset to feel better. Maybe their chill zone is a beanbag chair in their room or the couch in the family room. Then, think through together what items you might place there to help with the calm down.
- Design a plan. When you’ve learned about what happens in your brain and body when stress or fear takes over, you know you need a plan at the ready so you don’t have to think in that moment.
- Teach your child/teen how to stop rumination. If you catch your child/teen uttering the same upsetting story more than once, then their mind has hopped onto the hamster wheel of rumination. In these times, it can be difficult to let go.
- Talk to them about the fact that reviewing the same concerns over and again will not help them resolve the issue, but talking about them might help, calming down might help, and learning more might help. Setting a positive goal for change will help. Practice what you can do when you feel you are thinking through the same upsetting thoughts.
Say “Stop” out loud when you notice the same worries running through your mind. Then, try out one of your coping strategies to help you feel better and let go of those nagging thoughts. Encourage your child/teen to try it as well.
- Create a family gratitude ritual. We get plenty of negative messages each day through the news, performance reviews at school or work, and through challenges with family and friends. It’s easy and often feels more acceptable to complain than to appreciate. Balance out your daily ratio of negative to positive messages by looking for the good in your life and articulating it. Model it and involve your child/teen. This is the best antidote to a sense of entitlement or taking your good life for granted while wanting more and more stuff. Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of wellbeing, and their ability to get more and better sleep at night.6
Create a ritual for expressing gratitude so that it actually happens and becomes a family habit. You might say what you are grateful for before each family meal together. Or you might leave a chalkboard up to write down grateful words and statements. Consider that ending the day reflecting on the goodness in your lives could just be the best way to send your child/teen off to sleep.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children/teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time they perform the new action.
- Use “I’d love to see…” When a child/teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love to see how you are able to find your feet right now.” This can be used when you observe their stress mounting.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you took some deep breaths when you got frustrated – that’s excellent!”
- Include reflecting on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child/teen will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “It sounds like things feel pretty out of control right now. What is one thing you can do to feel better about this?” Then, turn to gratitude. Children/Teens may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”6
- Proactively remind. Remind in a gentle, non-public way. “Remember what we are going to say when we keep playing worries over and again in our mind? What is it?”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior that may be taking place as a result of worries or fears is by recognizing when and how your child/teen makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. Children/Teens need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen some new strategies for managing stress so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You have your speech at the middle school today. Do you remember what you can do to help yourself if you feel nervous?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress. So, becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. “Seems like you couldn’t get to sleep last night because you had so much on your mind. What can we do tonight to change that?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though it is easy to forget, your attention is your child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished like getting to work and school on time in the morning. But if your child/teen is working hard to manage their big feelings, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding their sense of competence and responsibility. Add to their motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. Notice! When children/teens are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “I know that homework today is frustrating for you. How about as soon as you are done, let’s take a walk outside together?” Include high fives, fist bumps, and hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children/teens. When you remove the money or extra screen time, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You went to your safe base when you were upset earlier. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Additional Resources for Sustained Family Crisis or Adverse/Traumatic Child Experiences
If there are high emotions in your household most days, most of the time, then it may be time to consider outside intervention. Physical patterns (like depression) can set in that require the help of a trained professional. Seeking psychological help is the same as going to your doctor for a physical ailment. It is very wise to seek outside help. The following are some U.S.-based resources to check out.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)
- Has definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, resources, expert videos, and an online search tool to find a local psychiatrist. http://www.aacap.org
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children
- Provides information for parents about emotional wellness, including helping children handle stress, psychiatric medications, grief, and more. http://www.healthychildren.org
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- Offers information on managing stress, communicating with kids, making stepfamilies work, controlling anger, finding a psychologist, and more. http://www.apa.org
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT)
- Provides free online information so that children and adolescents benefit from the most up-to-date information about mental health treatment and can learn about important differences in mental health supports. Parents can search online for local psychologists and psychiatrists for free. http://www.abct.org