Now Is the Right Time!
Children and adults alike experience stress. Stress can be a positive force giving ourselves and our children extra energy when needed. But, our response to stress can also have negative effects causing family arguments, preventing children from taking important and necessary risks, and even creating physical symptoms like headaches and tummy aches.
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s success. Helping your child learn to manage stress is an important skill they will use throughout their life. Children ages 5-10 are in the process of learning about their strong feelings, understanding the rules of school, growing friendships, and learning to master new concepts in reading, math, and more. All these new experiences and expectations for their performance 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 6-12, 79% said they worry.1 Our children care about what and who they encounter day to day and are impacted by larger news stories and global events.
In addition to the normal stresses that children face, there is another level of intense stress that can impede a child’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 who experiences physical or emotional neglect or abuse.
You may consider whether you yourself endured an adverse experience as a child (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 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 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 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 manage stress in ways that develop their resilience and skills for self-management.
Whether it’s your five-year-old melting down in frustration over trying to get shoes on or your seven-year-old throwing their pencil across the room at homework time when they cannot figure out a problem, 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.
Today, in the short term, teaching skills to manage stress can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child 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:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions; and
- develops independence and self-sufficiency.
This five-step process helps you and your child manage stress. It also builds important skills in your child. 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 are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about ways to manage stress by asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to stress. In gaining input, your child:
- gains awareness about 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 in a conversation to understand your child’s thoughts and feelings. You could ask:
- “When do you feel worried, anxious, or stressed?”
- “What time of day?”
- “What people, places, and activities are usually involved?”
- Practice actively listening to your child’s thoughts, feelings, and worries. It’s easy to skip to problem solving when our children are upset. Because we can have a tend to project our own worries on our children when they may be concerned with something different altogether, use your best listening skills! The best way to find out whether or not your child is stressed is by offering a safe space for them to talk about their worries without fearing judgment.
- Paraphrase what you heard your child say. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is. It also confirms to the speaker that you have heard them. A conversation might go something like this:
- Child: “I asked my teacher today why she didn’t pick me for the line leader position. She said it wasn’t my turn.” Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So I hear you asked your teacher about the line leader position, but it wasn’t your turn.” If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect the feeling implied. Parent reflecting feeling: “I get the sense you were disappointed not to be chosen. Is that right?”
Our worries are not always our children’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, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are worried or anxious?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child 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 is particularly stressed?”
- “How do my current actions or responses challenge each of us?” For example, when a child has had a hard day at school, they may refuse to get ready the next morning. Sometimes as parents, we may nag, and then it escalates to yelling, and we arrive at school late. Ask, “What was challenging at school that makes you not want to return? How can we address that problem to help you deal with what happened so that you feel okay about going back?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Because stress is such an integral experience in our daily lives, we may not consider how it can influence every aspect of our day. Learning about what developmental milestones a child is working on whether they are physical, cognitive, social, or emotional, can help a parent know when their ages and stages might be the cause of their stress.2 Here are some examples:
- Five-year-olds are working hard to understand how things work so they appreciate explanations and ask lots of questions. They have vivid imaginations which can create worries parents may not understand or feel have a logical basis. They may struggle to see others’ perspectives. They are working hard to understand rules and want to help, cooperate, and follow them. They may be upset or disappointed when they do not understand a rule, but they are also beginning to test rules.
- Six-year-olds can feel anxious as they want to do well in school and at home. They may be highly competitive and criticize peers while being sensitive to being criticized themselves. They care about friendships and may have worries related to those relationships. They may be clumsy sometimes and require more time for fine and large motor skill activities.
- Seven-year-olds need consistency and may worry more when schedules are chaotic, and routines change. They tend to be moody and require reassurance from adults. They take school and homework seriously and may even feel sick from worrying about tests or assignments.
- Eight-year-olds’ interest and investment in friendships and peer approval becomes as important as the teacher’s approval. They are more resilient when they make mistakes. They have greater social awareness of local and world issues and may be concerned about the news or events outside of your community.
- Nine-year-olds can be highly competitive and critical of themselves and others. They may worry about who is in the “in” and “out” crowds and where they fit in friendship groups. They may tend toward excluding others in order feel included in a group so it’s a good time to encourage inclusion and kindness toward a diverse range of others.
- Ten-year-olds have an increased social awareness so that they can try to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. With this awakening comes a newfound worry about what peers are thinking of them (“He’s staring at me. I think he doesn’t like me.”).
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child 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 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 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 quiet time, be certain to carve out your own.
- Set a goal for daily connection. Touch can deepen intimacy in any relationship creating safety and 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 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 children’s. Ask “What is my child 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 ability to solve their own problems with your loving support.
- Learn together! You’ve learned what your child’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 – operates when feeling anxiety is critical in shaping your responses and offering supports for your child. 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 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. Learning more about the issue can reduce the fear. Is your child 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. Is your child anxious every time the lights go off? Learn more about darkness and what happens in the dark. Perhaps examine the safety features in your home. Assign a night watch (a stuffed friend) to guard their bedroom. 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 learns more, that information can often lessen the worry or 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 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 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 your child really needs it. Here are some ideas from Janine Halloran, the author of Coping Skills for Kids:5 imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, draw, color, or build something.
- Work on your child’s feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents have to become a feelings detective. If our child shuts down and refuses to tell us what’s going on, we have to dig for clues. Though your five, six, seven, or even ten-year-old has been speaking fluently for some time now, they 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. Being able to identify our emotions is the first step to being able to successfully manage our emotions.
- Create a calm down space. During a playtime or time without pressures, design a “safe base” or place where your child decides they would like to go to when upset to feel better. Maybe their calm down space is a beanbag chair in their room, a blanket, or special carpet in the family room. Then, think through together what items you might place there to help them 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 how to stop rumination. If you catch your child uttering the same upsetting story more than once, then your child’s mind has hopped onto the hamster wheel of rumination. In these times, it can be difficult to let go.
- Talk to your child about the fact that reviewing the same concerns over and again will not help them resolve the issue. 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 to try it.
- 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 can seem easier 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 children. 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. Or you can make it a part of your bedtime routine while talking before your child goes to sleep. Consider that ending the day reflecting on the goodness in your lives could just be the best way to send your children off to sleep.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, 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 to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Use “Show me…” When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “Show me how you use your safe base to calm down.” 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 reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child 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, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Children 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. You may whisper in your child’s ear, “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 makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. Children need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child 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 fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You have a test coming up today. Do you remember what you can do to help yourself if you feel stressed?”
- 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 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. Did you have a hard time paying attention in class? What could we do tonight to help?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child 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 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 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 your child’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your child’s motivation to work hard with the following simple steps.
- 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. When children 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. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “We’ll get our business taken care of first with our bedtime routine, and then we’ll snuggle up to a good book and talk about our reflections from the day.” Include hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid stickers, gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, 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” does 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. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children 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 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 step-families 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