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How to help kids recognize stress and learn to manage it

How to help kids recognize stress and learn to manage it
Brightline Logo Mark Orange
Brightline team

Mar 29, 2024

Simply put, stress is part of life. Stressors are everywhere and different for each person. (What stresses you out might be exciting or easy for someone else.) Sometimes, what makes you feel stressed can’t be avoided — and sometimes it shouldn’t be. Learning how to deal with stress is important for everyone, including kids.

Stress is a close sibling of anxiety. In fact, stress can almost look and feel like anxiety’s identical twin. And stress that happens a lot or for a long period of time can actually turn into anxiety, which is another reason why managing it (instead of trying to escape it) is a skill that should be used for a lifetime.

Let’s look at why stress can be good, when it can be a false alarm, and four ways you can help your kids learn how to handle it, now and in the future.

Stress can be good

When you’re stressed about something like a hard task, a presentation, or trying something new, that physical feeling is what can help boost your response to that situation (e.g., motivating you to study for that test). Sometimes, a stress reaction can spark an internal instinct to get out of a harmful situation. And keeping a stressor at a distance, especially in the case of trauma or danger, can keep you safe. In those situations, listening to the stress signals your body is giving you can not only save the day, it can save your life. 

When stress is a false alarm

But both thoughts and the physical symptoms of stress can also be false alarms: the mind and the body can make someone believe they’re in danger or that they should feel afraid, when they’re actually safe. 

One way to recognize whether it’s a false alarm or not is to think about if what’s causing the alarm pang is real or likely to happen. For example, is your child stressed because they have a test they feel unprepared for? Or because they are thinking about getting laughed at during softball practice (even though that’s never happened before)?

If the feeling is a false alarm, remind your child that this stressful alarm will peak and then come back down, like a wave, as long as they take steps to face the situation and learn that what they thought might happen, didn’t. Realizing there is a beginning and an end to the feeling can help it feel less overwhelming, especially when it sweeps in out of nowhere.

How to handle stress — and teach your kids to manage it, too

As an adult, it can be hard to deal with things that make you feel stressed. Especially when it feels like it’s coming at you from every angle. And you’re not alone, that stress about stress is one of the things that leads to procrastination or the desire to avoid things altogether. (If the thing you’re stressed about never happens, you won’t have to worry about it, right?)

It can be even harder to watch someone you love — like your child — be stressed. Seeing your child dealing with stress can bring up big stress for you, too. Sometimes your kids’ happiness is tied directly to your own. So it’s natural to want to clear the path for them. And the intention is good: You want to show them that you’re there to help and that they aren’t alone.

However, when parents swoop in to smooth things over, eventually the child learns that they can’t do hard things on their own. Instead, we want to build their trust in themselves, so they start to believe they have what it takes to handle difficulties. 

Rescuing them makes you both feel better in the moment. But learning how to let your child feel stress and manage it in healthy ways is what builds their ability to get through it. 

The question is: How?

Here are four things that can help:

  1. Question the “what ifs” Try to turn the “what ifs” upside down. Let’s say that stress is causing your child to think “What if I don’t make the team?” or “What if I don’t get invited to the sleepover?” Ask them to think instead about what else is possible. What would happen if they thought in the opposite direction? For example, “What if I do really well at tryouts?” or “What if I do get invited to the party?” You and your child could also talk about why they feel the way they do or what are the worst (or best!) things that could happen in the situation causing them stress, including all of the in-between possibilities. Realizing there are other options can help relieve some of the pressure they feel in the moment.

  2. Validate their feelings (even the false alarms) Even when you don’t understand why your child feels the way they do, it’s important to show them it’s okay that they’re feeling it. Reacting to stressed feelings with empathy and understanding can help kids be kinder to themselves, too. They learn that these are human emotions that are normal to experience. Try to say things that can make your child feel less alone in their stress. For example, “You're shaking and I hear you telling me how scared you are — these are really normal feelings to have” or “I can see how nervous you are and I want you to know it’s okay that this feels really hard to do”. Hearing your compassion can also help them start to recognize, name, and accept their own feelings.

  3. Show your child you have confidence in them Instead of solving the problem for them, show them how much you believe in their ability to try to do it themselves. You aren’t lying or giving them false hope by telling them they can achieve something impossible. You’re letting them know you believe in their ability to give themselves a chance to simply try. Saying things like “I believe in you and I know you can try” can boost their confidence. If external motivation works for your child, use it! (“If you try to dance in your ballet class today, you can have an extra 15 minutes of screen time before dinner.”) And if they build up enough courage to put the effort in, keep the confidence coming — and make sure it stays centered around them. Don’t congratulate yourself with “See? I told you!” — instead, give them all the credit they deserve. Saying “You dove in the water twice! How did that feel?” acknowledges their effort and your pride in them. It also helps them understand that a stressful feeling can turn into one of accomplishment and satisfaction.

  4. Take care of yourself in the in-between moments All of these steps are hard work! The best way to keep your bodies and minds learning in these moments is to make sure you’re taking care of the basics. This means making sure to take care of your own essential needs between those moments of stressful softball games or play tryouts or math homework. Make sure that you and your child are taking breaks to get enough sleep, eating meals to nourish your bodies and minds, and spending some time doing the other things that really fill your bucket or bring you some peace. 

Letting your child experience stress might be a challenge for you both in the short term. But learning how to recognize and deal with stress — before it becomes a long-term issue — is a life lesson that your child will benefit from forever.

Still have questions or need support with a chronic or more serious issue with stress? Get in touch with Brightline today. We’re here to help.