How to Help Your Kids Deal With Stress

While we can't completely remove stress from their lives, we can equip them with tools they can use when they feel overwhelmed.

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Getty Images

If you’re a parent, you try your best to arm your children with the tools they’ll need to handle obstacles that come their way. And with back-to-school season in full swing, it’s only natural for our kids to feel overwhelmed or anxious about the beginning of the new school year. While we can’t completely remove stress from their lives, we can equip them with in-the-moment strategies for them to try when they feel overwhelmed.

We asked our Thrive community to share with us the strategies that allow them to help their kids to deal with stress, especially during back-to-school season. Which of these tips will you try?

Validate what they’re feeling

“One of the best ways to help a child navigate difficult emotions is to acknowledge that they’re having a tough time and inviting them to get curious about where the feeling lives in their bodies. Sometimes just being seen and heard versus being told to calm down is enough to diffuse them. And having them identify the feelings in the body distracts them from the negative thoughts and starts to give them mastery of emotions.”

—Adriane David, transition coach, Calgary, AB Canada

Give them a journal

“My husband and I are raising our 14-year-old grandson. He has a lot of anxiety and depression and can get easily overwhelmed. Ever since he was little, I have encouraged him to keep a journal where he could freely express himself and let out his fears, anger, joy, or sorrow. I also have him start his day with writing something positive or motivational, as it puts his mindset in a positive space for the day. He ends his day with a gratitude journal, finding something to be thankful for, especially on the hard days.”

—Kathy L, human resources specialist, Craig, CO

Do breathing exercises together

“As a parent of two kids in school, my wife and I know what stress can look like. As a family practice, we work on slow breathing. Three deep breaths can work to reset the brain, nervous system and calm the nerves. If that doesn’t work we always remind our kids to speak up and express their feelings. Open communication is essential.”

—Joshua Miller, master certified executive coach, Austin, TX

Encourage them to take a break for movement 

“Being a teenager is hard, and managing schoolwork, college applications, and extracurricular activities can be challenging. I encourage teens to take a moment and move their bodies when they start feeling stressed. I tell them they can go outside and walk around the block, dance in their living room or bedroom, or shake their arms and do a few jumping jacks — whatever feels right for them. I explain that they might think taking a break is the last thing they should do when they are busy, but that’s not true. Pushing themselves when their mind and body need rest can lead to burnout. I explain that if they stop for two to three minutes to get their blood flowing and let the tension out, they will be more relaxed and have increased energy to get everything done. I help them understand that taking care of themselves is productive!”

—Farrah Smith, life coach, Los Angeles, CA

Help them find how they express themselves best

“My eldest daughter, who just turned 16, turned to poetry in the moments of her deepest stress last year. She had been self-harming and not eating well. Pouring her emotions into poetry truly helped her. She ended up standing on stage at a TEDx event here in Luxembourg reciting one of her poems, coming a long way from what she had been like a few months before that. So, for her, writing it out as poetry, was the flow release.”

—Lisa, broadcaster, Luxembourg

Introduce “box breathing”

“This year my youngest child started high school and it was a major transition for her. Her first day did not go as smoothly as we would have liked. Schedules got mixed up and she ended up in the wrong rooms at the wrong times.There were tears at the end of the day as the stress and pent of anxiety finally had an outlet away from the eyes of new classmates and teachers. Day two had to be different, so I taught her my go-to tactic for calming my nerves before any big challenge; Box Breathing. US Navy Seals use Box Breathing when they are preparing to face their greatest challenges. Together at the breakfast table we breathed: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4, exhale for a steady 4, on repeat.”

—Eimear Zone, leadership and confidence coach, Santa Fe, NM

Take time to listen

My heart dropped when I read the prompt, because the thought of a stressed out child is soul-crushing to me. As one who was regularly stressed myself, I can say that it helped me so much when my mom would simply listen to me. As a child, our fears are irrational (don’t get me wrong, the same case is true in adults), and having someone listen to and validate those fears does wonders. Your kids are tiny little geniuses, treat them with the same respect you would a close friend. Listen, learn, and be there. That is all any of us can do.

—Natalie Constable, brand strategist, Tulsa, OK

Teach them the tapping technique

“When it comes to helping kids relieve anxiety and stress, I am a firm believer in EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as tapping. A simple few taps on the underside part of the hand (the karate chop part of the hand) with the first two fingers of the other hand is a discreet yet powerful method to instantly calm and ease any nerves or anxiety. I have taught this to my son and he taps before writing an exam, delivering a speech or stepping into any perceived ‘threat’ situation.”

—Candice Tomlinson, coach and hypnotherapist, Sydney, Australia

Try tension releasing exercises 

“I practice and teach tension releasing exercises. They release tension and stress by literally, shaking it off. How do kids and teens relax? Many probably find relief in sport, others might embrace mindfulness or even meditation. Tension releasing exercises are a bit more unique, and it might even be fun. Many young people enjoy its novelty. Practicing TRE really means you are lying on your back like a beetle, shaking. Would your child or teenager cringe? Or are they intrigued and curious enough to give it a try? After all, it’s a tool that can make them calmer and more resilient.”

—Sylvia Tillmann, TRE provider, Kent, Great Britain

Encourage them to try a “brain dump”

“I encourage them to pull out their favorite pen and settle in for a ‘brain dump.’ A brain dump is simply the act of dumping their mind’s contents onto paper. They can write their thoughts and feelings in list form, paragraphs, sketches, or any other way they like. I tell them not to overthink their writing or worry about grammar. To simply let the words flow without judgment. Allowing the clutter to spill onto the page will give them a sense of relief from the pressure of having it swirling around in their head. Having a clear mind will help them relax and make it much easier to focus on the tasks they need to get done, like preparing for an exam or writing a paper. It will also give them mental space for new ideas and thoughts to take root.”

—Farrah Smith, life coach, Los Angeles, CA

Model healthy coping strategies

“I intentionally model coping with stress in my own life for my kids to observe. Sitting on the floor playing blocks with my toddler, I ‘accidentally’ knock down the stack I am working on and show my frustration, and then say, ‘I’m going to take three deep breaths and remind myself it’s ok to be upset, and I can start again.’ It’s amazing to see my two-year-old later knock down her own blocks and instantly place her hand on her chest and start breathing deeply, without ever being directly told. They really are watching us closely!”

—Rachel McEvoy, LICSW, mental health therapist, Seattle, WA

Help them reframe

“My daughter asked me how to manage stress today because she had to do her first presentation in front of the class. My first piece of advice was to replace the word ‘stress’ with being ‘nervous,’ because the words we use have a direct impact on our physiology. I told her we could practice the speech every day until the due date because we learn through repetition. I also reframed how it’s normal to feel nervous because she’s never done it before. Once she’s had the experience of presenting in front of the class, she will know what to expect, and the next time will feel more manageable. By breaking it down into a plan and making her in charge of the process, she will learn how to manage her overwhelming feelings and focus on what she can control.” 

—Lori Milner, coach and trainer, Johannesburg, South Africa 

Celebrate what they love to do

“I have a 15-year old son, and the educational system in Greece is extremely stressful. My son is talented in music, and he attends a special music high school, with an overhead of 12 hours per week on top of the normal educational syllabus. Free time is non-existent and pressure accumulates over the week. I encourage my son to exercise physically, playing his favorite music while doing so. I often propose short evening walks to wind down at the end of the day, and during the days I work remotely, I try to make him feel I am there for him and he can ask me for help anytime.”

—Eri Leftherioti, IT engineer, Athens, Greece

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