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10 Healthy Responses When Your Child is Stressed - Help them Cope Better

As a professional who regularly meets with students and listens to the concerns of their parents, lately I have sensed a shift in  ‘I just want my kids to be happy’ to ‘I wish my kids were less stressed.’ Our students are not immune to cultural demands, our changing society and even financial woes. Since kids regularly experience stress, we can all benefit from expert advice.

See the signs of stress

Symptoms of stress you may notice in your child:

• Stomach aches

• Changes in sleep

• Eating too much or too little

• Change in mood

• Trouble managing anger

• Social withdrawal

• Trouble concentrating

• Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Healthy parental responses

It’s always a good idea to seek professional help if you’re concerned.

Helpful tips from Jan Jewett and Karen Peterson of the Clearinghouse for Early Education and Parenting (CEEP) offer additional rooted-in-research-responses:

1.  Provide supportive environments where children can play out or use art materials to express their concerns (Gross & Clemens, 2002).

2.  Help children identify a variety of coping strategies (e.g. “Ask for help if someone is teasing you”; “tell them you don’t like it”; “walk away”).

3.  Help children recognize, name, accept and express their feelings appropriately.

4. Teach children relaxation techniques. Consider suggesting to a child such things as, “Take three deep breaths”; “count backwards”; “tense and release your muscles”; “play with play dough”; “dance”; “imagine a favorite place to be and visit that place in your mind” (use creative imagery) (O’Neill, 1993).

5. Practice positive self-talk skills (e.g. “I’ll try. I think I can do this”) to help in promoting stress management (O’Neill, 1993).

Model better coping

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests these tips for parents based upon their meaningful study of Stress in America:

6. Evaluate your lifestyle. Children are more likely to lead a healthy lifestyle and less likely to associate stress with unhealthy behaviors if the whole family practices healthy living and good stress management techniques. Ask yourself: ‘How do I respond to stress? Do I tend to overeat or engage in other unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, when I feel stressed? In what ways could my stress coping skills be improved?’

7. Talk about it. If your child seems worried or stressed, ask them what’s on their minds. Having regular conversations can help a family work together to better understand and address any stressors children are experiencing. Low levels of parental communication have been associated with poor decision making among children and teens. Talking to your children and promoting open communication and problem-solving is just as important as eating well and getting enough exercise and sleep.

8. Create a healthy environment. Your home, work space and even social environment can influence behaviors. Altering your environment can help alleviate stress. For example, organizing a cluttered environment may help. Look around at home and ask yourself: ‘Does this space feel clear and relaxing?’

9. Focus on yourself. The correlation between health, obesity and unhealthy choices is strong. When you and your family are experiencing stress, make a conscious decision to take care of yourselves. Get adequate doses of nutrients, physical activity and sleep. When you feel overwhelmed, it is easy to fall into cycles of eating fast food, plugging into sedentary electronic activities or not getting enough sleep. Research shows that children who are sleep-deficient are more likely to have behavioral problems. A healthy dinner followed by physical activity then a good night’s sleep can do a lot to manage the negative effects of stress.

10. Change one habit at a time. Even though you aspire to make multiple important changes at once such as eating healthier foods, being more physically active, sleeping better or spending more time together, you don’t want to become overwhelmed. Modifying behaviors takes time. Start by changing one behavior and then build from there.

For more information on stress, visit the APA Helpcenter at

Michele Ranard, M.Ed., has a husband, two children and a master’s in counseling. 

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