How to Help Kids Cope and Deal with Stress

When I first set out to write this I started to think about stress from a kid’s perspective. I have two daughters aged 14 and 9 and they encounter stressful situations on a weekly basis. I thought about their unique personalities and developmental stages, but what I realized as I looked at what causes stress and how we can deal with it, is that it’s not that different between adults and kids or teens. The difference is that as adults, we should be more emotionally mature to recognize and cope with stress.

First, let’s define what stress is: Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. We all experience it, but it’s the circumstances or stressors that vary the most per individual. What we need to do as parents, relatives or adults in a position of working with kids, is to recognize what the stressors are and how they are dealt with. It is important to know how to identify how stress manifests itself in the individual.

Recognizing and managing a stressed child:

There is no slam dunk technique to recognize when a child is stressed in every instance, but short-term behavioural changes, (mood swings, acting up, crying, etc.), and physical effects such as stomach aches and rapid breathing are good indicators. If you recognize signs of stress in a child, speak up. Communication, used appropriately, is key. Don’t make the situation worse but tell the child that you notice. Talk about what is causing the stress. It may be beyond the scope of their coping mechanisms to identify why they feel stressed. It’s valuable to identify the feelings and label them; frustration, anger, embarrassment are feelings that kids need to know in name and description. Patience and a good ear are the best ways to de-escalate the feelings, but it is also great to have some tools in the kit that can help the child deal with stress on their own.

Coping tools:

Breathe. Have you ever seen a big sports event that focuses on an athlete just as he or she is about to attempt something important? A baseball player stepping into the batter’s box with the bases loaded, a basketball player stepping up for free throws with the game on the line, a golfer needing to make a 6-foot putt to win the tournament; are some examples we can picture. What do we see them do more often than not? Taking a deep breath, and forced exhale is commonplace in these situations. Why do they do it? Because it works. Teach children to breathe. Practice the square breathing method with them. 4 seconds in, 4 second hold, 4 second exhale and a 4 second wait and repeat. Breathing regulates our heartrate and blood pressure, it helps give us brain enhancing oxygen and expels the CO2. Breathing when feeling stressed is something we can teach kids of all ages.

Assess. The other most basic coping tool is figure out the severity of the situation. We evolved to react to threats and dangers by reacting internally within our bodies. Feelings of anger, nervousness, or fear are primal. The only problem we encounter with these bodily reactions is that we generally don’t need them anymore. Our lives are much safer and less threatening than they were thousands of years ago when these physical characteristics became part of our physiology. Ask kids to assess the situation when they feel stressed. For example, if a teacher asks a child to participate by speaking in class, it is calming to know that being nervous is natural but assessing the threat level will help even more. Teach kids to ask themselves if they are in danger, is there any physical harm to me in this situation? The answer is usually no, and this puts the situation and feelings into perspective.

Recognition and management of stress and stressful situations are invaluable tools that kids and adults alike should use regularly. Breathing strategies and assessment of stressful situations are just two key techniques that will help kids to deal with stress.

Chris Tremblay

Regional Coordinator, Eastern Canada, BOKS (Build Our Kids’ Success)