Pediatric HealthSource: Helping Children Manage Stress
Q: What can I do to help my children better manage stress?
A: The most important thing to do is talk with them and, in turn, listen. Children don’t naturally know how to manage their feelings. It’s our job as parents to teach them healthy ways to process emotions and to make sure they know that sadness, anger and stress occasionally interrupt happiness and feelings of wellness. Parents can help by modeling how they navigate their own emotions while teaching coping strategies that work best for them.
Coping skills for distress resulting from situations that cannot be changed (loss, moving, divorce) often help children identify, express and manage their situation, rather than convincing them to change their feelings.
Helpful techniques include:
- Count off 10 deep breaths or do deep breathing for one to two minutes.
- Play with a pet or favorite toy.
- Draw or write about the problem.
- Talk to a parent.
- Use positive self-talk.
- Listen to music.
The same skills can help with negative emotions that stem from stressful situations where change is possible but difficult, such as feeling overwhelmed in school, relationship issues or misbehavior that leads to negative consequences. These issues can be best managed by empowering children to come up with solutions and realize that they have some control over how the situations are resolved. Encourage them to talk with you about their feelings and how they can appropriately express themselves.
Always consult your child’s pediatrician concerning your child’s health.
For more information about children’s mental health and to help break the stigma around mental health, visit onoursleeves.org.
Parker L. Huston, Ph.D., is a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
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When to Get Help
Sudden functional or behavior changes might be a sign that help is needed. (If you’re concerned about the safety of your child or someone in your family, call 911 immediately.) Call a mental health professional if one of the changes below lasts for longer than a week:
- Acting out. While outbursts and meltdowns are a normal part of child development, they may be concerning if they become severe or continue beyond the age when a parent thinks it is appropriate.
- Withdrawal. Children sometimes express anxiety and sadness by withdrawing from loved ones. If your child doesn’t want to interact with friends and family or loses interest in activities they once enjoyed, talk with them about how they’re feeling.
- Sleep changes. A significant increase or decrease in sleep can be another sign of underlying mood or anxiety problems.
- Self-harm. A child who engages in self-destructive behaviors such as hair pulling, skin picking or cutting needs help, as does a child who talks about suicide.