Teaching Children and Teens How to Deal with Stress

When your child or teen is experiencing high levels of stress, it’s tempting as a parent to want to fix it or make it go away. After all, no parent likes to see their child unhappy. Unfortunately, fixing the problem does nothing to teach your children the coping skills he or she will need in the future—when you’re not around. Kids experience stress for a number of reasons, from problems with family and friends to overcommitted schedules. If they don’t learn how to appropriately manage the stress, they may turn to poor behavior or unhealthy forms of self-medication. If you suspect that your child is overly stressed, here are some things that could help:

  • Be a positive role model. When kids live in an environment where their parents are stressed, that behavior is likely to trickle down to them. Begin by learning how to manage your own stress and let your kids observe you in slow-down mode. At the same time, organize your household in a way that minimizes chaos.
  • Create downtime. Like all of us, children and teens need time for their bodies to rest and their brains to relax. But many kids struggle to keep up with overscheduled days and evenings, running from school to after-school activities to homework. It’s a vicious cycle that promotes  poor eating, lack of sleep and other unhealthy habits. Cut back on the activities, and stress levels will likely subside.
  • Encourage movement. The benefits of physical exercise are widely touted, including the role it plays in reducing stress. However, some of that movement should take place in a non-pressure environment that is both competition-free and lesson-free. It’s not necessary to link a goal to every activity. Instead, encourage your kids to ride their bikes or toss the ball around for fun.
  • Mandate adequate amounts of sleep and healthy eating. Mom was right about this one. Most things really do seem better after a good night’s sleep. Children and teens who are over-committed and sleep-deprived will eventually start to wear down. Performance drops and stress levels rise. So make adequate sleep a priority. Likewise, good nutrition is necessary for a healthy mind and body. Encourage healthy eating habits on a daily basis.
  • Pay attention. Watch for signs of stress in your child’s life. Physical symptoms like headaches can be an indication that something is wrong. Strong emotions, like unexplained anger, frustration and irritability, may also be present. In older children, watch for behavior changes, a new set of friends or general withdrawal from social activities. These can be the warning signs that something is amiss.
  • Listen to your child. Often times, kids want to tell you what’s happening in their life, but they don’t know how. If you notice a change in your child’s behavior and you suspect there might be a problem, find out what’s going on. Even if he doesn’t open up right away, you’re sending the message that you care and that you’ll be there when he’s ready to talk. If he does respond to your inquiry, resist the urge to immediately pass judgment. Be patient, and get the whole story.
  • Teach your child how to be a problem-solver. Sure, you might be able to smooth things over and make it all right for now. But that’s not much help down the road. Instead, initiate a discussion about what to do, but let your child be the final decision-maker.
David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide.