Do your kids complain about being stressed? How do you help them cope with it?
Experts agree on the following points:
Listen to Them: What’s Going On? How Are They Feeling?
It’s important to sit your kids down and ask them what’s happening and how they feel. Then, listen calmly and non-judgmentally to what they have to say. “Children learn (and take cues) from the adults around them,” says child psychologist Dr. Lyn O’Grady, “so adults need to be mindful of how they approach stressful situations.” If you overreact to what they are telling you, they most likely will overreact, too. But if you stay calm and collected, you will have a much easier time helping them cope with whatever they are dealing with. As clinical psychologist, Dr. Barbara Greenberg succinctly puts it, “No child wants to talk to a parent who is losing her cool.”
Child psychotherapist Katie Hurley, The Happy Kids Handbook’s author, says that “knowing that you will listen and help them empowers them to work through their stress, instead of stuffing it down and potentially making it worse.” Remember that your kids are not looking for you to solve all of their problems once and for all. Instead, they are looking for you to truly listen to them as a way for them to work through their issues independently. “Sometimes,” says child psychologist Dr. Jamie Howard, “parents avoid having conversations with kids because they’re worried they won’t say the right thing or they won’t know how to answer their questions.” But the truth is that there is no such thing as the one correct answer. Failing to make yourself available to your kids when they need you the most is the only wrong thing.
Reassure Your Kids That They Are Strong and Capable
Listening to your kids is an important first step, but you also need to reassure them that they are strong and capable of coping with whatever stresses them out. Experts agree that you should try to convince your kids that it’s better to confront their stressors head-on than to shy away from them. “If a child faces his or her fears,” says professor of child psychology Dr. Amy Przeworski, “the child will learn that the anxiety reduces naturally over time.”
Dr. Przeworski says it’s also important to cultivate a positive outlook since stressed kids tend to get lost in negative thoughts and self-criticism. She explains, “They may focus on how the glass is half empty instead of half-full and worry about future events. The more you are able to focus on your child’s positive attributes and the good aspects of a situation, the more that will remind your child to focus on the positives.”
It’s helpful to give your kids some perspective by reminding them of how they dealt with similar situations in the past, which turned out all right. When confronted by a stressful situation, it’s easy for kids and adults to lose perspective and forget the previous times they faced a similar situation and that the outcome was not so bad after all.
Help Your Kids Experiment With Various Coping Techniques
Once your kids are reassured that they can handle stressful situations, try to experiment with various coping techniques. A one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with stress doesn’t exist, but specific, time-tested techniques have proven effective.
One useful coping technique is to have your kids write down what’s causing them to be stressed. It teaches them to articulate what’s bothering them instead of bottling it up and helps them work through the problem and what to do about it. Mrs. Hurley suggests that they write down their stressors “on a piece of paper, read them to you, and then tear them up and throw them away for the night. This helps kids express their worries and let go of them.”
Another coping technique is to aim for balance in your kids’ lives. Instead of insisting they do well at school at all costs, emphasize that to be happy and stress-free, kids also need time for play and physical exercise. Dr. Greenberg suggests that parents sit down with their kids “and come up with a well-balanced schedule that includes all three of these important aspects of life.” When engaged in play or physical exercise, kids have the time to let their minds be free to come up with creative solutions to their sources of stress.
Make Sure Your Kids’ Physical Needs Are Met
Finally, make sure your kids’ physical needs are met. As Dr. Greenberg puts it, “none of us at any age can deal with pressure effectively if we’re exhausted and hungry.” This advice applies to you as much as it does to your kids. You need to be well-rested and satisfied to listen to and support your kids.
Tanni Haas is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences & Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College