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If an adult believes it is necessary to help a child cope with stress, several approaches are available and may be used alone or in any combination.

1.  Label feelings and link them to the event.  Children are not always able to recognize symptoms.  Adults can help children understand the symptoms and recognize the events that cause them.  It can help a young child to say, “It seems you’re angry at Jimmy because he wouldn’t share his toys.”  I often start the statement with “If I were you, I might be feeling             because of            .”

Similarly the statement “You’re feeling betrayed by Janet because she shared a confidence,” helps an older child label an emotion and relate it to a cause. These statements may help children discuss their feelings and find ways to deal with them. However, parents may also need to help children find appropriate ways to deal with their emotions.

We do not always know what a child is feeling or the cause of these feelings.  To find out, it can be helpful to ask questions.  For example, “Would you like to talk about what is troubling you?” may be sufficient.  This question allows the child to feel free to discuss the problem yet permits the option of privacy.  “What happened at school today to upset you?” or “You seem down; what is going on?” are also questions that indicate concern and willingness to help.  The knowledge that someone cares is usually very helpful in coping with a stressful situation and may provide enough support to allow the child to successfully deal with the problem independently.

2.  Provide emotional support.  It is important for adults to acknowledge children’s feelings as valid.  Emotions are not right or wrong.  They are an individual’s response to an event based upon their perceptions.  Therefore, while your perceptions may differ from your children’s, you must acknowledge your children’s right to feel as they do.  When children know that adults respect their feelings, they will be more willing to allow adults to help them examine and cope with these feelings.

Empathize with your children.  They need to know that they are not alone in experiencing stress and that their reactions to stress are normal.  Adolescents, in particular, often believe that no one else has ever experienced the depth of emotions that they are experiencing.  This is one reason why adolescents are particularly vulnerable to feelings of isolation that increase the stress they experience.  When adults show empathy, it eases the pain caused by feelings of isolation and helps children believe their feelings are understood by others.

Children may see a situation as “hopeless.”  It is important to reassure children that the problem will not always exist and that things will improve.  This does not imply that adults should make light of a situation children perceive as serious.  Rather, reassurance is designed to help children recognize that stressful situations are not permanent.

Children should be recognized for the things they do well.  Praise can sustain them during times of stress.  Children as well as adults need to know they are valued and respected.  Praise provides concrete proof of that.It is important to praise children’s accomplishments in more than one area.  Do not praise them only for getting good grades or doing well in sports.  Look for success in school, with friends and siblings and in responsibilities at home.  Focus on physical, intellectual, social, and emotional areas.  This will help children develop into well-rounded individuals who recognize that their worth is not dependent upon success in one particular area.  This knowledge can help eliminate many potentially stressful events.

Help Kids with Stress

Breathing exercises are another physical means to control stress. Mini-Stress Busters work great for this! These exercises help the body to relax and are easy for children to learn.  However, it is the responsibility of adults to help recognize the symptoms of stress and to teach children physical responses to deal with stress.

Often the feeling of lack of control in a situation causes stress.  Children may need to learn to actively deal with stressful events.  Rather than passively accepting another child’s verbal abuse, a child may need to learn to be more assertive.  Developing this skill will enable the child to do something about the stressful event and help eliminate future stressful events.  

Adults need to provide children with a wide array of experiences.  Through these experiences, children will learn they are competent, capable beings who can function in a variety of settings.  Children also will learn that a failure is not the end of the world.  However, you should plan experiences in which your children are likely to succeed.  This builds a foundation for high self-esteem that helps fortify children when they face stressful situations.

It is not an adult’s responsibility to eliminate all stress from children’s lives.  This is not possible or desirable.  However, helping children learn to deal with stress will enable them to deal with the inevitable stress that is in all of our lives.

Adapted from an article by Karen L. Bauer.

Children with predictable routines experience less stress than those whose schedules are continually changing.  This means that mealtimes and bedtimes are generally at the same hour and that a school day follows a general pattern.  However, there should be some flexibility so that changes are possible and are dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner. Change does not equal chaos, and change is an inevitable part of life.  By setting Limits, parents provide structure and room to grow and develop.

“Time out” is one of the best methods of providing control, and an entire section of Dr. Messenger’s book is devoted to implementing Time Out effectively.  (See Secrets of the Third Little Pig.)  When children’s behavior is inappropriate, they can be sent to a designated place to calm down.  Removing them from the disturbing situation helps them regain control of emotions and behavior.  Once this happens the adult can help the child find effective ways to cope with the stressful problem.  

4.  Help children develop coping skills.  Many stress reduction activities have been developed to help individuals cope with stress.  Most of these techniques can be modified for children and can be highly effective in helping children deal with stressful events. Teaching, practicing and modeling appropriate coping skills in the whole point of Solution-Focused Therapy.

Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and the harmful effects stress can have on mind and body.  Children can learn to deal with stress by taking a walk, riding a bicycle, swimming, or engaging in other strenuous physical activity.  

Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.                        ~Virginia Satir