Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant
Over the past year, people throughout the world have experienced new stressors, including a global pandemic, economic hardship, food insecurity, and the shutdown of many workplaces and schools. All of these have contributed to rising stress levels in children. Here are six things caregivers can do to help children cope with stress:
1) Recognize subtle signs of stress.
Children often experience and express stress differently than adults. Young children, especially, may not have the tools to clearly communicate how they’re feeling. It’s important for caregivers to recognize more subtle signs of stress in children so they can support their little ones and help them find healthy ways to cope with their feelings. Signs may include emotional or behavioral changes; new fears (i.e., fear of the dark); unexplained anger or tantrums; crying spells; nightmares, clinginess, or regressive behaviors (such as bed-wetting after being fully potty trained).
It’s also common for children with high-stress levels to report physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches that have no underlying medical cause.
2) Talk about new emotions and behaviors.
Caregivers can help children cope with stress by acknowledging emotions and behaviors out loud, in a nonjudgmental way. By saying things like, “I noticed you seem really angry today -- is that something you’d like to talk about?” caregivers create a space where children feel safe to open up about how they’re feeling inside.
This open dialogue can help children feel heard and understood, and it gives them the opportunity to receive support and guidance as they navigate their concerns.
Talking with children about stress is also helpful because it helps children find the vocabulary to articulate and express how they feel. Instead of acting out on strong emotions they can’t understand or explain, children can begin to identify how they’re feeling and why, and then use language to express their feelings.
3) Engage in stress-relieving activities.
Caregivers should encourage their little ones to engage in activities that relieve stress, improve mood, and lower anxiety. Examples of these activities include coloring, imaginative play, assembling puzzles, and reading books. Other stress-lowering activities include deep breathing, muscle relaxation, music, and dance.
Giving children a physical outlet for their stress can be helpful as well. Kicking a soccer ball, hitting a baseball, pounding play dough, or squeezing a stress ball allow children an opportunity to relieve pent-up emotions.
4) Spend more time together.
It’s important for caregivers to spend as much time with their little ones as possible, especially when a child’s stress levels are high. This quality time allows natural opportunities for children to talk about how they’re feeling throughout the day.
Also, having a trusted caregiver nearby helps children feel safe. Creating a safe environment is one of the most effective ways to lower children’s stress levels because it’s easier for them to relax when they feel protected from outside pressures.
5) Be aware of what they’re watching.
Children’s stress can be exacerbated by what they read and watch. Limiting a child’s exposure to scary books, TV shows or movies can protect them from feeling more anxious or fearful than they already do.
It’s also important to monitor how much news children are exposed to since many children can’t cope with a constant barrage of news stories that heighten their fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.
6) Teach by example.
Since children imitate adults, caregivers can teach little ones how to cope with stress by modeling healthy stress-lowering behaviors. Caregivers who calmly talk about their feelings, get plenty of exercise, make healthy food choices, practice deep breathing, meditate, and use creative outlets to express themselves can provide healthy examples for little ones to follow.