All of us have to manage stress on a daily basis. That stress may come from overwork, strained relationships, worry, low self-esteem, or even boredom. Stress is a normal and necessary part of life because it helps us stay focused and gives us a sense of purpose. However, when we go through periods of high stress for an extended length of time we can become distraught and even feel hopeless.
Children experience stress, too. It may seem that many problems a child or teen faces are not significant compared to adult worries; however, proportionally, their stress can be just as debilitating as an adult facing financial, work or marital stress. Since their coping skills are not as well-developed, their stress can still seem just as overwhelming.
There are some stressors, though, that should not be the burdens of children or teens. Make sure their pressures are reasonable for their age and development level. Minimize unhealthy family stressors, such as ongoing drama, dysfunctional communication, or adult worries. You are most likely their primarily role model for handling stress; make sure they are not feeding off of your unhealthy stress management skills, such as anger, over-sleeping, withdrawing, complaining, or self-destructive habits.
Teaching your child to cope with stress is extremely valuable in helping them to become mentally stable and able to persevere through challenges they will face as adults.
1. Spend time with your child. Making yourself available is one of the most significant ways you can give support. While not every opportunity to spend time together will result in a deep, meaningful conversation, those one-on-one times together create the opportunity to have discussions that never would happen otherwise.
2. Encourage activities with family and friends – Try to keep them engaged so that they do not socially withdraw or shut down. Social isolation often feeds our negative, self-defeating thoughts that drive up our stress and anxiety.
3. Teach them to focus on this moment or this day, only, rather than focusing on future fears and anxieties. Help your child to appreciate each day and find joy in the moment they are in. So many children and adults live their lives so focused on future “what-if’s” that they miss living out right now.
4. Break tasks down into small, manageable steps. Much of our anxiety comes from focusing on everything that can go wrong or thinking of having to accomplish everything right away. Helping your child focus on the very next step and seeing their successes along the way helps them work their way through any challenge.
5. Give them something to look forward to, like weekend activities, family game nights, family vacations. Having something that encourages your child to persevere through the stress of each day or each week gives them a sense of hope and a little light at the end of the tunnel.
6. Teach them healthy ways of expressing their needs – teach them how to speak assertively – teach them a good vocabulary of feeling words so they can express more than just anger and sadness. Recognizing when you are feeling rejected, embarrassed, lonely, guilty or fulfilled will empower your child to express themselves in ways that can help identify and resolve their problems instead of withdrawing or acting out.
7. Teach your child the importance of self-care. Any one of us can only do so much. We all need downtime where we can just relax and do whatever recharges our batteries. It’s okay to ask for help, take time off from certain activities, or to say NO to certain obligations.
Stress is not always a bad thing, as it teaches us to manage difficult situations. Allowing children and teens to resolve some issues on their own helps build confidence. Sometimes it is best to just be there as a support, not as a rescuer.
The most impactful lessons your child or teen will learn about handling stress is what they observe by watching you. If you want them to learn these coping skills, you will have to evaluate your own ways of managing stress and be sure that you are demonstrating positive and empowering strategies for your child.
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker & Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.