Reducing Stress in Children and Teens: Tips for Parents

Parents don’t have to look far to see that their children are impacted by both academic and social pressures.  By some indications, teens now report even more stress than adults.  As curricula become more rigorous and testing more high-stakes, the pressure to succeed academically weighs heavily on students at increasingly younger ages.  Meanwhile, students are navigating the stress of making and keeping friendships, social media, bullying, and lockdown drills.  All of this is overlaid by an ever-growing array of extracurricular activities and commitments. How can parents help children and teens manage this stress? Through tuning into core personal values, fostering problem-solving approaches, and highlighting proper self-care, parents can help children manage their stress.

Mindfulness.  Mindfulness can be thought of as a state of intentional attention to the present. Often, children concern themselves with the “what if” and worry about the future. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve perspective taking and emotional control among other benefits for children. There are a variety of mindfulness practices which can be used with children. One of the simplest ways to begin practicing mindfulness is to observe one’s breathing. There are a number of apps such as Simple Habit, Headspace, and Calm that provide short meditation exercises.  For those that prefer to be active, yoga and meditative walking are both effective mindfulness practices.  Yoga apps such as Daily Yoga, Kids Fitness, or 5 Minute Yoga are helpful. Whether you are still or moving, the key to mindfulness is to deliberately bring awareness to the present and focus on your mind and body.

Problem Solving.  A fundamental developmental task for individuals is learning how to solve problems.  Learning to solve one’s own problems results in lower stress, in part through the development of self-efficacy, or the feeling of competence when one is able to manage situations on their own.  Parents have an important role to play in scaffolding children through the problem-solving process, while avoiding the urge to jump in and simply solve the problem for your child.  Rather than giving the solution, it is more effective to help coach your child through the stages of identifying the problem, generating a number of creative solutions, evaluating the pros and cons of each, selecting one to try, and then checking in to see how well it worked.

Turning Down the Volume on Social Media.  In today’s society, a critical way for children and adolescents to remain connected to their friends is through social media.  While it is a significant part of modern teen culture, all the messaging, posting, and perusing through friend’s Snaps and Instagrams can become socially and emotionally overwhelming.  Sometimes your child may be concerned about not being in the loop or experience a fear of missing out (FOMO) when they are not connected to social media.  It is helpful to model and teach your child that friendships and social opportunities remain even when they miss the occasional post or outing with friends.  In addition, creating opportunities for your child to tune out from their social media and enjoy their family time or other pleasurable activities helps to balance the intense need to be connected online.

Engaging in Pleasurable Activities.  A common source of stress is the hectic nature of our lives.  Between school, homework, and extra-curricular activities, many children have far less free time for play and relaxation than previous generations.  Encourage your child to prioritize the extra-curricular activities that are most important to them and seek to arrange schedules in a way that allow for down time during their week to enjoy simple but pleasurable activities like walks, listening to music, indoor and outdoor play, or a relaxing bubble bath.

Prioritize Family Time.  Taking time to connect with family members helps reduce stress and strengthens the relationship that children rely on most to help manage their stress.  As a family, set aside time each day (e.g., family dinner) or each week (e.g., Sunday afternoon outings or Tuesday evening game night) to disconnect from electronics, chores, and that nagging “to do” list, to just enjoy being with family.  A family walk, bike ride, swim, or dance party can serve this role while simultaneously providing physical activity for both children and parents, creating a   win-win opportunity.

Eating. Most people now understand the importance of good eating habits for physical health, but did you know that both eating the right foods helps children perform better academically and is beneficial to mental health and stress reduction? Encourage children to eat a variety of healthful foods, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.  Make cooking and eating meals together an enjoyable part of your family routine by listening to music, telling jokes, or listening to an interesting podcast together.  Family meals offer an opportunity to connect and talk about your child’s daily life.

Sleeping. Similarly, sufficient sleep is critical for children’s well-being overall and stress in particular.  The recommended amount of sleep each day for children varies by age, but can be substantially more than adults need. Grade schoolers, for instance, need a minimum of 9 hours of sleep per night.  To encourage healthy sleep, begin by working backwards from your child’s waking time to establish a bedtime that allows for enough sleep, then build up a bedtime routine that helps calm children before they settle in for the night.

Exercise. The connection between physical exercise and stress reduction is becoming widely known.  This relationship is thought to be related to physical changes that happen in the body when individuals exercise.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes (not necessarily consecutive) of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day for children 6 years old and over. For children, particularly younger children, their natural affinity for active play serves many functions for them, including stress reduction. Encourage your child to use their bodies to run, jump, climb and explore as much as possible. Older children and adolescents often slow down because of increases in their workload.  Encourage them to find what they enjoy, be it organized sports, dance, yoga class, swim lessons, martial arts, bike riding or taking a hike.  Like eating and sleeping, building an enjoyable routine around physical activity helps it become a habit that is easier to maintain.

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