Studies show that children and teens are more stressed out today than ever before. The combined pressures of schoolwork, high-stakes exams, social life, sports or other activities, plus lots of screen time have resulted in much higher levels of anxiety and stress among young people.
We can't completely eliminate stress for our children. Plus, shielding your child from the difficulties of life won’t do her any favors. It’s far more powerful to raise a resilient child who can bounce back from hardship and challenges.
Since stress is a natural part of life, your goal is to teach your child healthy strategies for coping with stress. You can start by following the five steps below.
Before you begin helping your child cope with stress, make sure that what they're stressing about is within their circle of control.
Use this PRINTABLE poster (part of our Growth Mindset Kit) to remind them that there are things which are out of their control and therefore, no need to stress and worry about them.
Step 1: Reframe Stress
Help your child shift from a “stress hurts” mindset to a “stress helps” mindset. Stress can be an impetus to growth if children understand that stressful situations won’t last forever. Instead, these situations represent challenges to overcome and lessons to learn.
Cognitive neuroscientist and author Ian Robertson compares the stress response system to the immune system: It gets stronger with practice.
After a strong stress response, the brain rewires itself to remember and learn from the experience. This is how the brain prepares you to handle similarly stressful situations the next time around.
“Children need to experience a certain amount of adversity so that both their body and mind become toughened and resilient.”
- Ian Roberson
Stress causes the brain to secrete a chemical called noradrenaline. The brain can’t perform at its best with too much noradrenaline, but guess what? Too little noradrenaline isn’t good either.
Reasonably low stress levels can actually build stronger brain function, which makes humans smarter and happier, according to Robertson.
Armed with the information above, you’re ready to help your child reframe stress. Follow the steps below to get started:
1) Adopt the “stress helps” mindset yourself. Accept that you can’t prevent stress, that some stress is actually beneficial, and that stress can be an opportunity to grow. If you don’t have this mindset, it will be almost impossible to teach it to your child. (Plus, reducing your own stress is vital—stress can be “contagious.” When your child senses your stress, it actually alters her physiology to automatically go into stress mode too.)
2) Understand the reasons behind your child’s stress, rather than dismiss it. To an adult, a child’s problems may seem trivial. But they seem big to the child, and they are causing the child genuine stress or discomfort.
3) Help your child reframe stress by discussing the following:
- Stress is a natural part of life.
- Stress comes and goes.
- Stressful situations can be beneficial if you learn from them, take action, and seek solutions. Provide examples from your own experiences.
4) Guide your child to find areas of growth or lessons that can come from her latest challenge.
- Ask your child to think of previous stressful situations. What did she learn from those experiences?
- What strengths did she use to handle these situations?
- What strengths can she use now?
Step 2: Shift from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset
Reframing stress means that your child will need to switch from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Studies show that even brief growth mindset training significantly reduces stress and improves grades among teens.
In stressful situations, we often feel overwhelmed and are more likely to fall into a fixed mindset thought process: There’s nothing much we can do to change the situation, our abilities are limited to what we can do, and we might as well stop trying.
For example, if your child is stressed about exams, he might think, “It doesn’t matter how much I study. I’ll never be able to pass these tests. It’s hopeless.”
Help your child look at the situation from a growth mindset perspective: It’s not fixed, it can be improved, and he does have the power to influence the situation.
If you hear your child say a fixed mindset statement like, “I can’t do this,” or, “I’m just not good at math,” help him find a growth mindset alternative. For suggestions and examples, view our My Growth Mindset Statements printable (part of our Growth Mindset Printables Kit 1&2).
Encourage your child to practice growth mindset affirmations, and remind her that putting forth effort and trying different solutions will help her solve the problem and reduce her stress.
Of course, a mindset shift doesn’t happen overnight. Throughout this process, focus on and celebrate incremental improvement.
“A lot of research is showing us that we do much better when we focus on incremental change, on little bits of improvement.”
- Amy Cuddy, Harvard psychologist
For more tips on teaching growth mindset, visit our 4-week guide for teaching growth mindset to kids.
Step 3: Stop Catastrophic Thinking
Often, children and teenagers (and sometimes adults) respond to stress with catastrophic thinking. “If I fail this test, my whole life is ruined!” or, “Sarah is being mean to me. No one will ever like me!”
When this occurs, start by validating your child’s emotions so she feels heard and understood. “I understand you’re feeling nervous about your algebra test.”
Next, use the “worst case scenario exercise.” Ask your child, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” If your child really does fail the test, or if Sarah keeps being mean, what’s the absolute worst thing that could happen?
You can also ask your child how likely it is that this scenario will happen, or if any other scenarios are MORE likely to occur. Conclude by asking, “What would you do if that did happen?” and help your child brainstorm if she struggles to come up with a solution.
Coming up with a potential solution will help your child feel more in control of her stress. Once she has a plan for the worst case scenario, she’ll also spend much less time worrying.
The purpose of this exercise is NOT to dismiss your child’s fears, but to help your child realize that the “worst thing” is probably not as catastrophic as she initially imagined.
Step 4: Practice Problem-Solving
Once your child has reframed stress and adopted a growth mindset, she needs to learn how to put these ideas into practice by problem-solving. This will likely take many examples, modeling, and real-life experience before it truly takes root.
You can find a variety of developmentally appropriate activities and strategies for teaching problem-solving here. A good starting point is to teach your child the following three-step process:
- Step One: Naming and validating emotions. Ask your child to name how she’s feeling—overwhelmed, worried, anxious—and then repeat it back to her. “I understand you’re worried that you won’t do well on your exam.”
- Step Two: Processing emotions. Guide your child to her calming space. If she doesn't have one, it's a good idea to create it (we recommend the Time-In Toolkit by Generation Mindful). Let her calm her body and process her emotions so she’s ready to problem solve, learn, and grow. You may have older children take deep breaths or practice some growth mindset affirmations. “I can do well on this test if I try.”
- Step Three: Problem Solving! Brainstorm solutions with your child, doing more listening than talking during the conversation. For instance, your child may come up with solutions such as studying with a friend who’s doing well in the class, asking the teacher for extra help, or devoting a certain amount of time to studying each day.
Once you’ve brainstormed solutions, help your child think through the positive and negative consequences of each proposed idea, then choose one. Your child may need prompting but aim to contribute only open-ended questions to the conversation, allowing your child to do most of the problem-solving herself.
If the initial plan (let’s call it Plan A) doesn’t work, your child will have numerous backup plans ready and waiting. Knowing this will make her problem much less stressful. And once she masters the art of problem-solving, she’ll have the tools she needs to tackle stressful situations on her own.
Use our handy problem-solving printable to practice this essential skill with your child (available in the Growth Mindset Printables Kit 1&2).
Step 5: Use Stress-Management Techniques
The techniques listed above will work best when your child is in a calm state of mind that’s conducive to thinking critically and logically. You can help your child achieve this calm state using stress-management techniques.
There are many strategies for managing stress, so consider trying a few of the techniques listed below to determine what works for your child:
- Deep breathing: Breathe in deeply, hold the breath for a moment, then slowly release it. Repeat the process until your child feels calmer.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Pretend you’re squeezing a lemon, then drop the lemon and relax. Pretend you’re squishing your toes deep into a mud puddle, then step out of the mud puddle and relax your feet.
- Stretching: This helps release built-up tension in muscles.
- Listening to music
- Playing, exercising, or heading out into nature
- Using brain breaks when facing a tough academic challenge
- Laughing: Laughter can be a great stress reliever. Make silly faces or tell jokes to calm your child before discussing the problem.
- “5-4-3-2-1” Technique: Identify five things you can currently see, four you can hear, three you can feel, two you can smell, and one you can taste.
- Meditation: Can be as simple as having your child close her eyes and breathe in and out. Tell your child to count each breath (a breath in and a breath out makes one single count), focusing on the sound of her breath. When she reaches at least a certain count (50, for example), your child can take a deep breath, release it slowly, and open her eyes.
- Mindfulness activities like the fun options described in our mindfulness printable bingo (part of Growth Mindset Printables Kit 1&2).
Remember that these techniques are not intended to eliminate the stress. Rather, they help your child reach a calm state of mind so she can address the source of her stress and solve the problem.
When we view all stress as negative and unhealthy and attempt to eliminate it, we ultimately create more stress, for both ourselves and our children.
Instead, it’s best to teach our kids that stress is a natural part of life that can be managed effectively.
Start by helping your child reframe stress, shifting from a fixed mindset and the idea that “stress hurts” to a growth mindset and the belief that “stress helps.”
Help your child learn to recognize and stop catastrophic thinking, and teach her how to identify the stressor (main problem) and then brainstorm solutions. You can also try stress-management techniques to help your child reach a calm state of mind.
Your child can’t control how stressful situations unfold, but she can control how she responds to them. Instead of going into meltdown mode, she’ll go into problem-solving mode, allowing her to conquer the challenge and learn valuable lessons along the way.