Written by Susan H. Christiansen
Table of Contents
- Is It Normal for My Child to Be Stressed?
- Symptoms of Emotional Distress and Stress
- Effective Solutions for Coping With Stress and Emotions
- Self-Awareness Skills
- Self-Management Skills
- Two Key Practices for Stress and Emotions Success
Is It Normal for My Child to Be Stressed?
Stress and emotions are a normal, enriching, and significant part of life. Everyone experiences stress and the emotions that accompany it. Our bodies are designed to experience stress and respond appropriately throughout the entire lifespan.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress is defined as:
“a normal reaction the body has when changes occur. It can respond to these changes physically, mentally, or emotionally.”
Our goal as parents is not to completely eradicate stress from our lives or to orchestrate our lives so we only feel happy emotions. The same is true for our children. Our goal is to arm our children with the skills and tools to manage stress and process emotions in a healthy manner.
Children are spending more time alone, more time online, and showing more signs of depression and anxiety. Many children are lacking face-to-face time with family and friends. Targeted teaching by parents is needed to help children maintain positive mental health and resiliency. We can teach these skills using emotion regulation strategies.
Psychologists differentiate between people who regulate emotions well and people who have more difficulty when experiencing emotions. The term for this is emotional regulation and emotional dysregulation. School psychologist, Lori Jackson, describes the terms this way:
Symptoms of Emotional Distress and Stress
Stress can be good or bad.
Good stress might be when your child makes the basketball team at school and is nervous about performing during games. Good stress motivates, inspires, and helps us stay safe.
Bad stress may be felt when there is a lot of fighting at home. Bad stress can occur because of constant exposure to a stressful situation with no break or hope of changing the situation. Bad stress can actually make children sick with headaches or stomachaches.
Effective Solutions for Coping With Stress and Emotions
Mental health and wellness exercises vary by the age and maturity of the child. However, all skills aim to:
- help children recognize their emotions
- connect those emotions to a stressful event
- identify the corresponding physical response
- utilize stress management techniques to cope
Ms. Nelson, a teacher, created an Emoji Mood Meter for her classroom. Each morning, her students put their pictures by the appropriate emoji. She was able to take the emotional temperature of her students in under a minute. You can create something similar for your home.
The best way to teach children how to process emotions is by modeling the appropriate behavior in a calm, reassuring manner. Children notice nonverbal cues so parents must be careful to keep a calm presence. It is best to have several acceptable options available.
- pause for a minute or two while breathing deeply and slowly
- take a drink of water
- stretch for a minute
- repeat an affirmation
- have a parent or friend link – a person to talk to when your child is anxious or irritated
- self-soothe by giving yourself a hug (my daughter brings her knees up to her chest and squeezes)
- wearing a hoodie sweatshirt with pockets feels warm and comforting
- prepare a quiet space like a 2-man tent, a tipi, a fort, or a blanket with a stuffed animal in the corner
- hug and talk to a stuffed animal
- write down their feelings on a whiteboard or in a journal
- pet an animal while you talk about how you feel
- exercise for a few minutes
- play outside
- listen to calming music
A critical part of helping your child learn to regulate their emotions is validation. When children are young, they look to the caregivers in their lives for comfort and assurance that they matter and that the caregiver will keep them safe. The theory of attachment parenting deals with the strength of this bond and its effects.
For emotion regulation, parents must validate their child’s feelings before any other action. Validation doesn’t mean you agree with the behavior or opinion. It doesn’t mean that you can’t set limits or apply consequences. It does mean that you convey to your child that you see them. You hear them. They matter to you and you empathize with their feelings. You are concerned about them and want to help them.
Children are likely to remain closed to problem-solving until they feel heard and understood. This includes nonverbal language. Make sure your face and body are open and soft while giving the child your full attention. You might even get down on the child’s eye level while you use simple, calm language to talk to them. Ask questions to understand more clearly.
Parents can use sentences like:
- I’m sorry you feel frustrated.
- How can I help?
- What I hear you saying is . . .
- How long have you been feeling this way?
- Thank you for telling me about this.
Validation comes before problem-solving. Stay here until your child feels heard and understood.
Online resources are available from organizations that help families learn about and understand the social and emotional needs of their children. Learning to identify and deal with stress and emotions fall under this umbrella. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL] is one such organization. Click the links below to view the family resources:
Two of the skills children must develop to cope effectively with stress and emotions are self-awareness skills and self-management skills. Both of these skills need to be taught and understood in order for children to effectively deal with daily stress.
As children learn that they are unique and can experience various feelings in different circumstances, they will need tools to manage and cope. Children also learn at a young age they can experience the same emotion or physical response for different reasons.
- laughing when watching a funny movie or laughing at someone while purposely teasing them
- crying because they are happy to see someone versus crying because they fell while running and twisted their ankle
- nervousness because they are participating in their first piano recital versus nervous because they did something wrong and their mom found out
- angry because dad wouldn’t let them buy more virtual credit (like Minecraft Minecoins) with his credit card versus angry at a lack of consistency in house rules
This awareness begins to arise when a child’s prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain behind the forehead) has developed enough for them to become better at identifying problems, making decisions, and working with others. This occurs around the time a child is in 3rd – 5th grade.
Self-awareness is the ability to accurately identify emotions and the behaviors they can trigger, as well as accurately identifying personal strengths and weaknesses. – Jamie Farnsworth Finn
The 8-11 age range is marked by an increased ability to identify personal interests. The willingness to engage in those interests without necessarily having an established peer group develops. Children will begin to sense they are better at some things than others. They will begin to choose activities based on their own interests and desires.
Parents may experience some pushback from kids when they don’t want to blindly follow a parent’s rule or advice. While this may be confusing and frustrating for parents, it is normal and should be a welcome part of growing up. Remember- we are teaching and training our kids to feel confident about moving out into the world as adults. That includes having the confidence to question and make decisions.
This newfound awareness and ability to choose means children are moving along appropriately. But, don’t worry, there are still many years of togetherness ahead before the day comes that they enter the world as adults.
Jorge Valenzuela, from the Buck Institute for Education, stresses the importance of learning self-management skills for both parents and children this way:
The success skill of self-management fosters the ability of students to follow through on study plans, complete tasks and assignments, and keep schedules.
That’s a tall order. How do we help our children learn these skills which will assist in reducing stress? We demonstrate and teach how using the following tools for success:
Plans can be made through the use of daily or weekly calendars, sticky notes, a star reward chart, or by earning physical reward tokens for completed tasks. Examples of planning your child will appreciate are:
- Help your child create a savings plan to buy a new toy and then let them think of how they could earn the money.
- Give your kids the choice of creating a plan for the afternoon.
- Assign a day each week for your child to choose the food for meals and help you prepare them.
- Assign a laundry day for each child and teach them how to do the laundry on their own in later elementary school.
- Create a plan for the week such as:
- On Monday we go to the library.
- On Tuesday we go to the park.
- On Wednesday we go grocery shopping.
- On Thursday we do our errands.
- On Friday we have a pizza and watch a movie.
Tasks and Assignments
Build expected tasks and assignments into the routine of the day and repeat those every day. The routines can be set to a specific time schedule or based on the order of activities. There are so many ways to keep track of assignments. Here are a few we use:
- Use sticky notes to remind children of due dates and times. Place them where the child will see them:
- the bathroom mirror
- a cell phone
- the video game controller
- the fridge
- the bookshelf
- the back door
- Have a check-in at the beginning of the day, mid-day, and before bedtime so the child can see how he or she is doing and know what is coming up tomorrow.
- Schedule a weekly family council to go over the week’s schedule and due dates.
- Create a bedtime routine, morning routine, class-time routine, dinner routine, etc.
- Create a chore chart, either weekly or one for the year in excel so the child can see that the chores are fairly rotated, know what they are responsible for, and what their job will be next week.
- Create a picture steps-to-a-clean-room chart, put it in a plastic sleeve, and attach it to the wall with a pushpin that has a string and dry erase marker attached.
Schedules are usually tied to dates and times. They are processes for getting things done. Children desire order and routine. It makes them feel safe enough to learn and explore.
Having a schedule does not mean you are destined to live a rigid, controlled lifestyle. Within your schedule you will have the ability to be flexible, move things around, get rid of things, and add things.
As you create a schedule, try to give your children input, such as the choice between two positive activities like “Do you want to do your spelling practice or math first?” – “Do you want to make your bed first or put your toys away?”
Make sure you have appropriate expectations for your child’s age and then move on when the time is up. Provide time later for a catch-up session.
It does take some time to create and implement these self-management strategies but your family and your child will reap the benefits daily.
Using a visual timer is a great help. Each of my children has their own timer to help them develop a sense of time passing, encourage them to keep moving and to let them know when it’s time to move onto the next activity.
Here’s the timer our family uses:
Two Key Practices for Stress and Emotions Success
Two key practices will help your child develop the skills to manage everyday stress and emotions.
- Explicitly teach your child what self-awareness is through your words and actions. Provide a template as you walk with your child by having a conversation about a feeling they are experiencing or about their thoughts. Help them connect their feelings to an event and reinforce the idea that they can process and change their feelings. They are not their feelings.
- Embed self-management techniques into everyday activities. Embedding is a form of teaching that uses small teaching moments throughout the day to teach and reinforce new skills until the child is able to act on their own. This is where patience and practice come in.
Learning to manage emotions and accomplish tasks independently fosters feelings of confidence and develops other healthy skills. Having a plan to mitigate and manage stress should reassure and calm your child. Understanding what emotions are and why they are experiencing them will help your child begin to process those emotions instead of being overwhelmed. These strategies will help your child feel calmer, connected, and understood.