It’s tempting to think of stress as an adult affliction – but increasing numbers of children are getting stressed-out, often with no idea why they feel the way they do.
Recent research found more than two-fifths (42%) of parents said their children were experiencing frequent anxiety, compared to less than a third (30%) in 2020. The Zurich Municipal (zurich.co.uk) study found children aged 11 were struggling most with day-to-day stress, and almost a quarter (24%) of parents said their kids were having trouble sleeping, and/or were frequently unwilling to go to school because of stress.
Children may be stressed for many reasons, from reacting to issues in their own life or in the world around them, to picking up on their own parents’ stress. “Parents may feel anxious and this can have a knock-on effect on children, who won’t understand what’s going on,” says Carole Spiers, chair of the International Stress Management Association (ISMAUK isma.org.uk) and founder of International Stress Awareness Week (ISAW, November 7-11).
“It’s really important to make time to sit and talk to the whole family and share any concerns you may have. Children need to feel secure, and giving them reassurance is vital. Keeping the door for conversation open is vital for everyone, so feelings and concerns can be shared.”
Psychotherapist Anna Mathur (annamathur.com) says the best approach is talking to kids about what stress is and how to deal with it .
“Empowering children with the understanding of what stress is, and how it manifests in their body is so important,” she says. “We want our children to feel able to come to us with their worries and stresses, and equipping them with insight and language is a way we can do this.”
Here, Mathur explains how to talk to children about stress, whether it’s them that’s feeling it, or their parents…
1. If mum or dad is feeling stressed…
Mathur, who wrote The Little Book Of Calm For New Mums (Penguin Life, priced £12.99), explains that firstly, it’s important for parents to recognise their own signs of stress. “Start to question how you feel when you’re stressed,” she advises.
She suggests parents try to calm down by using a breathing exercise or another calming tool, and then use a simple sentence to share this with their child, such as: ‘I can feel a lot of stress in my body. I’m just going to step away/do a breathing exercise, so I can think clearly again’.
“This gives children insight that we can do something to help ourselves when we feel stressed. It also works to make them feel safe, in the knowledge you can do things to help regain control,” says Mathur.
2. Describe how stress feels
Mathur says that to talk to a child about their own stress, parents should explain simple stress mechanisms by saying something like: ’Stress is our body’s way of helping us get extra energy to tackle challenges. It’s very normal, and helpful, but sometimes, it can feel like your mind is very busy and your body has a lot of energy’.
3. Teach them calming exercises
Share some simple calming exercises, such as box breathing, to help relieve your child’s stress, suggests Mathur. “Breathing exercises can support our minds and bodies when we feel ‘wobbly’,” she says, “and box breathing is a great tool.”
To teach your child to box breathe, tell them to inhale for a count of four, hold their breath for another count of four, exhale for four, hold for four, etc. “Another fun exercise,” she says, “is to hold your 10 fingers up and imagine they’re candles, and encourage your child to slowly blow out each candle.”
4. Talk them through it
Help kids open up by talking to them about how they might be feeling. Mathur says: “When you notice they’re stressed, simply feed this back to them in a calm and kind way. ‘Your body looks very wiggly, your mind looks very busy. Do you feel stressed? Shall we do that breathing exercise together?’
“The more they understand about stress, and are given the vocabulary to address it, the less awkward or embarrassed children will feel about opening up in stressful moments.”
5. Label your own feelings
Mathur suggests parents casually label their own feelings, along with what they might do about it, perhaps saying something like: ‘I’m feeling a bit stressed because I’ve got so many emails. So, I’m going to take a breather, and make some time to do them tomorrow’, or ‘I’m feeling really sad about losing granny today. I’m going to take it slowly because it’s OK to feel sad’.
“Applying labels and words to our emotions helps children learn the language, and gain the confidence to start applying words and value to their own,” explains Mathur.
6. Create a ‘worry jar’
Give your child a jar so they can write down their worries and put the slips of paper in it, so you can talk about them together, suggests Mathur, who says children may also like to have a gratitude jar to fill with happy memories and experiences.
7. Use a glass of water to illustrate how stress works
A simple glass of water can be a useful tool for explaining how stress works to a child, says Mathur. “Nudge the glass – these are stressful things happening,” she explains. “Watch the water wobble – this is like the feeling inside us when stressful things happen. The nudges are the things that happen, and the movement and wobbling of the water is the stress. As the stressful things pass, the water calms and becomes still again.”
She says parents can then explain that an adult will support the child when things feel ‘wobbly’.
8. Don’t dismiss how they feel
Although what feels stressful to your child might not feel important to you, it’s crucial to acknowledge their feelings. Mathur says: “If they say they feel stressed, dismissive sentences such as ‘I wouldn’t worry about that’ can shut down lines of communication, and find them opting not to open up about it again.”
Instead, she suggests parents respond with sentences such as: ‘It sounds like that’s really hard for you, how can I help?’ “Feeling heard helps children feel supported,” she explains.
9. Decide what to do together
When problem solving is needed to help relieve your child’s stress, explore resolutions alongside your child, instead of for them, suggests Mathur. So say: ‘How can we work together to make this feel easier?’ Instead of ‘You should do x’. “This teaches valuable skills, while making them feel like their concerns matter to you,” she says.
10. Use ‘positive reframing’
If a child says ‘everything goes wrong at school’, instead of saying ‘That’s not true’, Mathur says parents should encourage them to think about times when things went right, or they had fun.