How to Raise Kids Who Cope Well with Stress

I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a helicopter mom during cold and flu season. I know, I know, hovering is bad and kids need to learn to problem-solve independently. But, here’s the thing: My daughter has asthma and, at the age of 8, she still gets croup. We’ve been told that her asthma is mild and that she will likely grow out of it (and the croup) “someday.” However, we have no idea when “someday” will happen, and that’s incredibly stressful.

Cold and flu season (which basically makes up nine months of the year when your kids are in school) is a nightmare for her. Just two weeks ago she had a double whammy croup/asthma attack that left her gasping for air and me dialing 911. We got through it and, after missing a full week of school, she’s better. Until the next round of germs hits her school. 

While her breathing is fine and she feels great from a medical standpoint, she is stressed out. She’s old enough to feel petrified by that breathless feeling. She’s worried to be at school because she’s away from me and she’s pretty sure that I am the only one who can help her (I’m not, but she’s scared.) The first few days back were hard. I stayed and helped her reintegrate. I bought her a watch so she could keep track of her day. I left her notes of encouragement in her lunch. 

Then I shifted into teaching her how to cope with stress. That experience left her anxious and afraid. It’s a perfectly normal response to a very scary experience. But she does need to learn how to manage her stress so that stress doesn’t leave her susceptible to more illness.

We all know that stress is bad for the body. It can impact sleep, eating habits, energy level, and weaken our immune systems. Even worse? A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that emotional stress during childhood can increase the risk of developing heart disease and metabolic disorders (like diabetes) during adulthood. This long term study evaluated children beginning at age 7 (with input from teachers) and continued self-evaluations up to age 45. What they found was that childhood distress, even in the absence of adult distress, increased the risks. You can be a fairly stress-free adult, but that early exposure to distress can impact your health down the line. 

Bottom line: Kids have to learn how to cope with stress. Learning to cope with stress empowers kids to live happy and healthy lives. In my new book, The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, I talk a lot about the potential triggers of childhood stress and how to help kids cope with it. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you get started:

1. Make the mind/body connection. Kids don’t always connect the dots when it comes to how their emotions affect their health. More often than not, they think they’re getting a cold when the reality is that stress can be to blame. Help your child understand how feelings affect the body with a quick body mapping exercise. Complete your own body map while your child does hers to help her understand that we all experience stress and ups and downs. Draw (or download) an outline of a body. Ask your child to think about how her body feels when she’s mad. Do her muscles hurt because she tenses them? Does her head hurt? Does her tummy feel sick? When your child makes a connection between a feeling and a physical complaint, have her color it on the map. Share your connections to help your child understand how it works. Do this for anger, sadness, worry, and loneliness.

2. Create a trigger tracker. Kids love to track things. The minute my kids learned about tally marks, it seemed like they wanted to track absolutely everything they could think of! Use this to help your kids track triggers of stress. Kids don’t always know what causes them stress, so you might have to begin by talking about common causes of stress. Talk about friendship troubles, tests at school, feeling left out, medical concerns, insufficient time to eat or play, and things happening at home. Have your child make a list of her unique stressors and keep a running tally of how often they occur. Once you find the biggest triggers, you can help your child learn to cope.

3. Make a family coping chart. If/then statements can be a huge help for little kids. Oftentimes, they don’t know what to do when they confront stress so they internalize it until they can’t keep it in any longer. Empower your child to take a solution-focused approach to stress by going through her stressors one by one and finding appropriate strategies to confront them. First, talk about the stressor in detail. When does it happen? What does it feel like? How does she normally respond? Write the stressor on one side of a poster board, under the “if” category. Next, brainstorm possible solutions. If timed tests cause stress, for example, a deep breathing exercise before the test might help reduce the feeling of stress. Find one or two strategies that might work and write them under the “then” category on the opposite side of the poster.

Stress is a natural part of life and kids will confront varying levels of stress as they grow. If we empower them to cope with stress when they’re young, they will feel lower levels of overall stress as they grow and live happier and healthier lives as a result. 

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