Life can be stressful at times, even for kids. Concerns about grades, peer pressure, friend issues, bullying, traumatic events, and more can lead to stress. Some stress can be productive—cortisol, the “stress hormone,” increases blood sugar, metabolism, and memory function, and provides a temporary boost to physical and mental ability. Those brief periods of stress can be productive and help a child be motivated to accomplish tasks that might be a little intimidating.
However, when stressful feelings continue over time, cortisol impairs brain functioning and suppresses the immune system. During childhood when the brain is still connecting the neural circuits for dealing with stress, chronic stress can rewire the brain to become overly reactive or slow to shut down when faced with threats. Chronic stress in childhood can evenincrease the risk of diseases in adulthood.
How to Cope with Stress
Much of how to cope with stress applies to anyone, adults or children.
- Take care of SELF (Sleep, Exercise, Leisure, and Food)—get plenty of sleep, get some exercise, do something fun and relaxing to take a break, and eat healthy.
- Talk to others, sharing your problems and how you are feeling and coping.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol—while they may seem to ease stress in the short term, over the long term they create problems that increase stress.
- Take a break from what’s causing your stress.
- Recognize when you need more help.
Helping Your Child Cope with Stress
Stress often comes in part from feeling unable to manage what life is giving you, and for children, there are many things that can leave them feeling helpless, as they have less experience in dealing with difficulties. Keep in mind the coping strategies above, and talk with your child to help them to process what is causing their stress. Additional ways you can help your child cope are:
- Maintain a normal routine—familiarity helps to provide a sense of stability.
- Talk, listen, and encourage expression. Give your child opportunities to talk, but don’t force them. Listen to what their thoughts, feelings, and worries are, and share some of yours. Keep the lines of communication open, and check in with them to see how they feel after a week, a month, or more.
- Watch and listen. Be alert for any changes in behavior, including sleeping, eating, and connecting with friends. Even small changes may indicate your child is having trouble dealing with stress.
- Reassure your child about their safety and well-being, particularly if the stress is caused by a traumatic event.
- Connect with others—your child’s teachers and other parents may have additional suggestions on how to help your child cope.
- Promote a growth mindset. If your child is stressed about their grades or school work, developing a growth mindset can help. Research indicatesthat while many students’ stress levels increase after receiving a bad grade, students who believe that intelligence can be developed are more likely to see academic setbacks as temporary, they stress less over a bad grade, and they return to normal stress levels more quickly afterwards.
What Schools Can Do
Teachers and other school personnel see students almost as much as their families during the week, so they may also notice children exhibiting signs of stress. In addition, some student stress may stem from poor academic performance, bullying, or other stressful situations related to school (e.g., worries about safety after news coverage of a school shooting). Here’s how schools can help students cope with stress:
- Reach out and talk. Create opportunities for students to talk, but don’t force them. Try asking questions like, what do you think about these events, or how do you think these things happen? You can be a model by sharing some of your own thoughts as well as correct misinformation. When children talk about their feelings, it can help them cope and to know that different feelings are normal.
- Watch and listen. Be alert for any change in behavior. Are students talking more or less? Withdrawing from friends? Acting out? Are they behaving in any way out of the ordinary? These changes may be early warning signs that a student is struggling and needs extra support from the school and family.
- Maintain normal routines. A regular classroom schedule can provide reassurance and promote a sense of stability and safety.
- Take care of yourself. You can better support students if you are healthy, coping, and taking care of yourself first.
If you need to reach out for extra support or immediate help, contact one of the following crisis hotlines:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-888-628-9454 for Spanish-speaking callers)
- Youth Mental Health Line: 1-888-568-1112
- Child-Help USA: 1-800-422-4453 (coping with stress)
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990