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How to stop your kids from stressing
Children can develop coping skills by handling some stress. Experts advocate maintaining kids' routines during stressful times.
February 16th, 2012
09:43 AM ET

How to stop your kids from stressing

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

There is a good chance that my children (and yours) are stressed out on a daily basis.

Not necessarily from catastrophic burdens such as death, abuse or abandonment (though far too many children are dealing with those as well), but from the slow boil of everyday anxieties a swell of unrelenting childhood stress that, in the long term, may bury our kids good and well in a tsunami of serious health problems.

More, faster, better

High on the list of stressors is the pressure many parents place on their kids: the mentality that the earlier a child does something walks, talks, reads chapter books, excels in advanced robotics for kindergartners the better.

“Competitive anxieties do get induced in a lot of children because they’re induced in a lot of parents,” says Jay Belsky, an internationally recognized expert in the field of child development and family studies and a professor at the University of California, Davis.

“There has been a sea change, a cultural shift,” says Denise Clark Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, a project that aims to reduce unhealthy pressure on young people. “We live in a society where there is a premium on performance as opposed to mastery or effort; on grades and scores over engagement; on speed and outer appearances over intrinsic motivations.

“Many parents are getting caught up in the craziness, in the ‘more is better’ and ‘faster is better’ mind-set. Children end up overscheduled and in and out of schools and classes, with very little time left over, including for sleep.”

Strategies for stress relief

The experts Belsky, Pope and Parul Chandra, head teacher at Bing Nursery School, Stanford’s laboratory preschool favor a handful of strategies that have proven effective in helping children reduce, prevent or cope with stress.

Allow for playtime, downtime, family time. A young child’s job is to play.

Pope says, “Research shows that playtime, downtime and family time are major protective factors in increasing health and well-being, and lowering stress in children.”

Children also need to feel part of an unconditionally loving family.

“You can’t have the benefits of family without spending time together. And it doesn’t matter how you define family; it doesn’t have to be biological. What does matter is literally sitting down, having meals and doing activities together,” she says.

Studies shows that family meals are the single strongest predictor of higher achievement and fewer behavioral issues for children between 3 and 12. “That’s 25 minutes, five times a week.”

Children need time to reflect, to rejuvenate, to rest, Pope says. “And we include sleep in that because lack of sleep is correlated to higher rates of depression and anxiety.”

Distract. Belsky finds that distraction can be an effective strategy for both younger and older children.

“It’s really a matter of turning their attention elsewhere, away from what’s stressing them,” he says.

Early on, adults can help children regulate their attention. Eventually, children will develop the skill themselves and learn to place their focus away from what’s bothering them.

Problem-solve. “We as adults tell children how to solve problems,” Chandra says. “But problem-solving with them instead of for them is very important. You want children to think about what it is they are going through. Have them explain it to you. And then articulate it back so that you can be sure that you are understanding correctly and that you’re both on the same page.”

Ask open-ended questions such as “What do you think may help?” Having children brainstorm a list of possibilities, making them aware of strategies they have used in the past and getting them to come up with solutions can all be hugely empowering for a child.

Keep routines. Chandra advocates maintaining children’s routines during particularly stressful times. “It’s important that they don’t feel like their whole lives are topsy-turvy, that they have parts of the day to look forward to living in the moment and just being a child.”

Watch, listen, communicate, reassure, validate. Listen and watch for atypical behaviors in children, suggests Chandra. The younger the children, the harder it will be for them to talk about what they are feeling.

Pay attention to your child’s stories. Know that their dramatic play is a window into what they’re thinking, going through and worrying about.

Validate children’s feelings. Tell them, "I know how that feels" instead of "you shouldn’t be feeling that way.” Validating is important because it alleviates a lot of stress. But also guide children toward empathizing with others. Ask, “How do you think the other person feels?”

Communicate with your child. Talk about your most aggravating times. Bring up things that caused you stress and how you resolved these problems.

Reassure children that they will be OK.

“There is a whole palate of feelings between mad and sad," Chandra says. "Stress is always going to be there, but you have to give children the skills and words to be able to talk about it. If you don’t, behaviors will come out later and you will wonder where they came from! But acting out usually represents months and years of incidents and feelings that haven’t been discussed - layer upon layer upon layer.”

Let children be children. All three experts warn against treating children like smaller versions of adults. “Physiologically, kids are not mini-adults,” Pope says, “and the idea of miniaturizing the adult world is a huge problem. It can lead to things like inappropriate use of media, inappropriate ways of dressing and inappropriate things being put on children’s shoulders.”

Chandra advises, “Be mindful of conversations and things that children can pick up on at home. They pick up more than we think they do. And they if do happen to overhear something, explain that it’s an adult agenda, that their parents will take care of it.

“Children are innately wired to be happy people, and they tend to live in the moment. We as adults have so much to learn from them.”

A life with no stress?

Belsky says, “Look, no life is going to be stress-free. There is something to be said for learning to cope with stress that is in your capacity to cope with.”

Permitting our children the opportunity to experience some stress and enabling them to deal with it creates coping capacity. When you are building muscle, you shouldn’t be lifting too many weights. But the right amount can strain your muscles enough to increase strength. Coping is the same way. If it’s the right amount, children build capacity.

Family’s values

Pope recommends that families sit down and take a hard look at the value systems driving them. “Ask the big questions: How are you, your school and your child defining success? It is often that definition, that value system, that is driving the unhealthy stress.”

Work together to write a mission statement that articulates the family’s core values, Pope suggests. Who are you as a family? Where are you going? And who are you not? A lot of important parenting choices are made on the fly from your gut.

“You ask people what they want for their children and most will say, ‘A happy, healthy, self-sufficient person who gives back to society.’ But if you work backward from that, it’s not about the overscheduled, gratified 8-year-old. We are talking about the long term here.”

Pope adds, “And even if that train has already left the station, it’s not too late. It’s never too late! Put your stake in the ground, abide by it and live your values.”


soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Stfu

    Ugh. sleep.something i dont get enuf of ever!... how to stop stress
    in kids? GET RID OF HOMEWORK!

    February 16, 2012 at 10:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RedinAustin

      Nice try kid. Now go do your homework.

      February 16, 2012 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
  2. Kim

    Not all kids are wired to be happy or to be stress-free. Watch your kid – some prefer a level of anxiety that you might be able to redirect into productive adrenaline rushes like bike-riding or room-cleaning. But make sure there's an end in sight. Good use of adrenaline should result in a moment of congratulations and a specific down-time recovery period. Some kids might be so stress-free that nothing makes an impression – finding stimulants like musi or art is a better solution than letting your kid find unacceptable stimulants later in life. It's not all about building a happy kid – it's all about a happy medium where your kid can find peace.

    February 16, 2012 at 11:01 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mom in NJ

      Kim that was an interesting view. But don't you think your statement, "It's not all about building a happy kid – it's all about a happy medium where your kid can find peace", isn't that what a happy kid is and with hope a happy adult? A theme in this story played over and over is to let your kid have time to be a kid. I see with my own family and others this free time to goof off is shrinking.

      February 16, 2012 at 13:18 | Report abuse |
    • amused123

      Work hard, play hard. Works for me and my kids.

      February 17, 2012 at 08:56 | Report abuse |
  3. Jorge

    That is impossible, by the very nature of children, exposing them to adults who manifest their social dysfunctions to them will certainly stress them out. Whomever out there who believes that children's teachers, caretakers, trainers or even many parents have their charges best interests at heart all the time is surely deluded, and children can surely sense that, although the may not yet have the eloquence, courage or presence of mind to name it or complain; but be wary, many of these quietly suffering children will grow into adults, at whose mercy we will be in our old age.

    February 16, 2012 at 15:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Marge

    Write a mission statement for your family? That is the type of over excelling parenting that tends to bring on pressure. I agree with most of the other parts of the article. Talk to your children, help them role play through various reactions to stressors, praise their efforts not just the results, know their triggers for stress and work to deal with them before they are in the midst of them. Basically help them develop the tools to deal with stress before it builds up and buries them.

    February 16, 2012 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. glenda

    I feel sorry for todays kids. How would you like to pass a course all year and then fail a TASK test, and be told you can't graduate or can't go to the next grade? Our schools are a mess.

    February 16, 2012 at 18:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • think more pls

      How can someone manage to pass a course but not a test for the course? Sounds like a cheater.

      February 19, 2012 at 16:34 | Report abuse |
  6. michael

    Thanks for this wonderful article – packed with info – really enjoyed it. The last point, about family values, sounds similar to what Stephen Covey says in "7 Habits". I've always intended to do that, but haven't gotten around to it. I need to pick that up again

    February 17, 2012 at 00:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. micheal

    wonderful article, packed with info – thanks. The last point about family values reminds me of Stephen Covey's "7 Habit" book. I need to integrate that into my family life.

    February 17, 2012 at 00:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Lushonosi

    Lovely article, but I think it's a bit naive. In the last ten years the world has gotten 3 times more stressful than it was before. By the tiime today's toddler is entering highschool, nevermind the workforce, it will be 10 times more stressful still. Just staying (barely) alive will require them to do 20 things at a time, all day, every day, for 50 or 60 years. Mobile connectivity will guarantee that they NEVER have a proper vacation or night's sleep or hour of silence. If they aren't ready to handle all that and the many, many, many, many, many, many things we can't foresee now, on a daily basis without any breaks at all, EVER, they will be crushed like bugs 5 seconds out of the gate and no one will care. So prepare them and prepare them and prepare them some more, or they will be homeless in the blink of an eye.

    February 17, 2012 at 09:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Flora

      CHILL. Kids will latch onto & master the world around them way faster than you could ever hope to "prepare" them. I think that's what the article was talking about – spending so much time with your eyes glued to the Future that you completely ignore their Present.

      Future success is great & whatnot, but what good is a successful child who's also a callous, type-A, taskmaker? They may grow up to be CEO, but they also go home to an empty house (or, worse case scenario, a terrified house).

      February 19, 2012 at 11:49 | Report abuse |
  9. The_Mick

    You've got to let kids interact and deal with stress: especially young to mid teens for whom almost every problem gets blown up into a catastrophe. As a teacher, I spent a lot of time dealing with children who were home-schooled through 8th grade and then thrown to the wolves by their parents into high school, where they had no social coping skills. Most of them made the transition ok and gained the social and stress-handling skills they needed, but ONLY if you let them handle most of their own problems. When one would come to see me after school, crying because of something they saw as unfair, my first question was, "What are YOU going to do about it?" Only after they came up with a plan did I steer them into how to best achieve their desires by becoming part of the group, without alienating others, or setting themselves up to be picked on.

    February 17, 2012 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. charlie

    I am a high school health/PE teacher (lunch break) and have been teaching a stress unit for decades. I instill certain concepts about stress: We all need some stress because that's what helps to motivate us. The key is to find the optimal stress level for our own unique genetic/environmental makeup. A couple great words to live by in relation to this subject: "Don't allow perception to become deception."I tell my students that"I have never worked a day in my life.I play with kids all day." They laugh and say "that's awkward?" And a great shakespeare quote: "Nothing is good or bad. Thinking makes it so." I tell them I don't give "homework" I give "homefun" When we do our daily workout, I tell them we are going outside to "get high". It's all about perception and seeing the glass half full!

    February 17, 2012 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Andrew

      Well that's kind of hard when a parent forces a sport that you can't stand. It was so bad I almost committed suicide. Kind of stressful when practices last until 8:30 and you have all AP classes. That's work all day, no sleep, no time to be a kid. No parent should make a kid do more than they can. Spending 6 hours on homework and having 4 hour wrestling practices weren't exactly helpful. If a child is doing well in school and is happy doing whatever extracurricular activity they are doing, then that's fine. When a child hates their environment and whatever activity they're doing, they aren't going to exactly reach for the stars.

      October 31, 2012 at 00:43 | Report abuse |
  11. J

    You sound like an amazing teacher, Charlie. We need more like you.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. bobby

    Teach your children how to meditate..

    February 17, 2012 at 18:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. b

    FIsh oil, tons of vegetables, without that you can't function, and vitamin B complex. That really helps. Next is flowcharts, they make life so much easier. Read and flowchart, and oh yeah, a window and some crayon window-glass markers. That simplifies reading over 30 books in 2 days. That's what I do.

    February 17, 2012 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pattysboi

      b, not everyone can ingest (or WANT TO, it smells awful!) fish oil. My wife and I are both allergic to it.

      February 18, 2012 at 03:50 | Report abuse |
  14. Syntyche Jenkins

    I think this is among the most important information for me. And i'm glad reading your article. But wanna remark on some general things, The website style is ideal, the articles is really nice : D. Good job, cheers

    February 18, 2012 at 13:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Kevin

    Personally, I figure you get the kid started working now, while they are young, in anything. If I started that in the 90s when I was a kid, I'd be better off. I got myself an education instead, and all it is these days in the recession is a glorified over-priced piece of paper that I can sell for 5 bucks including the frame. If anyone wants it I'd be happy to sell it to you for 5 bucks. When I was a kid I had a very stressful life, was picked on all day, did my best to get great grades graduated college cause that was what you did after high school, and got a 3.8 GPA. all of that translates into awesome, I can read a book. I landed in a job market with no jobs, can't afford to move, even if I did there's still no jobs. and I don't have the money to make a company or buy the crappy one that laid me off because they didn't know what the heck they were doing in the first place. So if I ever have a kid, which by the way won't be anytime soon. I will get him or her started in some job whatever that will hire them so they can start making money. Then I'll take their paycheck and invest it in the stock market, and tell them you let your money work for you once you get it, you don't need to spend it on candy bars, CDs, trips to an amusement park, none of that crap. You throw it in the stock market or the bank and you invest in things that will make more money. Then when they are finally 18 they will have a skillset, a job history that doesn't involve flipping burgers, or retail. All you need is contacts in the right industries the get you where you want to go. They will then have hopefully enough money to do whatever they want. If that doesn't work, well, their still better than getting a crappy education which won't get them employed anyway.

    February 18, 2012 at 14:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Flora

      Be prepared to have a very ignorant, very miserable kid.

      Just because you did no research into what job prospects would await you in your chosen feild (I'm guessing something intellectual, like Literature or Sociology), doesn't mean that an education is worthless – it means you didn't use yours wisely. Even if you can parlay your plans for this hypothetical child into a business or career somewhere down the line, I doubt it'll be successful – since you pretty much deprived him of a childhood & never let him make his own decisions, he'll have a miserable time networking & relating to his peers (aka potentional contacts).

      February 19, 2012 at 12:00 | Report abuse |
    • Jombofish

      :After research just a few of the blog posts in your wtsbiee now, and I actually like your way of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark wtsbiee list and will likely be checking back soon. Pls try my wtsbiee online as nicely and let me know what you think.

      April 14, 2012 at 13:38 | Report abuse |
  16. 4commonsensenow

    The biggest thing that stressed me besides the stress of being a kid sometimes was those adults that think they have to be in control of everything. Trying to control what I'm feeling etc. Did it ever occur to these'experts' that just maybe sometimes a kid just wants to forget and move on. The biggest barrier I found as a kid that stressed me completely out was the lack of consistency coming forth from those adults always flapping thier gums. :)

    February 19, 2012 at 06:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Jeff

    Kids need to know stress. They need to know that failure is a part of life. So often parents think that every kid on a baseball team for instance should get a trophy even if they failed. Parents can't except the fact that their children can fail at things. That's life's lesson. When these spoiled kids grow up without the disappointment of failure they turn to drugs to escape. Whtney Houston is a good example.

    Parents are the real problems of why we have spoiled kids. As the writer said it's o.k. to stress. It's a part of life no matter the age. Good blog Amanda.

    February 19, 2012 at 09:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Flora

    I think we took it a step too far when it became acceptable to treat children as an extention of yourself. Bitter that you were never Homecoming Queen material in high school? Now there's Child Beauty Pagents (or, as I like to call them, Pedo Buffets). Rolled ankle in college quash your football aspirations? Enroll your kid in Little League & become "That Dad".

    Or some parents take the opposite approach. I've seen some parents deliberately push their kids around and withold affection in the hopes of "toughening them up" – those kids later grew up to be the sorriest excuses for human beings you ever laid eyes on. I had an enourmously stressful childhood (never-ending poverty, terrible family situation), and it stunted me terribly. Being forced to grow up at a young age meant that I basically skipped most of my childhood; as a result I couldn't even begin to interact with the other kids, who were still having fun. You have no idea how many emotional & social milestones I either hit late or missed completely.

    I believe that some stress in the form of ambition is good for kids, but you don't need to put their noses to the grindstone in pre-school to do it. All kids natually have dreams at some point, so just encourage them in that.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Wastrel

    What we call "stress" was not an issue with anybody until there were Too Many People. There may have been pressure, boredom, anxiety and fear of failure, all of which this article addresses, but stress, generic unidentifable stress, is the product of an overcrowded world. This is why your children (and adults, too) are retreating from interaction with other people, and some people simply crack up because they are unable to deal with it. I suspect that the rise in autism is also caused by Too Many People. We are not evolutionarily designed to live in a local society of a million or more people. I'm afraid that this article is not very helpful.

    February 19, 2012 at 12:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. obbop

    As long as the spawn are indoctrinated to OBEY... obey their ruling-class masters and corporate USA all will be well, good, proper and as it should be within the USA.

    Love it or leave it.

    You DO support the troops, don't you.

    It's for the children.

    OBEY!!!!!!!

    February 19, 2012 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. luke150

    i say let kids be kids don't deprive them of that, you can't turn back the clock and make them kids again once they grow up. some kids are so stressed out because of their parents wanting them to do everything(come home from school then they have to get ready to go to karate lessons, that's should be enough right there but no then they have to go to guitar lessons at 8:00, then they go home at 9:00 and do home work and don't forget they haven't eaten anything since they got out of school at 4:30) quite a schedule right. poor kid when does he have time to relax and be a kid, like riding his or her bike after school and unwind from being in school most of the day. eating supper would be nice after playing and then tackling homework and then getting to bed early don't you think? parents today want to give their children everything that they didn't have as a youngster so they pile everything on their kids thinking this is the right thing to do since their parents couldn't buy or give them everything. yes, parents think today that the more a child does, the less he'll get in trouble later on in life, don't they ever consider that maybe their children could use some down time and to relax and put their effort into their homework, i think that is more important and less stressful. then when grade time comes out the parents wonder why their children's grades aren't where they should be(look at what he had to contend with every day after school–daa) i know they mean well but get real would you like to be in your childs' shoes and do all of that after school?

    February 19, 2012 at 15:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bazoing

    Stop the kids from stressing? it is amazing how abusive adults are to children, all children. I was little in a neighborhood where the children wished we could die before becoming those monsters, adults. Don't ask how to stop kids from stressing; ask how to stop stressing kids.

    February 19, 2012 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. The Pope

    I've found that copious amounts of Vallium is very effective. And if my children still annoy me I use an electric cattle prod on their privates.

    February 19, 2012 at 20:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dina

      I just visited your bsewite and just wanted to say hats off to you and the work you are doing. This seems like a great initiative and should be incorporated in all western societies. Something needs to change to stop this cycle. I hope elkingston is doing well now.Kim

      April 7, 2012 at 14:17 | Report abuse |
  24. HK

    How about stepping out of the way and let kids be kids? Stop being helicopter parents, people! Give them the independence they need to thrive, learn and become smart decisionmakers who won't be occupying your basement for the next couple of decades.
    30 comments so far that serve only to validate the authors flawed viewpoint. Kids are not adults, so don't treat them as such. Overscheduling? Flowcharts? Really? Jesus H Christ.

    February 19, 2012 at 22:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Nick

    What is this? I don't remember being stressed as a kid, and still no stress in my mid twenties. Life isn't that hard and there are plenty of kids that just worry about if they're going to get to eat on a daily basis. Get up, go to school, come home and play with your friends. What's the ******* mystery?

    February 20, 2012 at 20:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Sheryl Morris

    I can recommend the book and movement called Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne.

    February 22, 2012 at 14:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Specialsubjects Teacher

    This article has some good recommendations. I work with many stressed out children in classes of moderate to severe labeled children, what I call "mixed use" fondly. I do not believe anyone is trying to stress out their children on purpose. They want to bring the best to their child. As a parent, one has to listen to their child and adjust accordingly. I was extremely stressed out as a child because I lived with an alcoholic over-worked father and a mother with an undiagnosed mental illness, bipolar II. Luckily I had school to attend. It was my saving grace. I loved the attention and kindness my teachers and friends showed me. Life is a lot simpler without keeping up with the Jones' and I chose to forego tv and media in my children's lives. They had their stresses because of life's ups and downs and unemployment issues in our family. But we always had enough food, shelter and warmth to make it through. We are now going through the longest period of unemployment we have ever experienced. It is a drag losing your home through foreclosure. Your children pick up on stresses like these. They feel you. Luckily mine have moved out and are self sufficient cause they have coping skills and they were not too stressed out by school when they were little. Don't worry they are 18 and 20, old enough to move out. Eat seasonally and use all that Tv time to read or do something real and you will find life less stressful!

    February 27, 2012 at 07:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Adam

    It's simple. Kids need to accept life isn't all roses and violets. There are stresses with each and every passing day. Also, kids need to understand there is failure and they will fail at something(s) down the road as they grow up. It's part of being human really. They can also learn to managed everyday stress by doing activities that relieve stress such as going on a walk, playing a sport for fun, doing some meditation or yoga, and keeping up a healthy lifestyle and parents need to help them with that. However, the group of kids I feel don't need the stresses of daily life are those in K-5. Let the stress come when they are older like middle school age, preferably high school, and that college is a good way to go. Also, have them do research on their various interests when they are in high school and college. In college, they should research the degree's potential. Also, while doing this, continue with stress management activities that they can learn from parents more so than their peers.

    March 30, 2012 at 20:32 | Report abuse | Reply
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