How Parents Can Help Children Deal With Stress

What Parents Can Do

You may not be able to prevent your child from feeling frustrated, sad, or angry, but you can provide the tools your child needs to cope with these emotions.

Notice out loud. Tell your child when you notice something he or she might be feeling. ("It seems like you still feel mad about what happened at the playground, huh?") This shouldn't sound like an accusation (as in: "OK, what happened now? Are you still mad about that?") or make a child feel put on the spot. It's just a casual observation that you're interested in hearing more about your child's concern.

Listen to your child. Ask your child to tell you what's wrong. Listen attentively and calmly - with interest, patience, openness, and caring. Avoid any urge to judge, blame, lecture, or tell your child what he or she should have done instead. The idea is to let your child's concerns (and feelings) be heard. Encourage your child to tell the whole story by asking questions like "And then what happened?" and to keep going with "What else happened?" and "ummm-hmmm." Take your time. And let your child take his or her time, too.

Comment briefly on the feelings you think your child was experiencing as you listen to the story. For example, you might say something like: "That must have been upsetting," or "No wonder you felt mad when they wouldn't let you in the game," or "That must have felt unfair to you." Doing this shows that you understand what your child felt, why he or she felt that way, and that you care. Feeling understood and listened to helps your child feel connected to you, and that is especially important in times of stress.

Put a label on it. Many kids do not yet have words for their feelings. If your child seems angry or frustrated, use those feeling words to help your child learn to identify the emotions by name. That will help put feelings into words so they can be expressed and communicated more easily, which helps your child develop emotional awareness - the ability to recognize his or her own emotional states. A child who is able to recognize and identify emotions is less likely to reach the behavioral boiling point where strong emotions get demonstrated through behaviors rather than communicated with words.

Help your child think of things to do. Suggest activities your child can do to feel better now and to solve the problem at hand. Encourage your child to think of a couple of ideas. You can get the brainstorm started if necessary, but don't do all the work. Your child's active participation will build confidence. Support your child's good ideas and add to them as needed. Ask, "How do you think this will work?" Sometimes talking and listening and feeling understood is all that's needed to help a child's frustrations begin to melt away. Other times the thing to do is to change the subject and move on to something more positive and relaxing. Don't give the problem more attention than it deserves.

Just be there. Sometimes kids don't feel like talking about what's bothering them. It's a good idea to respect that, give your child space, and still make it clear that you'll be there when he or she does feel like talking. Even when kids don't feel like talking, they usually don't want parents to leave them alone. You can help your child feel better just by being there - to keep him or her company and spend time together. So if you notice your child seems to be down in the dumps, stressed, or having a bad day - but doesn't feel like talking - initiate something you can do together. Take a walk, watch a movie, shoot some hoops, or bake some cookies. Isn't it nice to know that your presence really counts?

Be patient. As a parent, it hurts to see your child unhappy or worried. But try to resist the urge to fix every problem. Instead, focus on helping your child, slowly but surely, grow into a good problem-solver - a kid who knows how to roll with life's ups and downs, put feelings into words, calm down when needed, and bounce back to try again. Remember that you can't fix everything, and that you won't be there to solve each problem as your child goes through life. But by learning healthy coping strategies, your child can manage whatever stresses come in the future.