Children's Hospital Colorado
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Just Ask Children's


How to Help Kids Stress Less

A boy does a hand stand with one foot on the wall while a woman holds him steady.

"Everyone," says Michelle Fury, yoga therapist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, "gets stressed. That’s just part of life."

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Physiologically speaking, stress prepares our bodies for challenging situations. The heart rate increases. Hormone levels elevate. It triggers our bodies to give their best, especially in times of uncertainty and change.

Times like, say, the beginning of end of the school year.

"Kicking off and wrapping up the school year is usually a stressful time for kids and families," says Christine McDunn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s Colorado. That’s because, as any parent with school-aged children knows, kids thrive on routines. And the shift — new bedtimes, new schedules, new structures, new people — inevitably disrupts things.

We often think of stress as something to avoid, but stress can be positive or negative. It can feel like excitement, or like anxiety. It can serve to heighten our awareness during a challenging new situation, or it can stop us in our tracks. And as Fury explains, when kids and families run into problems involving stress, the issue is often a lot more complex than just the stress itself.

"It’s the triangle of thoughts, feelings, and actions,” she says. “You have a feeling, you translate it into a thought, and then you act on it."

That action — or reaction — is often when the stress kicks in.  And especially for kids, the process can be almost automatic.

"Where we get tripped up," says Lisa Costello, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s Colorado, "is when we get caught in the loop and just react." One trick, Costello continues, is to create some distance from that immediate emotion. "If I can see my stress, label my stress, I can step away from it a little, and then I have a choice."

The concept, she explains, is called "emotional literacy," learning to recognize and label feelings without judging them as “good” or “bad.” This helps kids respond to emotions more skillfully.

An infographic with Stress Loop in the middle. On the left is a green circle with four points: LESS; recognizing the feelings of stress; deciding how to react; choosing healthy ways to cope. On the right is a gray circle with four points: MORE; reacting automatically; self-soothing in unhealthy ways; feeling guilty or powerless.

Fury concurs that this nonjudgmental approach "is becoming a thing in therapy" But she also notes it’s not entirely a new concept, as it’s "been an integral part of yoga for 2,000 years."

In yoga it takes the form of "mindfulness," or awareness of the present moment. This is in direct contrast to the way many people tend to live — in the past or the future, anticipating experiences or reliving them.

Yoga, Fury says, helps break this pattern. "In yoga, your body is stretching and twisting, and it orients you to the moment — how your body feels right now." One of the benefits? "There’s an innate relaxation to being in the present."

And it’s about more than just stress relief. The practice of learning to recognize feelings in the body is also preparation for dealing with situations that may be challenging or uncomfortable. And honestly, stresses can offer us unique opportunities to become stronger and more resilient.

"It’s learning to surf the wave of emotion," says Costello, "instead of being pushed over" by it.

There are steps parents can take to help kids recognize situations that produce stress and prepare for them. For instance, during the transition back to school, parents can prepare kids by meeting teachers, visiting the school and talking and answering kids’ questions. When the year ends, parents can discuss summer schedules or summer camp options. In addition, good nutrition, plenty of physical activity and adequate sleep are also essential to helping kids regulate their emotions.

Costello, though, cautions parents against one of the leading causes of school-year stress for kids: overscheduling. Instead, she says, build in time to have fun.

Jason Williams, Psy.D., clinical director of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado, agrees.

"In some ways, just having fun as a family is the best way to deal with stress," he says. "It’s hard to be stressed when you’re laughing."

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