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Pediatric Mental Health Institute
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How to Deal with Stress in Children

Today’s youth tell us that they are more stressed than ever. They’re stressed about the same things their parents were — grades, problems with peers, family issues — but they’re also thinking about mass shootings, suicide rates, climate change, the separation and deportation of immigrant families, sexual harassment and assault.

The American Psychological Association’s 2018 Stress in America: Generation Z survey found these high-profile issues to be significant stressors for young adults. The survey also reported on the stressful effects of social media: 45% of teens said social media makes them feel judged and 38% report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media.

With so many new stressors for teens and young adults, it’s more important than ever for teens and families to confront stress head-on. Laura Anthony, PhD, a psychologist in Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Pediatric Mental Health Institute, offers three easy, research-based practices your patients and families can try — starting today — to improve mental health and prevent stress:

Top three evidence-based mental health boosters

Some of the most effective stress-reducing practices are simple and relatively easy for families.

Sleep

It’s no secret how important sleep is for kids’ physical and mental health. Sleep problems are often the first stress symptoms to show up and the last to go away. Poor sleep causes a stress response in the body, leading to a negative feedback cycle.

Kids need a lot of sleep. To determine the right bedtime, identify the right amount of sleep for each child, count back from the time they need to get up in the morning and remind parents that kids should stay away from screens starting at least an hour before bedtime.

Relaxation breathing in kids

This stress-busting trick will take you 2 minutes to explain to your families and practice in your appointment and anyone can teach it. Here’s a very simple script for kids:

  • Focus on your stomach and imagine a balloon inside. Breathe in slowly through your nose, imagining the balloon getting slowly bigger. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then slowly breathe out through your mouth, imagining the balloon getting smaller. Repeat five or more times.
  • See how different your body feels. Are you more relaxed? Do you feel lighter? Great! You can practice breathing like this any time and anywhere, even sitting at your desk at school, and soon your body will develop the habit.

There’s also an app for that! Sesame Street’s “Breathe, Think, Do” app© is a great, free guide to breathing and problem-solving for kids age 5 and under. It’s available in English and Spanish. For older kids and adults, there’s Breathe2Relax©, another free guide to deep breathing. Kids can change the timing of the inhale or exhale to adjust for lung size and comfort.

Strengthening family connections

Stress is contagious. If a child is stressed, that causes more stress for the parent, which in turn makes the child feel more stressed. Focusing on the positive, listening openly and making time connect can all fight stress.

Parents should try for a 4- or 5-to-1 praise-to-correction ratio, and ask their kids to do the same for themselves, their siblings, the parent or even the dog. Focusing on the positive is a powerful tool.

Listening openly starts with reserving judgment. Parents might say, “you sound pretty frustrated,” rather than saying “don’t worry about that.” Parents shouldn’t try to convince their child that what they’re stressed about isn’t true or worth it. When kids know their thoughts, feelings and beliefs are respected, they’ll stress less. That’s especially true when parents don’t try to solve their children’s problems, but rather try to guide them through solving their own.

Connection time can be a family meal, a walk together, family game night or even some time in the car or on the bus when everyone turns off their phones. Too busy for time together every day? Challenge parents to connect with their kids via text on the busiest days; go ahead and share that funny meme!

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