Talking with your child about what it feels like when they’re overwhelmed, and what makes them feel worried, can help them better understand their stress. When they recognize their own emotions, behaviours, and physical reaction to stress, they can work on ways to reduce it.
Together you can use the Stress in My Day activity sheet to help your child understand how they react to stress and their potential triggers.
Here are some great ways to talk openly about emotions and stress, and encourage your child to do so, too.
Deep listening: Check-in regularly to understand how your child is feeling.
Ask your child about their day and try these tips:
- You could kick-start the conversation by sharing how your own day went.
- You could try starting the conversation with “what made you feel happy today” and then shift to what was frustrating and go on from there.
- As you hear about their day, be sure to ask about what they think and feel about what happened.
- Really listen to what your child is saying. Are they tired of their activities? Do they feel that they aren’t fitting in at school? Has your child mentioned anything potentially stressful, like a test at school?
- Try talking in the car or while on a walk or with a younger child, while cuddling on the couch or before bed – not being face to face can make it easier to open up.
- Often, it’s helpful to use words like ‘worried’, ‘upset’, ‘sad’ – some younger children might understand this better than stress. Teenagers may describe feeling ‘overwhelmed’. Use the words that work for your child.
- If something stressful comes up, but your child doesn’t give a lot of detail or doesn’t want to talk more, don’t push for information; you can always come back to the conversation later. Let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk more.
Connecting mind and body: Getting in tune with stress
Encourage your child to listen to their body and mind when they feel stress or worry. You can ask them how stress affects their:
- Body (e.g. muscles that hurt, headache, upset stomach)
- Mood (e.g. irritable, bad mood)
- Thoughts (e.g. negative thoughts, difficulty paying attention)
- Behaviour (e.g. restlessness)
For younger children, continue to be a ‘stress detective’ and help them make connections between their body and stress. If you notice your child is complaining of a stomach ache, or is more irritable than usual, for example, and you suspect that stress is the cause, you can help them think about how they are feeling might relate to stress.
Turning it down: Explaining the physical effects of stress and how to calm them
By teaching your child how stress feels in their body, they can begin to deal with the feelings as they come up.
First, reassure your child that it’s common to feel stress. Stress is a natural part of everyone’s life, and a normal “fight- flight-freeze” response that gets triggered inside the body when we feel stress. In this response, the body releases hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and readies your muscles to respond.
One way your child can help “turn down” this natural stress response is by taking slow deep breaths to feel calmer. Other breathing exercises can also help.
Follow along with Stresslr, a friendly robot, with your child for a fun way to learn about stress:
Put a name to it: Help children notice and name their stressful feelings
Learning to notice and identify your feelings takes practice. Children might not understand that the in-the-moment feelings they are having are related to a stressor.
Teach them words to describe their feelings so they can tell you what they feel. Giving a name to feelings can be a great relief for children. You can teach younger children basic feeling words such as happy, mad, sad and scared. Older children can benefit from learning more complex feeling words such as frustrated, disappointed, and nervous. Breaking down feelings helps to better manage them.
Try these tips for families on talking about emotions.
Read together: Use stories to explore stressful feelings
Children often feel less alone when they read a story about a child facing similar problems to their own.
So, reading books together that deal with stress in a positive way is a great way to help your child better understand themselves.
Children tend to identify with a book’s characters and find comfort in learning from them how to deal with stressful situations in a positive way. You can read a book together like The way I feel that teaches young children about emotions.
Stay calm and carry on: How you modeling healthy ways of coping with stress can help your child
As a parent, one of the most powerful ways that you can teach your child about understanding and coping with stress, is to model for them how you manage stress yourself.
Try to stay calm under pressure, but don’t be afraid to tell and show your child how you handle stress now and again. For example, it’s helpful to say, “I'm going to take a hot bath and relax for a bit,” or “I’m feeling stressed, so I’m going to do my slow breathing now to calm down.” When you problem solve out loud, your child will start to pick up on how you handle stress, and can practice it, too. It also gives them permission to feel their own stress.
And if you find yourself reacting too strongly to a particular stressor one day, that’s okay. Just point out how you could have better handled the issue, and explain why you reacted the way you did. For example, explain why you were frustrated that you were running late for work one morning trying to get them to school, and that together you should try coming up with better ways to manage it.
Be mindful of how you talk about stress in front of your child. Make sure that you are aware of who is listening when expressing your own stress, as children who overhear may start to worry themselves.