Handling Stress

What you should know about your kidsí coping skills.

Compared with what adults face, it might seem like kids don’t have that much to stress about. But kids have their own concerns— and kids’ stresses can be just as overwhelming, particularly if they don’t have effective coping strategies.

The latest KidsHealth® KidsPoll explored what kids stress about the most, how they cope with these feelings, and what they want their parents to do about it.

The poll showed that kids are dealing with their stresses in both healthy and unhealthy ways, and while they may not say so, they want their parents to reach out and help them cope with their feelings.

Results of the Poll

We asked kids to tell us what things cause them the most stress. Kids said that they were stressed out the most by: grades, school and homework (36 percent); family (32 percent); and friends, peers, gossip and teasing (21 percent).

These are the coping strategies kids said they use the most (they could give more than one response):

  • 52 percent play or do something active
  • 44 percent listen to music
  • 42 percent watch TV or play a video game
  • 30 percent talk to a friend
  • 29 percent try not to think about it
  • 28 percent try to work things out
  • 26 percent eat something
  • 23 percent lose their temper
  • 22 percent talk to a parent
  • 11 percent cry

About 25 percent of the kids we surveyed said that when they are upset, they take it out on themselves, either by banging their heads against something, hitting or biting themselves, or doing something else to hurt themselves. These kids were also more likely to have other unhealthy coping strategies, such as eating, losing their tempers and keeping problems to themselves.

The idea that kids would do things to try to harm themselves may be shocking to parents. But for some kids, feelings of stress, frustration, helplessness, hurt or anger can be overwhelming. And without a way to express or release their feelings, a kid may feel like a volcano ready to erupt— or at least let off steam.

Sometimes, kids blame themselves when things go wrong. They might feel ashamed, embarrassed or angry at themselves for the role they played in the situation. Hurting themselves may be a way to express the stress and blame themselves at the same time.

The poll also revealed important news for parents. Though talking to parents ranked eighth on the list of most popular coping methods, 75 percent of the kids surveyed said they want and need their parents’ help in times of trouble. When they’re stressed, they’d like their parents to talk with them, help them solve the problem, try to cheer them up or just spend time together.

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 revealing 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 state. 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 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 feels like talking. Even when kids don’t feel like talking, they usually don’t want parents to leave them alone. 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.
  • 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. By learning healthy coping strategies, your child can manage whatever stresses come in the future.