Parents Helping Children with Stress

February 12th, 2013 posted by Michele Germain, LCSW


Being a parent in my opinion is one of the most important and difficult jobs on the planet. Children come into the world with their own unique design and personalities. Some of them are balls of energy while others are calm. Some are sensitive to their environment while others seem to roll with the circumstances. But all children, no matter how they respond to their world, need help in identifying and managing their stress. Stress can cause a physical, emotional and behavioral reaction. Some causes of stress can be more severe, for example, hospitalization, relocation, divorce or the death of someone.

Other events may not appear as difficult but can cause stress. Beginning first grade, too much responsibility, making friends, adapting to children that are different or do not like them, parents unrealistic expectations, criticism, time pressures, or too many commitments. Parents need to be able to identify when their child or adolescent is under stress, as they are unlikely to be able to verbalize their internal emotional state. It is also important to provide them with tools to help them cope. Now you may say I am aware when my child or adolescent is under stress, but there are degrees of awareness. You may be aware that your child or adolescent is losing or gaining weight but not know why there is a change in eating habits.

You may be aware that they are watching a lot of TV, but not aware of how frightened and anxious they become over the news they hear or the movies they watch. You might be aware of how diligent and preoccupied they are with getting their homework done, but not aware of how afraid they are of disappointing you. You might be aware of how easily they cry or get angry, but not be aware of their difficulty in making friends at school, or their poor self-image. You might be aware that they are forgetting things and are not able to concentrate, but not aware that they are depressed or unhappy. Here are some guidelines to consider when helping your child or adolescent with stress.

1. FIND THE UNEXPRESSED FEELINGS THAT ARE BEHIND THE SYMPTOM This requires you to be aware and alert of your child’s emotional and physical state as well as their behavior. Sometimes, we overlook behaviors, which seem common and not aware that it is a symptom of some unexpressed feelings.Some common symptoms of stress are: Perfectionism, moodiness, muscle tension, stomach aches, aggressive behavior, any nervous habits, difficulty getting along with other peers, sleep problems, difficult learning, withdrawal from friends, fatigue, forgetfulness, anxiety, excessive worry or lethargic, getting in trouble at school, or difficulty separating from parents. Parents need to be able to identify when their child is under stress, as they are unlikely to be able to verbalize their internal emotional state. When a child or adolescent is able to identify and express what they feel, internal stress is immediately reduce and the problem is no longer hidden. You should seek medical advice if you feel it is necessary to rule out any serious physical problems.

2. SEEK TO UNDERSTAND RATHER THAN TO BE UNDERSTOOD. This implies that you should ask many questions and listen rather than give advice or make assumptions. It is important when you begin a dialog to approach your child when you are calm. Do not try to talk to them when they are tired, hungry or busy. Ask questions that are open ended. Not questions that will just elicit a yes or no answer. Instead of how was your day at school? Ask what did you do in math or at lunchtime? Or, how do you like your teacher? Why is Max your best friend? What makes you happy? What makes you unhappy? You want them to tell you as much as they can with what is going on. Why do you think Jimmy is not being kind to you? Who is your best friend and what kind of things do you do together? Why do you think you have that stomachache? How is your body feeling today? What were you thinking when you could not go to sleep? Use your imagination as if you were gathering as much information as possible. Listen without judgment, it is important to understand what your children are thinking and feeling, even if it does not make sense to you. If they cannot tell you anything, do not pressure. Ask a different way or wait for another day. Children and adolescent’s are most afraid of judgment or rejection or feeling that something is wrong with them. They may also be afraid of their feelings and not know how to name them. It is important to assure them that expressing their feelings is healthy. Feelings give you information and help solve the problem.

3. SUPPORT, PRAISE AND EMPOWER After you have gathered some information, thank your child or adolescent for telling you what was on their mind and what they were feeling. SUPPORT means that you listen without judgment and tell them you will be there to help them get through their problem, issue or concern. Next, PRAISE them by identifying their strengths, talents and help them to identify with that part of themselves. Give examples of how they use these strengths in their world. EMPOWER them means that you believe in them even though at the moment they may not believe in themselves. Give positive examples of how they have handled difficult issues/problems in the past. Empower them further by problem solving. First ask them what they think would help. This allows them to come up with their own ideas. Sometimes just talking about the problem can solve the problem. If they have no solution, you can provide options and ask them which ones they think they can try. Action steps are defined by coming up with possible solutions to the problem. Such as, ” maybe you can ask your friend to help you with your homework.” “Maybe we can invite your friend over for dinner” Lets talk to the teacher. Etc. Action steps will allow the child to feel more empowered than helpless or overwhelmed. Then set up a time when you can talk again so that you follow through with your child or adolescent and the outcome of their actions. If they have not taken any actions, start the process of problem solving again and see if there are other options that are more manageable. As you walk through this process with your child it will help you to keep a stronger connection and develop a level of trust so they come to you for future issues. You are developing in your child or adolescent as well as yourself the tools that are necessary to get through the challenges life brings. The steps are simple but not always learned or practiced.

Michele Germain, LCSW (7 Posts)

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