Talking to Your Kids About Stress
Empowering Their Resilience
By Cynthia Ackrill, MD, PCC, FAIS
*This is an article from the Fall 2021 issue of Contentment Magazine.
It’s yet another school year plagued with uncertainly, risk, and disruption. Your kids are stressed. You’re stressed. And you’re not sure how to help.
We know that “coping confidence,” or feeling like you have the tools and resources to handle a challenge is critical to resilience and whether or not stress is actually toxic.1 But how can you help your kids develop this confidence when you could use a little yourself?
How Stress Shows Up for Kids
Firstly, it’s important to recognize that though the automatic stress reaction wiring is universal, the way in which repeated or prolonged stress manifests in each parent or child is very variable. Some people are naturally more resilient. This may be a combination of factors: genetics, family stories/expectations, cultural influences, life experience. Signs and symptoms may show up mentally, emotionally, physically, or behaviorally. The more you learn to recognize your early signs of stress overload, the faster you can make small adjustments to change your experience.
Here are some typical changes you might notice if your children are struggling with stress:
· Increased crying, irritation
· Changes in eating or sleeping habits
· Difficulty concentrating, increased disorganization/forgetfulness
· Reverting to outgrown behaviors
· Increased sense of urgency, frustration
· Change in school performance
· Change in social interaction, withdrawal
· Increased aches, pains, or physical symptoms
· Increased colds or illnesses
· Substance abuse
Of course, as parents, you see can over-read just about anything you observe, or project your own stress and worries. Take a few long deep breaths, read on, and then decide if you and/or your child would benefit from learning some new ways to handle stress.
A note about stress vs. anxiety: while they share many characteristics, anxiety is more of an internal reaction that persists past the external stressful situation. There are plenty of resources to learn more about the differences.2 And please, if you have lingering concern that you or your child may really be at risk or are dealing with persistent anxiety or depression, please reach out to consult with a health professional. There are so many helpful, and often non-pharmaceutical, ways to address anxiety.
5 Ways to Talk About Stress
What you say really matters — to them and to you. And… don’t over think that! Make stress a safe topic and let your kids know that we are ALL on the path of learning more about how to handle ourselves and our lives. We all make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.
The important part is to stay curious and compassionate and explore together. Sprinkle insights, reflections, and questions in only when appropriate and the mood/tone feels neutral to happy. This is more about framing stress in a useful way than going on the lecture circuit — we all know how well a parental agenda can backfire!
1. Just do it! Do not even try to pretend you can sneak your stress by your kids — it affects the quality of your interactions and shows up in physiological changes in parent and child.3 Stress is contagious even when you don’t speak it. Humans are wired to pick up each other’s stress, especially the non-verbal cues, because that helps alert us to possible danger. (If I just saw a tiger outside our cave, it’s good for you to get your heartrate ready, too.) Kids tune into your every breath and grimace and tend to take it personally. Remember watching your parent’s faces to see if you were “ok?” Kids learn from how you talk about handling life’s pressures.
Of course, I’m not saying tell your 3-year-old son that you are worried about losing your job. But it is helpful for him to hear you say, “Mommy feels sort of jumpy/grumpy right now and needs to do her belly breaths to feel calmer. Want to do them with me?” (Lie down on the floor together, with hands on your bellies — this can be a great teaching moment and comic relief.)
It is effective to tell your 14-year-old daughter that you are feeling a little overwhelmed right now so you might have been less than patient with her — you are sorry you didn’t handle your feelings so well. Tell her you know that is a sign that you need to take a little time to clear your head (exercise/breathwork/etc.) and think about what matters most and what has worked before. This models how to sort out life challenges. Then ask her what makes her feel more in control when she feels overwhelmed.
2. Demystify it. Stress is part of all life — not something you can completely avoid. You actually need some stress to get motivated to do your best.4 There is nothing “wrong” with you if you feel it — you haven’t “failed life!” It is natural for it to make you feel more alone. It is a normal reaction, your brain protecting you, calling your body to action to keep you safe from a perceived threat, from being “not ok.” It is critical inside information. Kids like to learn about their brains — use that!
You get stronger than your stress by learning more about it. Explore together what tends to trigger it for each of you, what you typically feel, how to use these inside feelings (self-awareness) to make adjustments and better choices. Learn tools to find calm in the moment and learn skills to build resilience and strength for the future.
3. De-demonize it. Research shows it is more powerful to embrace stress than to reduce it.5 Realize that what you say about stress out loud and between your ears colors your perception of it and teaches your children how to label what they feel. Minds are meaning-making machines, assigning meanings to inputs. Is this a mountain (“I’m doomed!”) or a molehill (“I’ve got this!”)? This is your “stress lens.”
Becoming aware of and adjusting your lens gives you power to radically alter how much energy you spend on a problem, how much misery you feel, and even how much needless shame compounds the situation. Science also shows that stressed brains tend to be more negative and more ‘black and white.’ And these tendencies are amplified in a culture of drama, superlatives, and rampant fear.
Recognize this, adjust your own thoughts/language first, (maybe do you own breathwork first!), then ask questions to help your child put his/her worries in perspective without minimizing their very real feelings. Figure out what is really at stake, what is still in his/her control, and what matters most. “I’m curious, on a scale of 1-10, how big is this problem? What feels scary about it? What parts of this can you control? What’s most important?” (Note: this is much easier once you help your child get physically calm, so their smarter brain cells get some blood flow back.)
And while you’re at it, you can de-demonize vulnerability, the source of so much stress and shame. Instead, learn and teach more about the power of vulnerability.6
4. Ask more than tell. This one has multiple benefits. Get curious; be specific; use humor and play; minimize judgment. Making the world safe for yourself and others to be fully human is a gift to all.
a. Build self-awareness, critical to resilience, and too often drilled out of us in the pursuit of success. Ask your children what they feel in their bodies when they are worried. Teach them (or use an online guided visualization) to scan their bodies and notice where they feel the stress. Share what you notice.
These feelings become cues to check-in and think about what they need to be “ok.” (“When my brain gets buzzy, I know I need to do a calming exercise, or I just can’t think as well.”) Ask what they need right now so they learn to better identify and advocate for themselves. Pinterest abounds with engaging charts of feelings and emotions that you can download. The Center for Nonviolent Communication also has great resources, many of which have been put into image form on Pinterest as well.7 (Example: needs wheel for adults.)8
b. Model curiosity, a powerful skill. Getting curious shifts blood flow back to the frontal lobe, giving access to problem solving creativity. It depersonalizes the problem and teaches cognitive flexibility. (“I’m curious, what do you think your teacher was really upset about when he yelled?”)
c. Build self-efficacy by helping your child explore how to solve his/her own problems, brainstorm to get unstuck, access inner knowing, and understand that some of the best learning happens when things don’t go right. Ask what has worked well before? Then ask your child to list as many possibilities ask he can for what he can do now —at least 10 (to get his mind unstuck). You can get silly. Fun always enhances learning, and brainstorming promotes creativity, a true resilience skill. Ask her what she “feels” is the best solution to promote trusting her instincts. Ask him to play out the possibilities in his mind to teach consequences. (“If you tell your friend that you saw him cheat, how will you feel? How will he feel? What good might come out of it? What’s at risk?)
5. Leverage Strengths. The human mind is wired with a negative bias,9 keeping you vigilant for possible danger and making problem-focused thinking an easy default. Yet Positive Psychology research reveals that a positive mindset and strengths-based approach will help you and your children cope and bounce back.10 It does take intention and attention to shift from the problem perspective to optimism, but simple questions can make a huge difference in your child’s outlook.11
It is important to note, this is NOT about glossing over difficulties in a “Pollyanna” fashion or encouraging magical thinking. It is about authentically bringing attention to strengths that promote self-efficacy and broaden perspective in the moment. Have each family member map his/her strengths with an easy survey.12 Ask your child what makes him/her strong? What has worked for him in the past? What strength might be helpful right now? Your questions have so much power!
The old saying, “Place your own oxygen mask first,” still applies. Breathe! Do that again. And then get creative about partnering with your kids to explore the world of resilience together. You are not supposed to have all the answers, nor a magic wand to erase their stress. But you can start to have conversations that will serve them (and you!) for years to come.
References 1. https://news.stanford.edu/2015/05/07/stress-embrace-mcgonigal-050715/ 2. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/stress/what-is-the-difference-between-stress-and-anxiety/?utm_source=AdWords&utm_medium=Search_PPC_c&utm_term=_b&utm_content=77548444015&network=g&placement=&target=&matchtype=b&utm_campaign=6459244691&ad_type=text&adposi
3. Waters, S. F., Karnilowicz, H. R., West, T. V., & Mendes, W. B. (2020). Keep it to yourself? Parent emotion suppression influences physiological linkage and interaction behavior. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(7), 784–793. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000664 4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-brain-and-emotional-intelligence/201203/the-sweet-spot-achievement 5. https://news.stanford.edu/2015/05/07/stress-embrace-mcgonigal-050715/ 6. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability/transcript?language=en 7. https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/learn-nonviolent-communication/feelings/ 8. https://ytp.uoregon.edu/sites/ytp2.uoregon.edu/files/Needs Wheel in PDF.pdf 9. https://www.psycom.net/negativity-bias 10. https://positivepsychology.com/resilience-in-positive-psychology/ 11. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_be_a_strength_based_parent