“I’m way more stressed out than you,” said my 11-year-old to me recently. “Grown-ups have it way easier than kids.” I argued with him about it for a few minutes (I mean, come on. Bills? Jobs? Keeping all the plates spinning every day?) before a little voice inside said to be quiet and just listen. And a few days later, I realized that what he said actually lines up with a new study released last week by the American Psychological Organization, which says that stress levels of American teens are at an all time high.
According to the survey, school and grades are the top culprits. 31 percent of teens said they felt overwhelmed in general, and 30 percent said they were anxious or sad. I think there are many reasons for this — a greater emphasis on test taking in schools, increased difficulty getting in to college, the advent of social media, and a less-than-robust economy. And here’s something else to think about: A few years ago, I was watching a documentary about the high stress levels people are reporting in England. A quote from that show really stuck with me: “In early human history, we ran from our predators, and when we escaped, our stress response went down. But nowadays, our thoughts are our predators — and they are with us 24/7.”
So what can we do as parents to teach our kids how to cope with their stress, which has a huge effect on their sleeping, eating and socializing patterns? Here are 5 coping skills you can teach your child, starting today.
1. Positive self-talk. Okay, I know this may sound corny to some of you, (it did to me, at first) but trust me, it’s so important. Kids often repeat negative thoughts in their heads like, “No one likes me; I’m fat and ugly; I’m going to fail this test because I’m stupid.” Positive Self-talk is the ability to replace them with positives like, “I can handle it. I passed before, I can pass again. I have some good friends who care about me.” (Or whatever is true for your child.) Here’s the tough part: What your child hears you saying to yourself, he or she will often internalize. I have a bad habit of saying, “Ugh, I’m so stupid!” when I lose my keys or make a dumb mistake. Guess who started saying that recently? Yup, my kid. (And guess who I heard it from? Yup, my own mom.) Now I’m trying to actually listen to the things I say aloud (as well as the things I repeat in my head) and replace them with something positive. So when my son is upset about something and gets into that black-and-white thinking of “It will never work. I stink!” I say, “Hey, it’ll be okay. Your gift card from Nana will turn up,” or “You did well in band last semester. You figured out what you needed to do really well. Just keep practicing, and you’ll do fine.” (And I try to remember to say similar things to myself!)
2. Break it down. If your child is stressed and overwhelmed by a big project, help them break it down into small steps. Giving them “hurdle help” to get them started can also be really effective. Ask them questions to help them come up with the first line for an essay, for example. For bigger projects, here’s a tip an old boss of mine taught me: Open up a new document on your desktop with the title of the project, and save it. That way, the next day, you’ll feel like you already started and it’s not so daunting. Similarly, have your child write their name at the top of a big assignment, or have them come up with a title. These baby steps can help your child get over his or her fear of starting a huge task.
3. Anxious, “worrier” kids. Our son is a bit of a perfectionist and really gets down on himself when he doesn’t do well. At these moments, I so wish he had more of that laid back gene that some of our relaxed family members were blessed with! What this A-type trait does, actually, is prevent him from trying things sometimes, because he’s so worried he’ll fail. One thing we’ve started saying to (and in front of) our child is, “Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s okay — it’s all part of life. It’s what you do next that counts.” Admitting when you’ve made a mistake and apologizing in front of your child is huge, too. And, instead of praising our child for the end result, we’ve started to focus on how hard he worked, and how creatively he solved the problem.
4. Lighten the load. If your child is overwhelmed with school and extracurriculars, sit down with them and say, “You seem a little stressed lately. How can I be helpful? Let’s talk about something we can change or cut out.” Think about it this way: In a few years, will he or she care that they didn’t play three sports or volunteer to decorate the gym for every dance? Listen to your child and find out what they really love doing — the things that fill them up, rather than drain them of energy — and then think about cutting out some of the extraneous stuff. Role model this in your own life, too. Are you taking care of others but not yourself? Do you volunteer too much, or get sucked in by work 24/7? Try to create some boundaries and space in your life, too, if you can. (I know — easier said than done! This is one I’m working on myself!)
5. Help your child find a way to calm: Help your child find something specific to them that has the power to calm them down, whether it’s listening to music, going skateboarding, reading, walking the dog, drawing, talking to a trusted friend, or shooting some hoops. (Preferably, something that’s screen-free is best, since electronics tend to jazz kids up, but every kid is different — and you know your child best.) This is such an important life skill to master, and something Debbie Pincus talks about a lot. Our son really likes being outside, and taking a walk often helps him re-set his calm button. (Also, going to his room and hanging out with his pets.) It’s been shown that meditation has a great effect on students, too, with universities actually offering non-denominational classes in it now, with very positive results. The point is, being able to take yourself out of the whirl of stress you find yourself in at any given moment helps you in almost every aspect of your existence. It may sound simple, but teaching your child this skill is a gift that will last a lifetime.
Anything you’ve tried with your child that you want to tell us about? Please share your tips in the comments section — I’d love to hear them!
Elisabeth Wilkins is the mother of one son and the Editor of EmpoweringParents.com. She and her family live in Maine.