As parents and caregivers, there’s nothing better than seeing our kids with bright eyes and wide smiles at the end of the day. However, just as we, as adults, deal with stress and anxiety, our kids do, too. Children can experience stress and anxiety at any age, whether due to school pressures, social challenges, or familial circumstances.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to help our children manage these anxious feelings through guidance and modeling healthy coping mechanisms. With that in mind, let's address the causes of stress and anxiety in children so we can better understand how to help them as they grow.
Signs of Stress & Anxiety in Children
All children are unique in their own way, meaning they may express stress and anxiety symptoms differently from others. Recognizing signs or patterns of childhood stress can help you help your child overcome their feelings of stress. Here are some frequent warning signs of stress in a young child to look out for:
- Changes in sleep patterns: If your child has trouble sleeping, has night terrors, or sleeps excessively, it might be an indication of stress or worry.
- Mood changes: If your child becomes easily irritated, angry, or unhappy more frequently than normal, they may be showing underlying signs of stress.
- Changes in appetite: Stress and anxiety can induce a lack of appetite or overeating. From breakfast to snack time, try observing your child’s eating habits to notice any changes in their eating patterns that may indicate stress.
- Physical symptoms: Physical symptoms associated with stress and anxiety include headaches, stomach pains, and muscular strain.
- Excessive worry: Whether at home or around others in a social setting, if your child appears overly concerned about something, this could be a sign of anxiety.
Stress and anxiety can impact child development by potentially changing their brain chemistry, anatomy, and gene expression, which can lead to problems in behavior and physical and mental health. They can also impact a child's ability to think and interact with others, leading to isolation, low self-esteem, and the ability to feel comfortable in social settings.1
While stress and anxiety are common, it’s important to address the signs above in early childhood to help your child grow into a strong, emotionally intelligent, and independent individual. As a helpful guide, we’ve outlined a few do’s and don’ts of how you can support your child once you start noticing signs of distress.
The Do’s of Easing Anxiety in Kids
Helping a young child develop coping skills to manage stress can be beneficial for them in the future. When it comes to helping your child manage their anxious feelings, there are certain steps you can take—and others you’ll want to avoid—when identifying the best approach for supporting them as a parent or caregiver. Here are some things to do:
- Promote open communication – Encourage your child to talk about their feelings, thoughts, and experiences to help them feel more supported and less alone. Communication is crucial for child development and furthering their early childhood social emotional learning can help them prepare to self-regulate and feel calmer on their own.
- Build healthy habits together – Planning one-on-one time with your child is a great way to help build a strong connection and find activities you enjoy doing together. Exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety in both kids and grown-ups, making it a fun and healthy way to spend time together. Other healthy habits you can practice include healthy eating habits, regular sleep routines, and limited screen time.
- Listen, validate, and help your child identify their feelings – Reassure them their feelings are important and that you are there to support them. Consider asking them why they feel the way they do to help them lean into their emotions. If they’re unsure how to communicate their feelings, ask them how their body is feeling. For example, if they’re nervous, they may feel sensations like warmth or tingles in their bodies. This method helps your child trust their body to notice internal cues and emotions. Identifying a feeling and how big a feeling is can help your child gain an understanding of their emotions and lay the groundwork for learning how to address them.
- Practice affirmations – Affirmations are positive statements that challenge negative thoughts and beliefs. Research has found that affirmations for kids are helpful for building self-confidence and self-esteem.2Encourage your child to learn and repeat some simple, powerful phrases, like "I am strong and capable" or "I can handle anything that comes my way." Affirmations are a form of positive language that can be built into your child’s daily routines, like getting ready for school or at bedtime.
- Teach mindfulness – Mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques can help children manage stress and anxiety by showing them how to focus on the present moment. Even very young children can easily master deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.
- Teach a growth mindset – Mistakes are a part of life––but they’re essential to how we grow. When your child is stressed or worried about something like a bad grade on a test, remind them it’s okay to make mistakes. From there, you can help them learn from the situation and find solutions for how they can improve or be more prepared in the future. By encouraging your child to embrace all life experiences as learning experiences, you can help them express their feelings and explore areas of growth without shame.
- Provide a sense of safety and security – Predictability is key to helping children manage stress. Creating a safe and stable home environment with clear rules and routines can help children feel more secure and less anxious. You can also create a relaxation space in your home where your child can go when they need to take a break and decompress. Add sensory tools like a weighted blanket, stress toys, and noise-canceling headphones.
- Address underlying issues – Stress and anxiety can stem from a variety of things, especially big life transitions like moving to another place, divorce, or past traumatic experiences like a death in the family or an accident. While some kids may be able to find support from family and friends, others may benefit from additional support.
- Seek professional support – When addressing your child’s signs of stress and anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare professional for additional guidance if you’re concerned about their behaviors. Visiting a doctor or therapist can be a great first step in supporting your child as they navigate feelings of distress, providing them a space to express their feelings and identify potential solutions or helpful coping mechanisms.
The Don’ts of Easing Anxiety in Children
While every situation is different, there are typically some things you’ll want to avoid doing, including:
- Don't minimize their feelings – You are not alone when it comes to accidentally dismissing your child’s worries. However, it’s important to try catching yourself before saying things like "just relax" or “oh, don’t worry about that” to prevent your kids from feeling unsupported when they come to you with a concern.. Take the time to listen, reflect, and problem-solve together to help your child navigate their emotions.
- Don't push them too hard – While encouraging your child to face their fears and overcome their anxiety is important, pushing them too hard can be counterproductive and increase their stress levels. Instead, meet them where they are at and explore the next steps for where you can support them in facing their fears.
- Don't avoid triggers – Though avoiding uncomfortable circumstances or activities may seem like the easiest solution, doing so can reinforce your anxious child’s concerns and make them even more stressed in the long run. Remind them it's okay to be scared, and that you’re there to ensure they’re safe.
- Don't forget self care – Self care for kids is just as important as self care for parents. Remember: you can't pour from an empty cup. Be sure to check in with yourself on a daily or weekly basis. And don’t hesitate to reach out to family, friends, or others in your community for support.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out for support – It’s common to think therapy is only necessary for kids who are in crisis or have experienced something traumatic. Additionally, you may worry that taking your kids to therapy will make them feel like there’s something wrong with them. However, if you rule out these assumptions, you’ll discover that therapy can be a great resource and benefit for your child, where they’re supported in a fun and engaging environment and are encouraged to normalize having big feelings. If you feel like your family has hit a roadblock, going to therapy is a great option and will show them it’s an option if they need it in the future.
You can help your child build the skills they need to manage childhood stress and anxiety healthily by following these guidelines. Anxiety can be tough to overcome, so remember to be patient with yourself.
Bonus! Extra Tips and Tricks for Helping Kids With Stress
Here are some additional pointers for addressing stress and anxiety when spending quality time with your kids:
- When in doubt, play! – There are different activities you can try with your child to help them process their emotions, feel more in control, and embrace their creativity and imagination. Slumberkins' Connect-to-Grow method emphasizes the importance of building connections and understanding emotions via play.
- Encourage deep breathing exercises – Deep breathing can help relax the body and lessen stress. A few deep inhales and exhales can help provide some immediate relief. You may also consider meditation exercises to help create a calming environment for your child.
- Address societal anxieties – Discuss any worries or concerns your child may have regarding current events or societal issues. Be aware of how these matters are discussed (especially between adults) in your home and in your community. As you do so, consider how you can participate in your community to help facilitate these conversations and types of social anxieties. Having awareness of your and others’ roles in your neighborhood can help support your and your child’s sense of agency and confidence.
- Model imperfection – Encourage how to practice self acceptance, and show your child that it’s okay to make mistakes.
- Encourage safety signals – When your child is experiencing stress and anxiety, it’s important to create a safe space for them to take a few deep breaths, remind their bodies they are safe, and practice different ways for them to signal a sense safety for themselves. Consider the following simple methods!
- Place your hand on your chest, feet on the ground, and practice the mantra: ‘I am safe now.’
- Turn your head over your shoulder and take a few deep breaths. This can help signal to your brain that you are in safety mode, rather than flight mode.3
Find Support from Slumberkins
Helping your child deal with stress and anxiety can be a challenging journey, but you’re not alone! At Slumberkins, we’re here to help you every step of the way as you navigate addressing your child’s stress and anxiety. By helping them recognize their needs and equipping them with tools to manage their emotions, you can rest assured knowing they’re supported.
By focusing on self-acceptance and a sense of exploration, families can discover new ways to connect and care for each other. Whether cozying up with cozy snugglers or trying out a new routine for kids, prioritize your family's well-being and foster your child's emotional growth.
- Phang, K. "Toxic stress: How the body's response can harm a child's development." Nationwide Children's Hospital. 13 July, 2017. https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2017/07/toxic-stress-how-the-bodys-response-can-harm-a-childs-development
- Cascio, Christopher N et al. “Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 11,4 (2016): 621-9. doi:10.1093/scan/nsv136
- Bren, Sarah. "Fight or Flight: What Every Parent Needs to Know." Dr. Sarah Bren. https://drsarahbren.com/fight-or-flight-what-every-parent-needs-to-know/
- Lim, Jongseok et al. “Negative impact of noise and noise sensitivity on mental health in childhood.” Noise & health vol. 20,96 (2018): 199-211. doi:10.4103/nah.NAH_9_18
- Spencer, Andrea E et al. “Changes in psychosocial functioning among urban, school-age children during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Child and adolescent psychiatry and mental health vol. 15,1 73. 2 Dec. 2021, doi:10.1186/s13034-021-00419-w