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How Parents Can Help Children Deal with Stress

Christine French Cully | Oct 10, 2014

Mom & kid on laptop

Christine French
Cully
Oct 10, 2014

At Highlights for Children, we believe that one of the best ways to nurture kids is to lean in and listen to what they have to say. So we answer every letter and email we receive from children—tens of thousands each year. And annually, we poll kids in our State of the Kid survey, where we ask kids 6-12 what it’s like to be a kid today.

In this year’s survey, we asked kids questions about school. With all the change in education—the introduction of Common Core State Standards and the emphasis on testing and accountability, to name a few—we wanted to explore children’s feelings about going to school. Here’s what we learned:

Fifty-six percent of kids surveyed said that they are excited or happy when they head to school in the morning. But as kids get older, their positive feelings decline. Only 48 percent of 11- to 12-year-olds report these positive feelings. Twenty-two percent said they were bored in school (slightly higher among boys at 25 percent and with older kids, 27 percent of 11- to 12-year-olds.)

Check out the Academic Tips to see how you can support your child's learning at home.

When asked if any part of school made them feel worried or stressed, nearly half the surveyed kids said yes. Not surprisingly, tests were named as a primary source of kids’ stress (33% higher among 9- to 12-year-olds). Seventeen percent of these kids said math makes them feel stressed. Ten percent named bad grades.

Stress, it turns out, is not exclusively the domain of adults. And the idea of a carefree childhood may be magical thinking.

This isn’t really a surprise, of course. But are we underestimating the effect this stress has on kids? Results of a 2010 study by the American Psychological Association suggests that we are. Their study found that one-fifth of children report that they worry a great deal. But their study also found that only 3 percent of parents rated their children’s stress as extreme.

These findings are concerning because chronic stress left untreated can contribute to psychological problems, as well as physical conditions. And it can certainly negatively affect kids’ school performance.

What are the telltale signs of stress in children? Experts say to watch for changes in behavior, increased irritability and moodiness. Younger children may become clingy. Sleeping and eating patterns may change. Physical symptoms could include stomach aches and headaches. Some children may ask to stay home too often, or excessively visit the school nurse.

These indications of stress require our full attention. Of course, we can’t eliminate stress from our children’s lives. But we can—and must—teach them how to manage it. We think making ourselves available to listen and talk to kids about stress is one important way to do this. Here are tips--gleaned from experts, parents, and kids themselves--for talking to children about stress:

  • Listen first, and then talk. Help kids understand that feeling stress is a normal part of life. Remember that what children find stressful might not seem stressful to you or even to other children, but it’s real to them.

  • Pay attention to what kids are saying is “worrying” or “bothering” them, or are things they “don’t like.” All these words could be code for stress.

  • When you talk to your kids, resist the temptation to multi-task. Sixty-two percent of the kids we surveyed told us that their parents are sometimes distracted when they try to talk to them. The number one distraction? Their parents’ cell phones. Kids also told us that they know their parents are listening when their parents make eye contact with them, and they told us that dinner time and bedtime are two of the best times to talk together about something important. But any time when you can be focused solely on your child is a good time.

  • When talking about tests and grades with children who stress over them, keep the focus more on learning and improvement than on grades. Resist asking, “What grade did you get?” after a big test. Instead, try “Do you think you did your best? How do you feel about it?” Be positive and forward looking, even when the grades are less than desirable: “Let’s talk about how you might do better next time.”  

And remember that children are always watching us. Model healthy ways of dealing with stress. Make sure your children see you exercising, relaxing, and making time for fun and laughter. 

Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the products the company develops for children. She is a frequent speaker at writers’ and educators’ conferences, and she is a member of several boards and professional organizations. 

About the Author

Christine French Cully
Editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc.