Stress affects all of us — yes, kids too. In fact, some of their stressors might be just the same as their parents’, like danger and disruption in the pandemic, tensions in the family, and social pressures.
That’s normal, and parents can’t prevent it. But what we can do is support kids in their times of acute anxiety, as well as help them establish lifelong tools for managing the inevitable stresses of everyday life.
“Kiddos are people just like us, and they are just beginning to learn how to navigate their own world of emotions while also learning how to express and communicate,” explains Jessica Sweeney, a licensed mental health counselor and the founder of SunGlow Counseling. “We are gatekeepers to not only model what emotions can look and feel like, but how to communicate and cope through emotions like anxiety and stress.”
To help you guide the way, here are 10 expert-backed coping skills for kids with stress and anxiety — both acute and everyday.
For moments of acute anxiety
Vocalize fears with a trusted loved one
Kids should know that they are not expected to suffer acute anxiety in silence. Parents can encourage them to share their worries, listen with compassion, and then validate these fears and concerns.
“When a child knows that their parent or caregiver is listening with love, they will begin to feel a calmness brought on by that safety in support immediately,” explains licensed clinical psychotherapist and certified life coach Allison Chawla. “Tell them how you understand how difficult this feeling is and how frightening it can be. Next, encourage strength and bravery. Let the child know they have your support, but remind them that they have everything within themselves to move through this fear and find calmness again.”
Reset with deep breathing
There are many benefits of deep breathing in times of acute stress: In addition to lowering those anxious feelings, it can also relax muscles, and even increase energy levels.
“The most effective techniques for kids in the most acute phase of an anxiety attack are those that get them to slow their breathing,” explains Darby Fox, child and adolescent family therapist and author of Rethinking Your Teenager. “We want them to take a moment to breathe slowly with long purposeful breaths. Closing their eyes can really help.”
Do a mindfulness activity
In moments of acute anxiety, kids can help relax and calm their nervous systems using a mindfulness activity. “Help them take a minute to check their physical surroundings,” Fox says. “Notice that their feet are on the ground, that they are physically safe. Then begin to help them refocus. Acknowledge what is creating the anxiety and then break it down into pieces. Make a plan to attack piece by piece.”
Chawla suggests using simple, unstructured exercises like slow breathing while naming their favorite friends or animals, which “can bring ease into a tense moment and even smiles,” she says. “Having a child simply list to you or to themself things that make them feel happy is a very effective coping technique for calming anxiety and shifting the mind to focus on happy and peaceful thoughts. “
For a more structured approach, help kids try the 54321 method. This is a grounding technique that involves identifying sensory experiences in the present moment: Help them identify five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can touch, two things they can smell, and something they can taste, or say a positive affirmation. This technique anchors kids in the present, versus in the past or future where anxiety may lurk.
Create an emergency toolkit
The littlest kids may not be able to communicate what is bringing on the anxiety — and they may not even know themselves. To prepare for acute moments like these, we can help them create a coping toolkit. In this case, we’re not talking about an emotional toolkit, but a physical one. “We can put in some soothing scents from oils or lotions, giving us the chance to ground into our senses and connect with the nice smells or sensations of the products. We can also have some comfort toys that help little ones get through those feelings of anxiety,” Sweeney suggests.
To manage everyday stress
Establish a meditation practice
Daily mediation allows kids’ minds to rest, and consequently allows their brains to relax and refocus each day, Chawla says. Consistency is key here.
“Instead of only looking at it as mediation, approach the practice as a daily brain break,” she says. “Children are constantly stimulated at this time, and they cannot properly grow nor evolve without taking breaks. A daily meditation practice can act as a recalibration for their young minds, and will in turn reset and calm the entire nervous system. It also aids in focus, confidence, centeredness, and sleep.”
She suggests keeping the practice simple so it doesn’t feel like a chore — even one minute a day will do. “You will likely find that within a short period of time, you are witnessing a calmer and more content kid,” she says.
You can also create a guided meditation that involves imagining their favorite place or a place they would love to visit that makes them feel safe and happy, Chawla suggests. This can “shift their fears and troubles into a safe and calming space.”
Fox adds that meditation helps kids help themselves — and once they know how to do it, it’s a priceless tool they’ll always have. “It’s good to teach them that anytime they start to feel overwhelmed they can control their response even when they can’t control circumstances,” she says.
Designate an everyday comfort object
Encourage kids to designate a stuffed animal, pillow, or squishy toy that is made to be squeezed tightly and can help absorb those tough feelings for them. “I recommend having one that is large and can be used at home, and one that is small and can be held in the palm of their hands so it can be carried about and even taken in a backpack to school,” Chawla suggests. “Explain to your child that this object has the ability to help them feel at ease when they hug or squeeze it. I call this Dumbo’s Feather Strategy: We all knew that Dumbo always had what he needed to fly, but he first had to transfer his fears into the feather in order to take that first leap and believe in himself.”
Exercise is most often discussed for its physical health benefits, but the mental health benefits of daily exercise cannot be overstated. “I would recommend creating space in their day to move their body, even if it’s a little bit here and there, to help get the jitters and stress out,” she says. “For a lot of kiddos, stress and anxiety present as physical feelings, so teaching kids to become more aware of their body and what it needs to help get those anxious feelings out can be a truly valuable practice.”
Establish a bedtime routine
Routines are critical for giving kids the sense of an anchor: Even amid unsettling unknowns, having a bedtime routine set in place is deeply reassuring. “We are creatures of habit,” Fox says. “It is relaxing and comforting to know what’s to come. It settles the mind and prepares us to rest.”
Sweeney underscores the importance of structure and routine for kids. “It gives them a sense of certainty, knowing what to expect as they start winding down at the end of the day,” she says. “The entire practice of a bedtime routine can not only be very soothing but can also create meaningful moments to help kids become more aware and manage their feelings of anxiety and stress.”
She encourages parents to use this time to help kids reflect on the day, talk through anything that could be causing anxiety and stress, and ready them for sleep with the knowledge that they will wake up to a brand new day.
Indeed, science supports the importance of bedtime routines to stress reduction in kids. Chawla notes, “It is shown over and over again in studies that children who have an evening routine organically begin to wind down and feel calm as that hour approaches. Not only do they sleep better, but they have fewer fears of things that go bump in the night or linger beneath the bed because they feel safe and confident in knowing that their caretaker is there to move things along and put them down to rest as not only a loved one but also a protector and guide for the transition into nighttime.”
Map out a weekly schedule
Another way to establish that feeling of safety amid structure is to encourage kids to look at their weekly schedule in advance. Try setting aside some time each Sunday to look at the coming days with your kids. “I suggest using a hard copy calendar or a whiteboard and colored markers,” Fox says. “It builds the habit of planning for stressful events and teaching that they are often balanced by easy or routine things.”
She says that this methodical planning practice helps kids prepare for different stressors, approaching each in manageable chunks, one by one. “It is very important for your kids to learn they can handle stress by planning and breaking it into tolerable pieces,” she says. “We do not want to teach them that we will take it away. They need to get the message; Some things are hard and stressful but you can do it.”
For more ways to help kids relax and reduce anxiety, try these additional calming techniques.