Students, teachers, and parents have had an unprecedented start to the new school year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Everyone is facing new challenges and new sources of stress. Some kids are struggling with distance learning and separation from friends while others are adjusting to social distancing inside schools, wearing masks all day long, and undergoing daily temperature checks by strangers wearing head-to-toe personal protective equipment. Stress affects us emotionally as well as physically and in children it can manifest as stomach pain, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, changes in mood or behavior, and problems with focus and concentration. Stress management is regularly recommended for adults but it’s equally important for kids. Here are six strategies just for them.
#1 | Communicate
Children may not be able to fully articulate their feelings, but talking about what makes them feel stressed helps minimize the effects. Let kids know they can talk to you about anything. Listen carefully and allow them to fully express their thoughts and concerns. If it makes kids more comfortable, engage them in an activity that can facilitate communication. Go for a walk, put together a puzzle, or cook something you both like to eat and settle into the activity before bringing up sensitive subjects.
#2 | Play Every Day
Exercise is well known for improving physical health but it improves mental health as well. Regular physical activity helps us manage stress and studies show that, specifically in children, it can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression while improving concentration, academic performance, and self-esteem.1 Kids also need down time to manage stress, so find activities that are fun and playful instead of competitive or focused on achieving a specific result. Get them outside for at least an hour every day, year round and weather permitting, to do something they enjoy, whether it’s playing in the park, riding a bike, or throwing around a ball or Frisbee.
#3 | Get Plenty of Sleep
Good sleep is critical for good health and research studies show that it can improve our ability to manage stress.2 Children need eight to ten hours of sleep every night in an environment that promotes deep and restorative rest. Sleeping environments should be as dark as possible and free of electronic devices to maximize the brain’s secretion of melatonin, a sleep hormone, and minimize the secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone. It’s also beneficial to dim indoor lights and discontinue the use of all screens one to two hours before bed.
#4 | Maintain a Regular Routine
Establishing a regular routine inside the home can reduce feelings of stress. Knowing what will happen and what is expected gives children a sense of comfort and security and it minimizes fears of the unknown. A regular routine also helps to establish a healthy circadian rhythm, which may be especially important for development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex.3 This part of the brain helps regulate our emotions, thoughts, and actions. According to research studies, the prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain most sensitive to the harmful effects of stress.4 As much as possible, set a consistent schedule for the things you do regularly like waking up, going to sleep, eating meals, taking naps, having a bath, doing homework, brushing teeth, and enjoying playtime and family time.
#5 | Practice Relaxation
Relaxation exercises are effective stress management tools. Yoga is a popular one and studies confirm that it can help children cope with stress and improve their mental and physical well-being.5 Other forms of relaxation include meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation. Let kids pick the activity and help guide them through it. Children don’t have the attention span of adults, but they are naturally curious, receptive, and willing to try new things. An hour of meditation may not be realistic, but it’s not necessary either. Kids can benefit from just a few minutes of relaxation in the morning before school or in the evening before bed. And it doesn’t need to be complicated. Deep breathing can be as easy as telling children to “smell the flowers” then “blow out the candles” with a little help from their imaginations. If you need inspiration or instruction, find thousands of free videos online tailored to children that teach yoga, breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, and guided meditation.
#6 | Teach Resilience
The world is constantly changing, sometimes in ways we never would have expected. Bad things, like COVID-19, happen to good people. We all make mistakes. Everyone faces adversity. But what matters most is resilience. When children understand that problems can be opportunities to learn, to grow, and to do things better next time, a burden is lifted and they feel less stressed. Foster resilience by teaching kids to be flexible and to look for creative solutions to problems. And because resilience requires a sense of purpose, help children focus on the bigger picture and the things in life that are most important to them.
Nieman P. Psychosocial aspects of physical activity. Paediatrics Child Health. 2002;7(5):309–312. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2795619/
Choi DW, Chun SY, Lee SA, Han KT, and Park EC. Association between Sleep Duration and Perceived Stress: Salaried Worker in Circumstances of High Workload. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2018;15(4):796. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5923838/
Kohyama J. Good daily habits during the early stages of life determine success throughout life. Sleep Science. 2016;9(3):153–157. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5241625/
Arnsten A. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. National Reviews Neuroscience. 2009;10(6):410–422. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907136/
Hagen I, Usha S, and Nayar US. Yoga for Children and Young People’s Mental Health and Well-Being: Research Review and Reflections on the Mental Health Potentials of Yoga. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2014;5:35. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3980104/