how to help kids cope with stress

As much as we’d like to believe our kids’ lives should be full of nothing but giggles, rainbows and carefree tickle fights with talking, animated forest creatures, that isn’t how childhood actually works.

In real life, kids stress out just like we do. And there are a variety of factors that can get them frazzled – things like schoolwork, conflicts with friends, and difficulty dealing with big emotions.

So what do you do when your kids are so exasperated that they just can’t even? There are lots of ways you can try to help them — and the ways that work best might surprise you!

Talking it out

If you’re like many parents, your first instinct for helping a child cope with a stressful situation is to talk about it. This makes perfect sense, as direct communication can give you useful information (like what’s happening and who’s involved), while also giving your child a chance to express emotions and concerns (like what he’s afraid might happen next).

In a perfect scenario, you’ll be able to chat, choose a course of action you both feel could solve the problem, and cheer everybody up in a hurry.

And while this method of stress relief can certainly be successful for lots and lots of people, young children aren’t always great at it. After all, kids often don’t have the vocabularies or insights into their emotions to accurately talk about the problems they’re facing, or how they truly feel about them.

Fortunately, there are some other powerful tools you can use to calm your kid’s nerves. And they’re probably sitting in your kitchen junk drawer right now.

Getting it down on paper

If asking your stressed-out little one to talk through all of her problems with you doesn’t seem to be working out, try handing her a pencil and paper instead.

Multiple research studies suggest that writing about worries can help kids cope with daily stressors and develop problem-solving skills. For example, researchers at the University of Chicago found that when students had the opportunity to write about their nervous feelings prior to a test, their anxiety levels went down – and their test scores went up! Researchers from City University of New York found that writing about conflicts with peers helped grade-schoolers get over their present spats, while also gaining future insights into the causes of conflicts, other people’s perspectives, and strategies for diffusing disagreements.

By writing about the source of her stress, your child may be able to free herself from the feelings that are weighing her down, releasing them from her mind and onto the paper. This kind of venting through writing is nothing new – diaries have been around pretty much since the cave painting days, if you think about it. But it might be a new and powerful way to help your child.

One great thing about this strategy is that it works even if your little one hasn’t started writing yet! That’s because venting by drawing pictures about a stressful situation provides all the same benefits as writing words, and then some. Studies directly comparing the two methods consistently favor drawing as a more effective way to alleviate negative emotions and improve mood.

So in addition to that pencil and paper you got out earlier, you might want to grab some crayons and colored pencils, too.

Forgetting about it altogether

For as effective as venting can be at overcoming negative emotions, it turns out that’s not even your child’s best bet.

If you really want to help your munchkin get his Zen on, try encouraging him to write or draw something totally unrelated to the problem at hand. For example, if he recently had a fight with a friend over a toy car, he could write a fun jungle story, or draw a picture of a turtle playing the guitar. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s not about the actual problem!

With this technique, your child will be putting pen to paper for distraction purposes – and there’s evidence that this works even better than venting. In one study, researchers from Boston College played a sad video to get people in a negative mood, and then invited them to write or draw anything they wanted. Participants who used their writing time to distract themselves from, rather than vent about, the sad video they saw tended to feel much better, much faster.

Together these studies indicate that putting a pen to paper can be a helpful form of stress relief for kids no matter how they do it – writing or drawing, and venting or distracting. But the most beneficial combination of all seems to be drawing for distraction.

So the next time real life is getting the best of your kid, have him draw a picture of a fantastic, talking-forest-creature-filled tickle fight and there just might be giggles and rainbows in his future.

Have your children tried writing or drawing to deal with stress? Tell us about it in the comments!

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