Stress is a part of every child’s life – growing up in a complex and confusing world, fears, pressures, issues in the family, school issues, learning challenges, competition, friendships, frenemies, navigating social life, setting and achieving goals, every child has their unique combination of stressors that add to their lives. As much it would be nice to shield our children from stress, worries and anxiety, this is not feasible. Even if it were possible in some way, it wouldn’t be helpful in the long run, as pressures and stress are part of adulthood. The best way to protect a child from the negative effects of stress would be to teach them how to handle their stress- in other words, teach them scientifically backed, easy to do stress management techniques.
- Diaphragmatic or Deep Breathing
The breath is the natural stress relief mechanism of the human body. By taking deep, deliberate breaths, we can slow the body’s natural response to stress. Deep breathing slows down the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and provides a sense of being in control.
Have your child lie down in a comfortable position. Ask them to close their eyes and breathe normally. Ask them to place their hand on their belly.
Then ask them to take a deep breath in, feeling their belly rising. Breathing out, the belly should go down and become flat again.
Breathe in through the nose, breath out through the mouth.
Ask your child to imagine that they are blowing a balloon: the need to breathe till the air reaches the bottom part of the balloon and make it expand.
As the child gets comfortable with the exercise, ask them to breath in, counting 1-4, and then breathe out, counting 1-4.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation offers a wonderful way to relieve stress. This is accomplished by tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in your body. Explain to the child how we can tense our muscle and then relax them and to notice the difference between the two states. An easy way to demonstrate is by closing your fingers in a fist, tensing and then letting go. Encourage the child to notice how relaxed their hand feels after closing it in a tight fist.
Ask the child to lie on the floor in a comfortable position with their eyes closed. Ask them to take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Diaphragmatic breathing sets the stage for all kind of different relaxation techniques.
“Now, take a deep breath through your nose… breathe in… hold, hold, hold, breathe out. Let’s do it again. Breathe in through the nose… hold, hold, hold, breathe out. That’s nice. Imagine your belly is a balloon and you want to fill it up with air…take a deep breath through the nose and let the air go all the way down to fill up the balloon… good… now let the air go out. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep.
Now, let’s start relaxing your body. First, we are going to relax the feet. Curl your toes as if you are trying to get them to touch the sole of your feet… Hold, hold, hold tight. Now let go. Notice the relaxed feeling on your feet. Let’s do it again. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep.
Now I want you to stretch your legs and point your toes, squeezing the muscles in the top of your legs… Hold, hold, hold tight. Now let go. Pretend your legs are floppy spaghetti. Notice the relaxed feeling in your legs. Let’s do it again. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep.
Let’s move to your hands. Make a fist with your right hand and pretend you are squeezing an orange to get orange juice… squeeze, squeeze, squeeze… Feel how tight your muscles are. Now let go. Notice how relaxed your hand is. Let’s do it one more time. Let’s move on to the left hand. Make a fist with your left hand and pretend you are squeezing an orange to get orange juice… squeeze, squeeze, squeeze… Feel how tight your muscles are. Now let go. Let’s do it again. Notice how relaxed your hand is. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep.
Now let’s do your arms. Stretch both arms in front of you, as if you are trying to grab something that’s farther away. Keep stretching, and stretching, and stretching. Now let go. Notice how relaxed your arms are. Now stretch your arm toward the ceiling… imagine you want to grab some nice fruit from the top branches of a tree… Stretch, stretch, stretch all the way up, above your head… Let your arms relax. Drop them to your sides and pretend they are floppy spaghetti. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep.
Now let’s relax your shoulders. Tighten your shoulders and pull them up, as if you want to touch your ears. Tight, tight, tight…Now let go. Notice how relaxed your shoulders feel. One more time. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep.
Now, tighten the muscles in your belly. Imagine a hippo is about to step on your belly. Suck your muscles in, all the way in, tight, tight, tight…Now let go. Notice how relaxed your muscles feel now.
Now, let’s do your face. Scrunch up your nose and your forehead, as if you are smelling something stinky. Hold, hold, hold…Now let go. Let all the muscles in your face relax. One more time scrunch up your face. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep.
Now relax your whole body…Let your muscles be limp… imagine you are a rag doll…Notice how good your body feels… how relaxed… how calm. Take some deep breaths. Breath in, breath out. Nice and deep. When you are ready, open your eyes.”
- Physical Activity
Running, walking briskly, hopping, dancing, cycling, and any form of physical activity, sport, or exercise is a powerful stress releaser. Exercise releases tension and provides a sense of calm and a relaxed state of mind. Biking, running, shooting hoops, swimming, playing any sport are activities that provide aerobic exercise and stress release at the same time.
- Guided Imagery or Visualization
This technique utilizes the power of a child’s imagination to slow down racing thoughts, worries, and negative thinking. Guided imagery can be easily combined with diaphragmatic breathing for maximum benefits.
“Now, find a comfortable position right where you sit and gently close your eyes. Now, take a deep breath in through your nose and hold, hold, hold…And now let it go. Breathe in again… and hold, hold, hold…And now breathe out. Tell me your favorite color, a color that makes you feel calm and safe, a color that makes you feel good. (for example, the child says ‘orange’).
Now, take a deep breath and imagine that you are taking this beautiful orange color inside you… slowly you fill up with a nice, warm, glowing orange color… breath in and with your breath send some beautiful orange to your feet…Good. Now take another deep, slow, relaxing breath and some of this relaxing orange to your belly…Notice how you feel warm and calm. Take another breath, slow, slow, and blow some more orange color now to your hands, from the fingers all the way up to your shoulders…Feel the relaxing orange color in your hands, arms, and shoulders…Feel the calm and relaxing feeling it gives you. Now take a deep breath and let your face and top of your head fill with this nice, relaxing orange…Take it in, feel the color inside you, relaxing you, making you feel safe, calm, and special. Relax your body… Relax your mind…Enjoy this sense of being relaxed and calm…Enjoy your special color…Relax…And when you are ready, you can open your eyes and be here with me.”
A good laugh is a good medicine, as it brings both body and mind back into balance and relaxation. Laughter not only reduces the flow of stress hormones in the body, it also increases the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones. Add some laugh in your child’s routine: have them make silly faces, watch funny cartoons and movies, and tell jokes. Or even tickle them!
Give your child materials they can squeeze, as this is one effective way to release tension. Squeeze balls, modeling clay, play-dough, squishy toy animals all are objects that you can give a child to calm down and manage their stress.
- Listen to Music
Music is another powerful way to help children manage their stress. Try calming, soothing music that children can listen to with or without earphones. Sounds of nature, such as water, rain, waves, wind, birds singing, etc. also have a calming effect. Research shows that music around 60 beats per minute resembles the beat of the brain’s alpha waves which are responsible for relaxation and calm.
- The Healing power of water
Have your child take a refreshing cool shower or a nice long hot bath. The water, whether it’s temperature is cooler or warmer, has the power to lower your child’s anxiety. Just make sure that your child wishes to take a bath or shower. Enriching the water with soothing essential oils such as lavender can have an even greater calming effect. Remember also to give your child plenty of water to drink, especially when they are stressing out.
- Cuddle and connect emotionally
Encourage your stressed-out child to hold your hand, hold a favorite stuffed animal, hug you or cuddle with a pet. The physical interaction and the emotional connection decrease stress hormones and restore a feeling of inner peace and calm.
- Practice a Five-by-Five Meditation
Have your child use of their five senses to name five things they experience with that sense at this very moment. This exercise helps the anxious mind to stay focused on what’s happening right now, instead of worrying about the future or ruminating about past events.
Name one thing you see around you now.
Name one thing you hear now.
Name one thing you touch now.
Name one thing you smell now.
Name one thing you taste now.
You don’t need to do all the exercises with your child. Try them out and see what works best for your child. Consider practicing stress management techniques together, as this is going to have a relaxing effect on both of you!