6 Science-Based Techniques to Help Stressed Out Kids

Homework, peer pressure, worldly worries—it's a lot for a kid to process. When stress bears down, these six scientific techniques will help your child (and you!) cope.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #579
The Quick And Dirty

Equip your child with these 6 stressbusters so when times are tough they can maintain a healthy outlook on life.

  • Keep the lines of communication open
  • Visualize a positive result
  • Reduce negative self-talk
  • Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique
  • Count your blessings
  • Take deep breaths

Wouldn't it be great if our kids could wake up each day and simply enjoy the many pleasures of childhood? Riding bikes with neighborhood friends, building LEGO castles, trying out for the school baseball team, sitting down to a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies and ice-cold milk without a care in the world?

A carefree childhood is something we wish all kids could experience. But the reality is that today's kids face a lot of stress and worry in their daily lives. Stress comes in many forms, from school drama like peer pressure and dealing with learning challenges, to family worries like divorce, financial hardships, and moving.

You can help your child by learning to recognize the signs of stress and teaching him healthy ways to deal with it. Here are six tangible tools that can help your kids stay on an even keel.

Tip #1: Keep the lines of communication open

If you notice that your child is looking more worried or stressed than usual, ask her what's on her mind. Having regular conversations can help a family work together to better understand and address any stressors children are experiencing.

Middle-school-aged kids whose parents pay attention to their behavior, structure their environment, and stay informed about their activities have fewer instances of problem behavior in adolescence.

Low levels of parental communication have been associated with poor decision making in children and teens. A study in the National Institute of Health explains that middle-school-aged kids whose parents pay attention to their behavior, structure their environment, and stay informed about their activities have fewer instances of problem behavior in adolescence.

Staying connected by talking to your kids and promoting open communication and problem-solving can help them manage their stress before it escalates to acting out.

Tip #2: Break challenges into chunks and visualize success

Dr. Michele Borba, a globally-recognized educational psychologist and parenting expert, shared some powerful advice in an article for US News, How to Help Kids 'Keep Calm and Carry On' in Uncertain Times. She spoke of how kids are more anxious now than ever. Terrorism, mass shootings, natural catastrophes, pandemics—it's a lot to take in!

Kids tell me they want ways to keep their stress in check. 'But don't give me a Koosh ball to squeeze or tell me to keep calm and carry on,' one teen said. 'I want real stuff to do, so I don't feel like I'm exploding inside.'

Dr. Michele Borba

Dr. Borba has some unique experience with kids under stress—she trained mental health counselors in the Army to help military kids cope during their parents' deployments. It was there she learned about the intense training Navy SEALS undergo. This elite military group must learn how to react to stress amid chaos. I grew up in a military family, so this resonated with me.

Navy SEALS combat stress by visualizing a positive result when they face a dangerous challenge. This technique allows them to manage a significant problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Here's an example. Let's say your daughter is panicked about how she'll survive a semester of algebra. Help her achieve a successful outcome by visualizing herself making smaller accomplishments one step at a time. First, she'll imagine completing her homework assignment. Then she'll picture herself wrapping up her first week of algebra classes. Next, she'll imagine passing her first quiz. Each step of the way, she'll set a small goal and picture herself achieving.

Rising to a huge challenge can be overwhelming when you only look at the big picture. But it's easy to imagine yourself meeting a small goal like finishing a homework assignment. Help your child visualize success, take the first little step, and then move on one little step at a time until they succeed.

RELATED: How Visualization Techniques Can Improve Your Parenting

Tip #3: Reduce negative self-talk

Last week, I overheard my daughter and her friend talking on the phone. There were a few giggles, but overall, I was astounded to hear a drone of negative commentary.

"I can't figure out my Spanish homework."

"I can't stay up late and watch my favorite show."

"My bangs are too short."

"I have way too many freckles."

This sour dialogue went on for over a half-hour. By the time she hung up the phone, even I was feeling stressed out!

Encourage your kids to tune in to the thoughts that run through their heads and recognize when they're being cynical, discouraging, or critical.

Having an Eeyore mentality can fuel stress, especially when you make negativity a habit. The Mayo Clinic's touts better health for those who keep negative self-talk at bay.

Some benefits of positive thinking include:

  • An increased life span
  • Improved resistance to the common cold
  • Less depression
  • Better-coping skills during hardships and times of stress

We often default to negative thoughts without even realizing it. Encourage your kids to tune in to the thoughts that run through their heads and recognize when they're being cynical, discouraging, or critical.

My daughter says "I can't" almost out of habit—"I can't figure out my Spanish homework; it's too hard!" I remind her to shift that negative thinking from "I can't" to "how can I?" That diverts her mindset away from thinking something's impossible to recognizing it as a solvable problem in need of creative solutions. "How can I find a way to understand this assignment?"

Learning to notice, let alone eliminate, negative self-talk takes practice. But with encouragement, your child nix the negativity.

Tip #4: Practice the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique

When worry consumes us, a distraction can help divert our anxiety toward something useful and productive. The University of Rochester Medical Center recommends a simple coping strategy called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

Here's how it works. Take a moment to notice and acknowledge:

  • FIVE things you see around you. (An apple, a spoon, a rock, a family photo, a computer)
  • FOUR things you can touch around you. (The wall, your chin, a book, your dog)
  • THREE things you hear. (A clock ticking, a dog barking, a car driving down the road)
  • TWO things you can smell. (Dinner being prepared, fresh-cut grass)
  • ONE thing you can taste. (Minty chewing gum)

This mindfulness exercise interrupts your child's worrying and anchors him in the present moment, which allows him to regroup and calm down.


Tip #5: Count your blessings

Waking to warm rays of sunshine peeking through your bedroom window is a pleasant way to start the day. Taking the time to be grateful for the beautiful weather is even better! Research shows that people who consistently practice gratitude tend to be happier and less depressed. Making gratitude a habit is a terrific stress-buster for young and old alike.

Children who are appreciative of the good in their life can deal with stressful situations better than those who take things for granted.

Practice a little gratitude at home to get in the habit. Have everyone in the family take turns at dinner naming something they're glad about that day. If you play often, soon your kids will be able to focus on the positive even during challenging times.

A fun and way to build a healthy gratitude habit is to use one of my favorite characters, Pollyanna, as a role model. Pollyanna is a beloved fictional character in a 1913 book by Eleanor H. Porter. She has an optimistic knack of finding things to be glad about even when the situation is dire.

Tip #6: Take deep breaths

Has anyone ever urged you to "take some deep breaths" when you were freaking out? It's good advice! Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.

Breathing techniques help you feel connected to your body. Focusing on your breath diverts your awareness away from the worries in your head and helps quiet your mind.

Check out this soothing video about using a 4-7-8 breathing exercise to alleviate anxiety and stress. It explains how to gain control of fears and stressful situations by breathing mindfully. It's perfect for watching with your child. Then you can practice the technique so you'll both be armed and ready when stress arises.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.