After the loss of her father in 2017, my daughter has struggled with anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. She meets with a psychologist regularly. As helpful as it is, meeting with someone once a week or every two weeks only helps so much. The real change occurs in her daily habits and routines.
She is also turning twelve in August and is learning to adapt to her changing hormones and to manage her emotions.
As a parent, we want what is best for our children and it can be challenging when they are struggling. We can feel lost and powerless. By equipping our kids with the techniques to manage stress and identify their emotions, we are able to recover some of that power by empowering our children.
Techniques to Help Kids Manage Stress
1. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
CBT is a technique used by psychologists and mental health professionals to help their clients adapt and change their mindset and behaviours by identifying and reassessing maladaptive though patterns.
Not only have these techniques helped myself and my daughter, but they have been proven to work for many others. I have learned about CBT through mine and my daughter's mental health journeys and through my education as a Psychology student.
Negative thinking can take on several forms, such as:
Overgeneralization: believing that because something happened one way in the past, it will always occur the same way (ie. "I always lose", "I'll never get that job", "I'll never pass grade 6", "No one will ever be my friend"). Overgeneralization can also include all-or-nothing thinking, stereotyping, fortune-telling, and mindreading, and can lead to self-sabotage.
Black and white thinking: similar to overgeneralization or all-or-nothing thinking. Black and white thinking assigns people, things, and situations into either "good" or "bad", with no grey-area. This can lead to perfectionism, negative self-talk, fear of new experiences, and procrastination.
Negativity: ignoring the positive and only seeing or focusing on the negative. This could present as the family trip not being fun and a waste of time because the store didn't have orange juice. A child can get so caught up in one inconvenience or negative aspect that it ruins the entire experience and to them everything else is negative and unenjoyable.
Catastrophizing: this is the worst case scenario and seems like the only option. "If I fail this test, I will never pass school and my life is over", "If I don't get this job I'm a total failure", "If I don't get a popsicle then my mom hates me and thinks I'm a horrible child".
Some techniques to help with these patterns of thinking are:
Journal: in order to alter the negative thought patterns, our children must first become aware of them. Help them to keep track of their thoughts in a small notebook or on their phones and then review them together. I also have some great resources on my website, including a thought tracker which helps to identify the negative thought and then reframe it.
Learn Healthy Coping Mechanisms: confront situations that induce anxiety and find healthy ways to overcome them. If your child has difficulty speaking to someone at a store, like a cashier, you can practice role-play at home. By helping your child to learn how to speak to someone and allowing them to feel secure by knowing that the person will not yell at or become angry with them, they will feel more confident. Sometimes the anxiety comes from not knowing how the other person will react or because our child cannot read the other person.
Make a Game of Studying People: help your child to people watch. My kids and I like to watch people and then create stories about their lives. By doing so, it helps us to better understand people's actions and create more awareness of how people act and why. We don't know their real stories, but it helps to remove the fear of people and negative thinking by assuming that they act the way they do by turning it into something positive.
Identify Triggers: study your child and try to identify triggers. You can also help your child to become more mindful and self-aware by encouraging them to pay attention to when they feel negative thoughts, anxiety, and all-or-nothing thinking creeping up. We are unable to change behaviour if we're not first aware of it and when it occurs.
Boost Confidence: provide your child with opportunities to build their self-confidence and self-esteem. I have some resources and worksheets on my website which can help with this as well. By being their safety net and allowing them to safely step outside of their comfort zones and try new things, they are able to build confidence while knowing that you have their backs.
Remove Labels: our brains are designed to label things. It is part of our development. We must learn how to distinguish "good" from "bad", "safe" from "unsafe" for our very survival. However, this can go too far when we start to overgeneralize and fall into black and white or all-or-nothing thinking. We can help our children to learn about the grey area. Just because they forget to clean their rooms, does not make them "bad" or "the worst child ever". It can be a struggle and a balancing act as a parent. We want to show compassion, while also remaining firm. When you figure this one out, let me know! I'm not perfect, but I'm definitely trying. By allowing our children to understand that they make mistakes, that they aren't their mistakes, it allows them to remove the labels they place on themselves. There is a difference between an act and a choice, and a value or trait.
This one has become fairly obvious and has been hounded at us for years now. We are aware of the benefits of decreased screen time and physical activity. I swear kids nowadays just seem to be built differently and it's a challenge to enforce this. But do your best to encourage your child to get in some active play time each day. Especially now, during the summer and when I'm working, my kids struggle to get off their devices and get moving. But the activity and sunshine do wonders for their attitudes and emotions. Getting at least 30 minutes per day can make an enormous difference on their cognitive health.
3. Quality time:
We get so busy as parents that it can be challenging to find time to spend with them when we're not rushing them to activities, working, taking them to school, making lunches, and the million other responsibilities we have on any given day. We barely have time for ourselves. But blocking out even 15 minutes before bed, to spend with our children can help them to feel confident, safe, secure, and loved.
Another great way to help our children become more self-aware and in control of their thoughts and stress is through a meditation practice. The Insight Timer app (available through Apple and Google Play) is an excellent resource and has some great guided meditations for adults and children.
5. Sleep Well
Growing bodies and brains require sufficient amounts of sleep. Ensuring that our children get eight to fourteen hours of rest is essential. Bonus points if you can get them off of devices and away from blue light for at least thirty minutes before bed!
6. Talk It Out
We are social beings and everyone needs to talk to someone about what is bothering them. We can be there for our children and listen to them, but sometimes they need someone they can speak to who isn't their parent. And friends can be supportive, but they also may not understand or your child may not feel comfortable speaking to their friends about what's bothering them. I encourage you to reach out to a counsellor, therapist, psychologist, support group, or coach like myself to provide your child with someone who is a third-party or outside perspective.
I mentioned this previously as CBT, but I'm including it again in a different aspect. CBT journaling can be beneficial for identifying and altering maladaptive thought patterns, but journaling in general can be an effective stress management technique. This form of writing allows your child to write openly and about anything. This can be beneficial for getting stuck thoughts out, recognizing feelings or thoughts that may have been in the subconscious and gone unnoticed, and can be lethargic just by getting the emotions out on paper.
8. Labeling Emotions
Although I mentioned removing labels, this form of labeling is different. By identifying and labeling their emotions, our children are better able to understand and process them. We have a magnet on our fridge with the main emotions and my children are able to point at what they are feeling in that moment. They may not be able to identify why they are feeling they way they are until they look at the magnet, find the emotion, and then they regain clarity. It also takes the power away from the feeling and back to our child. Once they know what emotion they are feeling, they can then look to see why.
I hope that these techniques are able to help your family as they have mine. They take a lot of practice, so try to not fall into the perfectionism category *wink*. There is no "good" or "bad", "right" or "wrong" way to do them. Every attempt, no matter how small or imperfect, can make a huge impact. Keep going! And I'm proud of you for reading this post and for learning more about how you can help your child. You're an amazing parent! *pat on the back*