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What Kids Say About: Handling Stress

Compared with what adults face, it might seem like kids don't have that much to stress about. But kids have their own concerns — and sometimes feel stress, just as adults do. And kids' stresses can be just as overwhelming, particularly if they don't have effective coping strategies.

A KidsHealth® KidsPoll explored what kids stress about the most, how they cope with these feelings, and what they want their parents to do about it.

The poll showed that kids are dealing with their stresses in both healthy and unhealthy ways, and while they may not say so, they do want their parents to reach out and help them cope with their feelings.

The poll underscored how important it is for parents to teach kids to recognize and express their emotions, and to use healthy ways to cope with the stress they experience. By guiding them to healthy coping skills, parents can help prepare kids to tackle whatever stresses they meet throughout their lives.

Results of the Poll

We asked kids to tell us what things cause them the most stress. Kids said that they were stressed out the most by: grades, school, and homework (36%); family (32%); and friends, peers, gossip, and teasing (21%).

These are the coping strategies kids said they use the most (they could give more than one response):

  • 52% play or do something active
  • 44% listen to music
  • 42% watch TV or play a video game
  • 30% talk to a friend
  • 29% try not to think about it
  • 28% try to work things out
  • 26% eat something
  • 23% lose their temper
  • 22% talk to a parent
  • 11% cry

About 25% of the kids we surveyed said that when they are upset, they take it out on themselves, either by banging their heads against something, hitting or biting themselves, or doing something else to hurt themselves. These kids also were more likely to have other unhealthy coping strategies, such as eating, losing their tempers, and keeping problems to themselves.

The idea that kids would do things to try to harm themselves may be shocking to parents. But for some kids, feelings of stress, frustration, helplessness, hurt, or anger can be overwhelming. And without a way to express or release the feelings, a kid may feel like a volcano ready to erupt — or at least let off steam.

Sometimes, kids blame themselves when things go wrong. They might feel ashamed, embarrassed, or angry at themselves for the role they played in the situation. Hurting themselves may be a way to express the stress and blame themselves at the same time.

The poll also revealed important news for parents. Though talking to parents ranked eighth on the list of most popular coping methods, 75% of the kids surveyed said they want and need their parents' help in times of trouble. When they're stressed, they'd like their parents to talk with them, help them solve the problem, try to cheer them up, or just spend time together.

What Parents Can Do

You may not be able to prevent your kids from feeling frustrated, sad, or angry, but you can provide the tools they need to cope with these emotions.

Notice out loud. Tell kids when you notice something they might be feeling ("It seems like you might still feel mad about what happened at the playground"). This shouldn't sound like an accusation (as in: "OK, what happened now? Are you still mad about that?") or make a child feel put on the spot. It's just a casual observation that you're interested in hearing more about your child's concern.

Listen to your kids. Ask them to tell you what's wrong. Listen attentively and calmly — with interest, patience, openness, and caring. Avoid any urge to judge, blame, lecture, or tell your kids what they should have done instead. The idea is to let a child's concerns (and feelings) be heard. Encourage your child to tell the whole story by asking questions. Take your time, and let a child take his or her time, too.

Comment briefly on the feelings you think your child was experiencing as you listen. For example, you might say something like: "That must have been upsetting" or "No wonder you felt mad when they wouldn't let you in the game." Doing so shows that you understand what your child felt, why he or she felt that way, and that you care. Feeling understood and listened to helps kids feel connected to you, and that is especially important in times of stress.

Put a label on it. Many kids do not yet have words for their feelings. If your child seems angry or frustrated, use those feeling words to help your child learn to identify the emotions by name. That will help put feelings into words so they can be expressed and communicated more easily, which helps kids develop emotional awareness — the ability to recognize their own emotional states. Kids who can recognize and identify emotions are less likely to reach the behavioral boiling point where strong emotions get demonstrated through behaviors rather than communicated with words.

Help kids think of things to do. Suggest activities kids can do to feel better now and to solve the problem at hand. Encourage them to think of a couple of ideas. You can get the brainstorm started if necessary, but don't do all the work. A child's active participation will build confidence. Support good ideas and add to them as needed. Ask, "How do you think this will work?" Sometimes talking and listening and feeling understood is all that's needed to help kids' frustrations melt away. Other times change the subject and move on to something more positive and relaxing. Don't give the problem more attention than it deserves.

Just be there. Sometimes kids don't feel like talking about what's bothering them. Try to respect that, give them space, and still make it clear that you'll be there when they do feel like talking. Even when kids don't feel like talking, they usually don't want parents to leave them alone. You can help them feel better just by being there — to keep your child company and spend time together. So if you notice your child seems to be down in the dumps, stressed, or having a bad day — but doesn't feel like talking — initiate something you can do together. Take a walk, watch a movie, shoot some hoops, or bake some cookies. Isn't it nice to know that your presence really counts?

Be patient. It hurts to see your kids unhappy or worried. But try to resist the urge to fix every problem. Instead, focus on helping them grow into good problem-solvers — kids who know how to roll with life's ups and downs, put feelings into words, calm down when needed, and bounce back to try again. Remember that you can't fix everything, and that you won't be there to solve each problem as your child goes through life. But by learning healthy coping strategies, kids can manage stresses in the future.

About the Poll

The national KidsPoll surveyed 875 9- to 13-year-old boys and girls regarding how they coped with stress. The KidsPoll is a collaboration of the Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth, the Department of Health Education and Recreation at Southern Illinois University — Carbondale, the National Association of Health Education Centers (NAHEC), and participating health education centers throughout the United States. Those centers include:

  • Robert Crown Center for Health Education — Hinsdale, Illinois
  • HealthWorks! Kids Museum — South Bend, Indiana
  • Health World Children's Museum — Barrington, Illinois
  • Ruth Lilly Health Education Center — Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Susan P. Byrnes Health Education Center — York, Pennsylvania
  • Poe Center for Health Education — Raleigh, North Carolina

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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