Are your kids stressed? Are you stressed? As parents, we can teach our children how to cope with stress by learning how to deal with it ourselves.

What are the best ways to help our children cope with painful emotions, hard or boring homework, and stressful situations at school? Here are our top tips from parenting experts.

Not just child’s play

Believe it or not, a kid’s life isn’t all carefree and frivolous “play, play, play” all the time! Children and teens are affected—sometimes deeply—by issues with friends and family, a desire to be liked and accepted, external pressure to perform, comparisons with siblings and peers, in-person and online bullying, and media pressures.

Children react to stress in a variety of ways: they rebel, seek distractions, shut down, run away, and/or use drugs, alcohol, or food to cope. The key is to identify how your kids show their stress and help them identify healthy ways to cope.

Thankfully, there are many strategies we can adopt to help our children reduce their stress and get back to enjoying being a kid!

Manage your own stress

Kids are also directly affected by your own stress level and coping strategies. How do you manage your anxieties, schedule, relationships, and health?

“It’s very stressful for children to be parented by parents who aren’t living true to their own nature,” says Carol Tuttle, author of The Child Whisperer (Live Your Truth Press, 2012). “I recently spoke to a fun-loving, social mom who experienced a painful amount of conflict with her young son. She learned the solution was to do something social for herself, independent of her child. She needed to take care of her own needs first so she didn’t feel resentful. When she did, their conflict naturally resolved itself because her son stopped picking up on her stress [she was happy and balanced].”

Are you living “true to your nature”? Most of us can’t drop everything to follow our dreams and passions, but we can learn how to manage our disappointments, failures, and daily stressors. We may help our kids manage their anxieties by maintaining our own spiritual, emotional, and physical health.

Make your child the expert

Your kids aren’t parenting experts, but they often know what’s stressing them out. According to Tuttle, sometimes they even know exactly what calms them down.

“We so often try and come up with insights and understandings about our children when they’re right there to share with us if we’d only ask,” says Tuttle. “Ask your child what you can do to help them feel less stressed and more empowered. They will tell you more clearly than you might hear from anyone else.”

A possible question to ask is, “What made you feel better the last time you had this problem?” Help your children connect with their bodies and minds, with their feelings of both anxiety and peace. This may not work with all kids, but some may respond well when asked about their current feelings and previous coping strategies.

Give the gift of time

When was the last time your child had an hour to do whatever he wants? Some kids are over-scheduled and almost never have alone time to just be and do what they want.

“Self-directed time is so critical for children,” says Sandra Blackard, parenting expert and author. “Life becomes stressful when they don’t have enough of it. In their self-directed time, children set challenges for themselves that they know they can master. Mastery allows them to tackle the next level of challenge with confidence.”

In addition to letting kids set their own pace and challenges, the freedom of recreational and academic self-directed time also allows them to slow down, tune in to themselves, and learn what they really think and need. Encourage them to take a break from the electronic world: smart phones, tablets, video games, even e-readers. This might even reduce the potential for rebellion or shut-down later by decreasing external pressure.

Blackard adds that healthy, happy families don’t measure themselves against external standards such as those set by peers, schools, sports teams, or exclusive school clubs. Rather, they look inward for what success means to them and they talk about it as a family. They seek well-being, balance, and happiness instead of submitting to society’s comparisons and conformity.

Let your children be who they are

Some kids literally roll with the punches, while others are bowled over by a stern look. Are you concerned with your child’s response to stress because of what it says about you as a parent? Remember that how your child copes with pokes, jabs, and knock-out punches isn’t necessarily a reflection of your parenting skills.

“To varying degrees, parents use their children for their own emotional comfort and validation,” says Tuttle. “We look to them to give us evidence that we are good parents. It’s hard to let go, but it’s the best way to develop healthy, long-term relationships with our children. We need to let our children be who they really are, rather than who we think they should be.”

Are your expectations, hopes, and dreams for your children stressing them out? Try to find the balance between challenging them to succeed in ways they didn’t think they could and letting them choose the activities that mean the most to them.

Teach them that imperfection is okay

Tempering your expectations of your children isn’t as effective in the long run as teaching them to cope with the stress of imperfection or failure. Bad grades, not being chosen for a team or performance, rejection, zits—those are normal and even healthy parts of life. If they don’t learn how to deal with difficult situations as kids, they could have a harder time coping with stress as adults.

“Children thrive in environments where there are opportunities to contribute, work hard, and reach specific goals,” says Shannon Hrobak-Sennefelder, mother of twin girls and a 13-year-old son. “Our lives are made up of opportunities to be rejected, passed over, and left out. The distinction to be made is how we as parents respond to our children if and when they fail.”

She adds that we need to teach our children to work through struggles, tap into their resources of people who believe in them, get back up, and chase their dreams. How do we teach them this? By learning how to do it ourselves.

Get active, fight stress?

New research points to something many of us—and our kids—already know intuitively: moving more can lower our stress levels. The 2013 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, found that high levels of physical activity in kids are associated with a reduced reaction to stress.

Kids aged five to 11 should get at least one hour of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day, but many Canadian kids aren’t meeting that standard. Encourage your kids to get active every day for a fun, preventive stress-reducer that comes with a host of other health benefits too. In addition to sports teams and other active lessons, incorporate physical activity into the day by dancing to music, walking the dog, raking leaves, or going to the park as a family. 

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