Tools to Help Kids Manage Stress, Worry and Anxiety: Strategies from a Child and Adolescent Psychologist

Katie Hurley headshot

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Jan 5, 2022

Global pandemic or otherwise, it would appear that stress, worry and anxiety are increasingly mainstays in a world filled with unpredictability, uncertainty and constant change.

Social unrest, school upheaval, COVID-19 management, loss, violence, climate change —  the list of stress triggers for children and young people today is complex and varied.

As a result, developing coping mechanisms and a strong toolkit to accept, adapt and work through change — before, during and after its arrival — is ever more critical for kids to learn and for parents to teach.

Boy sitting and watching sunset

Courtesy: Pixabay

It is also among the key recommendations included in an advisory on “the youth mental health crisis” issued by the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy in December 2021.

“Empower youth and their families to recognize, manage, and learn from difficult emotions,” is listed as a top priority in the advisory report entitled, ‘Protecting Youth Mental Health‘.

Our Podcast with Katie Hurley

“I think kids right now are just facing layers and layers of stress,” says Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, based in California. “We have been seeing anxiety and depression rise among children and adolescents for years,” adds Hurley, during an interview with Lianne Castelino for Where Parents Talk radio. “This is not just the pandemic it was happening pre-pandemic, and the pandemic kind of exacerbated it and, and put a giant spotlight on it so that we all can see what was happening,” says Hurley, who is also a parenting educator, author and mother of two teenagers.

Hurley says she witnesses the impact of mounting stress on families in her practice, in schools and her own home. It is a reality that has served as a catalyst for her fifth book entitled, The Stress-Buster Workbook for Kids: 75 Evidence-Based Strategies to Help Kids Regulate Their Emotions, Build Coping Skills, and Tap into Positive Thinking.

Book cover: The Stress-Buster Workbook for Kids by Katie HurleyDuring her interview with Where Parents Talk, Hurley shares proven strategies from her book for parents to consider when helping kids manage their stress. Below is an excerpt from the Q&A:

Katie, what concerns you most about what you are seeing both before and during this pandemic as it relates to stress and help kids cope and manage it?

I think what concerns me most is kids, especially younger children, which is part of why I wrote the new book, the Stress Busters book, kids are struggling to cope with distress of any kind. So the minute kids start to feel uncomfortable, we try to find some sort of strategy or distraction for them so that they don’t have to feel discomfort and stress. But the truth is, wherever we go in life, we’re going to experience some amount of stress, that’s part of being a human and not all stress is actually bad, there is such a thing as good stress. So when we constantly sweep it away, and we don’t give them the opportunity to learn how to cope from a young age on up, then they don’t build adaptive coping skills. And it does snowball as they get older. So my messaging for parents of younger kids right now is really, let’s just talk about it. Let’s talk about the ups and downs, the good feelings, the yucky feelings, let’s normalize just working through our feelings as they arise so that we’re not trying to dodge them all the time.

For many families, and certainly many parents, part of the issue is within themselves. So if they’re not able to manage their own stress, or cope with it in some meaningful way, that is going to be seen and felt and heard by their children. But how much does that factor into how a kid will ultimately be able to handle their own stress?

Yeah, it’s, it’s hard and I, I will say, I empathize with parents as someone who has a 15 year old and a 13 year old and I remember you know, the younger ages, the things that would crop up I have a ton of empathy for parents because the thing that you hear from people like me all the time his model it, model it model it they’re always watching what you do, they will do what you do, not what you say, and that’s another layer of pressure for parents like I even have to cope perfectly but The truth is that stress trickles down in families research shows that so if the stress is coming from the top kids not only can read it and pick up on it, but they will emulate the strategies, we use good, bad or indifferent. So we always have to be, you know, thinking about how we’re modelling our coping skills. And if we are struggling, then what I say is, call it out, say, you know, and I’m known to do this in my own family, but to say, You know what, I’m feeling really stressed right now, and I don’t know what to do, I’m going to go outside and take a walk, or I’m just going to read a book for a minute, and I’ll get back to you. I think as parents, we feel this pressure to have all the answers all the time and to know what to do all the time. And that’s just not realistic. So owning our own emotions, and showing kids that even adults sometimes aren’t sure how to cope. But by seeing it and owning it, that’s the first step toward working through it.

Could you give us some everyday examples and corresponding stress busting strategies that go with them? 

I’ve been working on these for I’ve been doing this for over 24 years now. So a lot of these strategies are things I, you know, developed and worked on over time to get to a place where I feel like they do work with the kids I work with that come through my office. So that’s kind of the good news about it is these things have been tested, you know, not only are they researched, but they’re also just tested in the in the real world with real kids and my own kids have to use them, like it or not, sometimes. So, you know, I always suggest early in the book, I talk about a couple of important things one is using for younger children, something like a feelings checking board or a feeling spaces, poster. Because it’s, it’s really hard to put the names of feelings to the faces for little kids. But if they have a poster that they can look at that they can check in on that they can just point and say, I’m not sure how I feel. But that’s it. That’s what it looks like. This gives parents an indicator of how they’re doing now with older kids, I suggest using a mood meter, this is something they can draw on their own, or there are even apps for it. We know our teenagers love apps. And the whole family can use a mood meter. But it’s essentially like a thermometer with different colours. And you kind of identify a mood for colour. So if red is angry, and blue is sad, and green is calm, you have this rainbow of colours with corresponding moods. And you can kind of point to where I am on the meter right now, where I was when I was at school where I was this morning, it’s just a good way to get the whole family talking about the fact that it’s natural to have mood shifts throughout the day. So that’s always a good starting point.

When you talk about foundational principles that parents should teach their kids about managing stress and worry, are there key pillars that they can learn and then build on top of?

The single best strategy for managing things is actually deep breathing. And people get tired of hearing about deep breathing. But what I have found over and over again, is that a lot of people don’t know how to do it correctly. And it takes time. And it takes practice. So you know, in the book, you’ll see a strategy called square breathing. And this is essentially where you’re, you’re inhaling for, for holding for, for exhaling for for and holding for for while tracing a square in the palm of your hand. And the the tracing helps you slow down your breathing. We always say deep breathing, but I actually when I teach it to children and families, what I say is slow breathing, because what we want to take really deep breaths, but we want them to go in and out slowly. That’s how we regulate our central nervous system. So sometimes you say, take a deep breath to kids and they breathe in too quickly. And it actually doesn’t work. It actually just regulates them more. So that’s kind of a tool that every family should have in their kit. And there are great apps for it. The comm app is my absolute favorite because they have you know tools for kids, for middle schoolers for high schoolers. For parents, it’s sort of a one size fits all deep breathing and mindfulness app so that’s that’s a good place to start and then you know from there I also always suggest working on just cognitive reframing which is a fancy way of saying flip your thoughts so take whatever thought is worrying you you know I bought my mom is running late and I’m going to be left here by myself and what if she doesn’t pick me up? You know own that thoughts? Say oh, this thought is making me feel uncomfortable. I’m really scared she’s not going to come and then turn it into something realistic so not super over the top positive but just realistic like well my mind has never forgotten to pick me up before my mom always does pick me up at soccer practice or whatever it is. So really learning the art of reframing your thoughts in a realistic positive way. One thing that social media has sort of put into our heads is, is what we call toxic positivity, which is that we’re always going overboard with everything is awesome, everything’s amazing best day ever will. That’s kind of toxic, because because nobody has the best day ever, every single day. And it doesn’t actually help you flip your anxious thinking. But if you can tap into realistic positive thinking that will help calm you.

It’s human nature to slide into a negative mindset almost automatically. Positive thinking is far more a discipline, I would think, but it’s more challenging to think positively. Especially in a world today where when you turn on the TV or your device or read the paper, or whatever it is, it there’s. Just an onslaught of negativity. So what does it take to combat that as a child or an adolescent?

It does, it takes a lot of practice. It also takes a lot of patience, I think on the part of parents, because we’re hearing so much about this, it feels again, like there’s this other layer of oh no, my kids are negative thinkers, my kid’s a quitter. What am I doing wrong? And the truth is that these are muscles. Barbara Fredrickson down at UNC Chapel Hill developed what she called the broaden and build theory. And essentially, what that means is that when you fill your brain with positive thoughts, it expands your mind. You have more opportunities to think positive. It sort of snowballs inside your mind. But what she pointed out is that negative thinking is very, very heavy. So it actually takes three realistic positive thoughts to outweigh one negative thought. So that’s a ratio I give to families all the time, because it’s easy to get into the habit of, oh no, here’s all the things going wrong. But to get to work through those and kind of get those out of our frame, we have to hit every negative with three positives. But when you know the ratio, it actually can be really useful. And so I say it to my own kids all the time — I see that sticky thinking, that sticky thinking is getting you down. Give me your three.  And that’s how we kind of flip it quickly in the moment. But it takes a lot of practice. And also it takes a lot of patience on the part of kids because they’re growing up in this time of instant gratification. Everything’s perfect on social media, very little kids are using Instagram, and they’re, they’re seeing these sort of unrealistic, photos of perfection, and so we’re always reaching a little bit higher than we need to. But if we can slow ourselves down and say, well, my positive thoughts for right now are, my kids are healthy, my book is doing pretty well, and I have all the work that I need to have right now. Those are three realistic positive thoughts for me to keep in my brain so that even when I get super stressed out because I’m not hitting the marks and I’m late on emails and things, I can slow myself down and say, hey, here’s three realistic things to ground myself and remember that things are going okay for me right now. That’s the hard part because kids are always shooting for the moon. You know, I want to be — not just I want to be a basketball player — I want to play in the NBA. How about I just want to have a good game today and fun with my friends. We have to kind of come back down to that basic level of self-love, so that we can practice realistic thinking.

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