Stress Reduction Activities for Children

By Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian

Mother calming sonEverybody hurts.  We all get stressed.  Even though we’d love to live a life that is 100 percent stress free, that is merely an unrealistic ideal.  It’s also important to remember that, particularly now- given the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed so much about daily life- feeling stressed out is a normal and completely common reaction. Just like adults, children and adolescents are also being impacted by the added stress the pandemic has brought into their lives.  But although a certain amount of stress in the lives of children and teens is normal, it doesn’t mean that they have to be at its mercy-there are things parents and caregivers can do to help them better cope with it.

What has kids so stressed out?  In the days before COVID, it wasn’t unusual for kids to have to juggle a pretty long list of demands-homework, household chores, sports and club activities, spending time with friends, and family obligations, just to name a few.  Add in the sudden pandemic-driven changes to their lifestyle, and it’s no wonder why children and teens are just as stressed out as their parents.  While this is just a short list of some potential stressors they might be facing, it’s vital that parents and caregivers be aware of situations that are causing stress in their children’s lives and be prepared to help them better cope.

Common stressors of children and adolescents due to the pandemic:

  • Social Isolation from friends and family
  • Feeling like the pandemic will never end
  • School closures and virtual learning
  • Lack of privacy with everyone working from home
  • Illness among family members, and for some children, the death of loved ones
  • Fear of getting sick
  • Uncertainty regarding vaccines
  • Missed milestones-moving up ceremonies, birthdays, family and holiday gatherings

One reason dealing with difficult emotions can be hard for children and tweens is due to developmental limits in their comprehension and expressive capabilities.  Even though their vocabulary grows exponentially during these formative years, their ability to comprehend complex abstract concepts, like emotions, matures at a slower pace, which makes it more difficult for them to adequately express their thoughts and feelings.  Similarly, while teens might have a better understanding of emotions and a broader range of terms they can use to verbalize what they’re feeling, they too can come up short when it comes to grasping just the right words to express themselves.  As a result, they might unconsciously start acting differently in order to cope with their feelings, so changes in their behavior can be thought of as the result of these struggles. Remember, it’s never wrong to consult with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional if you’re unsure about changes in your child’s behavior.

Child in distressSigns of stress in children and teens: Again, it’s important to remember that, as an individual, the way your child understands and experiences his or her own feelings is unique to them, so while this list below is also not an exhaustive list of all the changes you might notice in them, it’s a good starting point of things to look out for.

  • New or increased emotional reactivity– For younger children, this may take the form of new or increased instances of temper tantrums or crying, bed wetting, nightmares, being more “clingy” with parents and caregivers or having a harder time with being separated from them, or engaging in other regressive behaviors that they had previously outgrown. Among tweens and teens, be mindful of things like withdrawing from friends, family, or favored activities; aggression or fighting; and irritability or moodiness.
  • Changes in their sleep-Getting enough sleep plays a crucial role in the growth and development of the brains and bodies of children, teens and young adults. Changes in their sleep patterns- whether they’re sleeping more, struggling to fall or stay asleep, having bad dreams, excessively sleeping in, or feeling tired a lot more, can all be signs of stress overload in them.
  • Physical symptoms– complaints of stomachaches, headaches, general malaise, changes in bowel functioning, bedwetting, or repeat visits to the school nurse are also common signs of stress for children and teens that should never be ignored.
  • Appetite and eating-also another common symptom of stress, marked differences in eating habits can run from lack of appetite to binge eating.
  • Other changes-things like not doing homework or their normal household tasks, a drop in grades, or concentration difficulties are relatively common, where issues of poor hygiene, truancy, having new “friends” or a sudden discreetness about where they’re going or who they’re with, and substance use are all hot-button issues that warrant immediate attention.

So, What Can Parents Do? To get you started, watch this short video from Independent Living’s own Robert Ferrer that highlights some tips for helping your child better manage their stress.

Plus, here’s some other tips:

Stressed child talking to dadTalk to your child and listen supportively – Nothing will shut a child or teen down faster than the feeling that they’re being “talked” to, or that just because you’re the parent you feel that you already have all the answers.  Don’t wait for a big issue to come up as a reason to talk to them; engaging your child in dialog as often as possible about everyday things not only helps foster strong bonds between you both, it also paves the way for them to open up to you and initiate conversations about things that are bothering them.  When you do need to explain something to your child that’s sensitive or important, give them facts in terms that they can understand, along with time to process what you’re saying and plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

The other key piece here is listening; there’s wisdom in the old saying “because we were given two ears and one mouth, we should listen twice as much”.    Listen with an open, non-judgmental mind when talking with your child, and ask lots of open-ended questions to be sure you understand what it is that they’re saying.  Resist the urge to assume you know what they mean or dive right in with a response.

Model appropriate coping strategies – Our children learn so much from just watching us, so using appropriate methods to manage our own stress will do much in teaching them how to handle things when life throws them the inevitable curve ball.

Help them problem solve – Remember, you want to listen first, so give them plenty of airtime to talk about what’s troubling them.  Using open ended questions can help you guide them in brainstorming ideas about how they can handle it and in weighing the pros and cons of each approach.

A second key piece: It’s OK to let them fall – Once they decide on a course of action during your problem-solving powwow, give them the opportunity to follow through on their plan, and kudos to them (and you) if they reach their desired outcome.  If not, it’s a prime moment to reinforce the importance of doing ones best and other positive coping strategies.  Either way, your child’s self-confidence with regards to their problem solving and coping abilities will gain an important boost from the process.

Support their positive relationships – While many children and teens are adept at using virtual meeting platforms to stay connected with others, encourage them to think outside the box when it comes to meeting up with extended family or friends they haven’t seen in person lately.

Encourage physical activity and other healthy habits – Incorporating some exercise and healthy eating can do wonders to keep everyone’s mental and physical health top notch. Besides being good bets for safe, socially distant in-person meetups, outdoor activities are a great way to get some stress-busting fresh air and exercise.  Offer to chauffer your child to a park for some much-needed friend time and initiate a round of frisbee with them, or hit the trails for a hike or bike ride.  At home, make sure plenty of healthy food options are always available; things like cut up veggies or fruits with yogurt or hummus for dipping can help stave off hunger while keeping calories and weight in check.

Stick to routines – Since kids have been forced to deal with umpteen sudden changes in their life over the past year, having regular routines for things like sleeping, homework, and school days helps bring some sense of order back into your child’s life, which will help lower everyone’s stress.

Seek immediate help if your child even hints that they’re thinking about inflicting harm on themself or others.  Call 911, your local mobile mental health provider, which in Orange County, NY is 888-750-2266, or the national suicide hotline at 800-273-8255.

Want to know more about how the crisis counselors at NY Project Hope can help?  Give us a call at 845-762-2275-talking to us is always free, voluntary, and confidential.  Visit Independent Living Inc on Facebook, Instagram, or on the web at for more blogs, tips and videos on stress management techniques and coping strategies. #iliprojecthope.

 Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian are crisis counselors from Independent Living, Inc. working with the NY Project Hope program.


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