Managing Stress in the Family

By definition,  stress is a “state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in one’s life or work.” It can be caused by difficult or very overwhelming circumstances.  Stress is not unique to this generation, but it’s more prevalent today than in former generations. Stress comes from everywhere; outside the family and within the family.

  • Stress can be caused by outside influences such as the economy, world, national, and local events, careers, schedules, schooling, and childcare.
  • Predictable changes, such as those experienced during the holidays, create stress.
  • Unexpected events, such as illness, death, relocation, separation, financial burdens, homelessness, and pregnancy, cause stress.
  • Developmental changes with a parent or child often cause stress. Examples would include a 2-year old exerting independence, teen mood swings, aging, or changes in parent direction.

Each of these stressors can affect the family as a unit and each member individually. Everyone responds differently to stress, whether physically, emotionally, or behaviorally.

Look at the categories of stress above.  List current areas of stress in your life.  Describe your responses to these stressful events.

We often think that children are “adaptable” to any situation and don’t experience stress.  But, children experience a great deal of stress and today’s children experience more than in past generations. It is estimated that one million children between the ages of 5 and 15 now have mental health problems.  If a child experiences long periods of stress, depression and a general sense of anxiety can result.  Approximately, 35% of children suffer from stress-related health problems at some point in childhood.

Each child is affected by stress in different ways.  A strong child reacts more strongly to stress and an easy-going child reacts much less.  Children between the ages of 9-14, are at the greatest risk for stress and its effects.

In your opinion, why do children, ages 9-14, experience the greatest amount of stress?

KidsHealth© recently asked children what caused them the greatest stress.  Kids revealed that they experienced anxiety over grades, school, and homework (36%), family (32%), and friends, peers, gossip, and teasing (21%).

Children who experience trauma are exposed to even greater amounts of stress.  This level of stress, produced by a very difficult or unpleasant experience, has a devastating effect on a child’s development; mentally, emotionally, behaviorally, psychologically, and cognitively.  If trauma continues over a long period of time, the fear associated with a traumatic event changes a child’s patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.  It is recommended that one seek professional help for a child who has experienced childhood trauma.

In this lesson, however, we will look at children who experience common childhood stress, as indicated by the KidsHealth© survey.  Among the children surveyed, the following strategies were used to cope with stressful situations.

  • 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 surveyed hurt themselves in order to handle stress. Hitting, pinching, or cutting themselves was coupled with other unhealthy coping strategies, such as eating disorders.

Sometimes kids do not know how to handle feelings of stress, frustration, helplessness, hurt, or anger.  Without a way to deal with overwhelming feelings, children resort to desperate methods to express themselves.  Sometimes children see themselves as the one to blame in an existing situation.  In order to cope with the blame, children often feel the need to hurt themselves.

Be alert to the common symptoms of stress in children.  Below is a partial listing of those symptoms.

  • Irritability
  • Increased crying and whining
  • Sleep Problems
  • Acting out
  • Increased fears
  • Stomachaches and headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating or completing schoolwork
  • Withdrawing or spending a lot of time alone
  • Defying authority
  • Overreacting to minor problems
  • Clingy behavior
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Anger, aggression
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Thumb sucking, hair-twirling, nose-picking
  • Lying

Do you see signs of stress in your child’s life? What do you feel is the root cause of your child’s stress?  How are you responding to your child’s stress?

Sometimes, we respond to our children in the same way our parents responded to us during times of stress.

How did your childhood family deal with stress? Do you handle stress in the same ways?

You cannot shield your child from normal hardships and challenges.  To do so would not allow your child an opportunity to develop healthy ways of coping with stress and dealing with life.

Children want parents to help them during times of stress.  As parents, it is important to listen, spend time, and talk with your child about ways to handle a stressful situation.  It is the responsibility of the parent to teach his/her child healthy ways to cope with stress.

Many of the following ideas will help you support your child in times of stress and build connection. Your child’s greatest protection against stress and its effects is a secure attachment with you.

  • Set aside time each day to play and talk.
  • Be a good listener.  Ask questions.  Avoid the urge to blame, pass judgment or tell your child what he/she should have done.
  • Comment on your child’s feelings so that he/she knows you were listening and understand.
  • Label your child’s feelings so that your child has the words to express anger and frustration appropriately.  Let your child know that feelings are normal.
  • Be available.
  • Give your child time to calm down before talking together.
  • Speak words of encouragement.
  • Practice patience.
  • Reduce crowded schedules and simplify his/her life. Your child may be too busy.
  • Maintain a sense of structure and routines.  Remember, structures create a feeling of safety.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep and exercise.
  • Encourage your child to eat nutritional foods.
  • Help your child explore healthy ways of relieving stress.
  • Designate a quiet spot or enroll your child in a stress-relieving activity, such as art, music, or sports.
  • Read the Bible with your child.  Memorize Scripture together about God’s love and care for each member of your family.  Be thankful.  Pray with your child about things that concern him/her.
  • Seek help if your child’s change in behavior persists or if increased stress levels are causing significant problems in home or school.

You can’t fix all of your child’s problems. Instead, your goal is to help him/her learn to be a good problem solver.  You want your child to know how to deal with life’s ups and downs, put feelings into words, stay calm, and be able to bounce back and keep going. You want your child to feel capable of resolving his/her own problems and practice healthy ways of reducing stress levels.

Remember!  You are your child’s greatest teacher.  You are the role model for your child in demonstrating positive ways of dealing with stress in your own life.  It’s difficult to teach your child how to manage stress when you are not able to manage stress yourself.  When you are able to handle life’s stressful moments in healthy ways,  you teach your child how to do the same.

Below are some suggested ways to manage your stress as an adult and thereby, help your child.

  • Get rest, exercise and eat healthy foods.
  • Take time to relax and play.
  • Pray. Read God’s Word.
  • Be part of a support group.
  • Eliminate the unnecessary things in your life. Don’t try to do everything.
  • Set reasonable expectations for yourself and your family.
  • Spend time with positive people.
  • Learn to recognize what you can control and what you can’t.
  • Don’t try to control the actions of others.
  • Recognize anger in yourself and address it.
  • Talk to a trusted friend.
  • Seek professional help, if necessary.

Try Something New

Try a technique to reduce stress in your own life.  Teach your child how to reduce his/her stress using this same technique.

Pray with your child about those things that concern him/her.  Memorize a Bible verse that addresses his/her anxiety.  Show thankfulness for God’s love and His care.      

Verses for Encouragement

Stress is common to people.

Every test that you have experienced is the kind that normally comes to people. But God keeps his promise, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your power to remain firm; at the time you are put to the test, he will give you the strength to endure it, and so provide you with a way out.  (I Corinthians 10:13)

God is your strength in times of trouble.

I am your safe place. I am your strength. I am with you when you are in trouble. Psalm 46:1

Trust the Lord to help you.

The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.  Those who know your name trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you. Psalm 9:9, 10

God will give you peace in your circumstances.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.  Philippians 4:6-7



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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