11 Ways to De-Stress Your Kids

Use these tips to stop children’s tensions from rising due to school exams, family issues, or just everyday life.

chloemeditatingApril is Stress Awareness Month—fitting for New York City kids, as it is also when students in grades three through eight take the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics exams. Of course, school isn’t the only thing to stress children out. Family changes, from moving to divorce to welcoming a new baby, can also cause them to feel tension—not to mention dealing with friends and generally navigating this big crazy world into which they were born.

Luckily, there are many ways to help kids relax and de-stress. Check out the ideas below.

1. Teach them about their brains. When children understand how their brains work, they are able to make better sense of their feelings and reactions, according to BrainChildBlog.com. This can help them make better decisions, be more optimistic, and even feel happier. BrainChildBlog.com recommends several children’s books about the brain, such as Your Fantastic Elastic Brain and Think, Think, Think.

2. Take a brain break. Taking deep, belly-filling breaths sends an all-clear signal to the nervous system that triggers the relaxation response: The heart beats more slowly, blood pressure comes down, and the muscles release tension, says Susan Biali, M.D. in an article on RealSimple.com that explains how to teach the technique to children.

3. Start a gratitude journal. Have each family member write something they are thankful for in a special notebook after dinner every night. Shawn Achor, leading happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, says his research shows keeping a gratitude journal significantly improves kids’ optimism even six months later and increases their success in school, too, according to tips from The Hawn Foundation, which runs a social and emotional literacy program for kids called MindUP. Founder Goldie Hawn also recently published 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children–and Ourselves–the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives, a book in which she presents elements of the MindUP program that parents can use in daily life with kids.

4. Switch to action mode. KidsHealth.org recommends that kids realize that sitting around worrying isn’t much fun and probably won’t solve their problems. Switching to an action mode can help them feel more hopeful. Kids should make a list of what they can do to take action against what is worrying them—and if they can’t think of anything, they should ask someone for help. Written for kids, “Worry Less in 3 Steps” helps them through the process.

5. Provide guided relaxation tools. CDs and books designed just for kids can guide them through exercises where they imagine themselves in relaxing situations and emerge from the experience calm and refreshed. Shambala Kids provides a variety of CDs, such as “One With the Universe Kids Meditation” that guides children through journeys where they glide as the wind, ride in a rainbow balloon, and become a leaf and a cloud. Or try the book A Boy and a Turtle: A Children’s Relaxation Story, which incorporates stress-reduction techniques into a storytelling format where kids follow along with the boy and turtle as they fill their bodies with the colors of the rainbow.

6. Practice mindful tasting, seeing, and smelling. Focusing on the specifics of something you see, eat, or smell helps children strengthen critical neural pathways and learn to concentrate more effectively, according to tips from The Hawn Foundation. Education specialist Rebecca Fishman Lipsey suggests having a mindful tasting experience: “Encourage your kids to select a food item, look at it, smell it, imagine what it might taste like, hold it between their teeth, place it on the tongue, and eventually savor the food.” This builds kids’ language and descriptive skills, as well as focused attention and mindful behavior.

7. Sing it out. Singing stimulates the vagus nerve at the back of the throat which relaxes the body, according to Kristen Brown, founder of Happy Hour Effect, in a television news interview about five fun ways to de-stress your kids. Her other ideas for reducing stress: Dancing, drawing, and laughing.

8. Give them “vitamin G.” Children who spend more time in green spaces have lower stress levels, according to tips from The Hawn Foundation. Outdoor experiences promote cognitive development and are often linked to heightened imagination, curiosity, and a sense of wonder. Go on a nature walk together and smell the grass, listen to the birds, and collect leaves.

9. Teach them how to visualize their emotions—and let the bad ones go. Giving kids something to do with distressing feelings can help them manage those feelings, says Beth Block, a marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas, in a RealSimple.com article. Have kids imagine filling bubbles—real or pretend—with negative feelings and watch them float away.

10. Repeat soothing words. This is the kid version of a mantra that involves the calming repetition of certain special words, says RealSimple.com. Combine deep breathing with repeating the phrase “I am relaxed” aloud. Your child will eventually be able to do this exercise silently, so she can use it to feel calm anywhere and anytime.

11. Meditate with your child. A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles presents a meditation practice perfect for children developed by Zen master and Nobel Peace prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh. In the meditation technique, four pebbles representing a flower, a mountain, water, and space are used to introduce children to the practice of mediation and provide them with skills they can use any time they feel stressed. Read an explanation of the process on MyMeditativeMoments.com or watch a video at PlumVillage.org.

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer parenting, living, and working in Jackson Heights, Queens. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google+.