How Should Parents Respond to Childhood Stress?

Anxiety has become a much too common occurrence among the younger generation. A report from the APA revealed that Generation Z is less likely to report good mental health in comparison to other generations. Among the young adults in Generation Z, 77% stress about work and 81% stress about money. This should be a warning to parents that our children need to be prepared to handle real-world stress.

There will be some cases of anxiety that require parents to consult a doctor. Serious cases of anxiety can stem from health problems, neurological issues, and other causes that require professional help. However, whether you are dealing with everyday childhood stress or more serious cases of anxiety, here’s some advice for helping your child.

1. Don’t over-react. Although we have to be empathetic and nurturing, it’s critical to not make a problem worse by inadvertently over-dramatizing it. Even when the case is extremely serious, our child needs to read a message of hope from us, not distress. The parent needs to be the one who looks at the problem with a level head and works toward a solution. Researchers have found that anxious children are more likely to have anxious parents or parents who commonly interpret situations negatively. It’s possible that these children lack a positive perspective because they live in a negative bubble. Our reactions will either add to their despair because they sense no hope for improvement, or confidence that their situation can improve.

2. Teach them to talk to themselves properly. Children of all ages (this include teenagers) think emotionally, not logically when they are undergoing stress. Their natural tendency is to work themselves into a tornado of anxiety that gets stronger and stronger. When a child’s thoughts are consistently on the possibility of a negative outcome, the result will be depression. This is why God gave them parents; because teens’ reasoning capabilities have extreme limitations. Someone has to help them use reason, think about the situation rationally, and talk to themselves properly. Rather than running wild with anxious thoughts that increase the stress, they need to learn to think about solutions. Once the problem has been sufficiently analyzed, their thoughts should focus on the game plan, not the details of the problem. Pose some questions to guide them:

  • What is the root of my anxiety? What is really the source of my stress?
  • What kind of thinking will add to my stress, and what kind of thinking will decrease it?
  • What solutions to my problem should I be focusing on?
  • What is realistic and what is not? Am I expecting too much from people or being unrealistic about the situation?
  • Should I be focusing on baby-steps for improvement rather than expecting all problems to disappear?
  • What biblical principles can I apply to this situation? Are there Bible verses I could recite to motivate or encourage me?

3. Coach rather than do it for them. One reason many young adults struggle to handle everyday stress is because they had no practice at overcoming stress as a child. Their parents customized their childhood to make it more like a never-ending vacation than a learning experience. It may be painful to watch our children endure stress, but there are long-term consequences to completely taking over the situation rather than coaching them through it.

Certainly, there will be scenarios that require parents to get directly involved because the situation goes beyond the child’s ability to improve it themselves. But in these cases, use this rule of thumb – intervene in the least invasive way as possible. There may be times when you need to discuss the problem with a teacher, youth pastor, or another child’s parent; but it may be best to not tell the child about the conversation. Regardless of how involved you may or may not have to be in the solution, remember that you’re helping your child by teaching them to handle the problem rather than eliminating it for them.

4. Mind the details that make a big difference. It can be difficult to determine the difference between a cause of stress and a symptom. However, it would still be helpful to consider some of the factors that researchers have determined are associated with stress and anxiety among children:

  • Inadequate sleep. When children are physically tired, they become mentally tired and less capable of handling their emotions.
  • Lack of exercise. Get outdoors and play. All age groups benefit emotionally from turning off the television, putting away the devices, and getting outside.
  • Excessive social media. FOMO (fear of missing out) increases and becomes more captivating the more a teenager is on social media. The lack of relief from FOMO is a common cause of anxiety among teenagers.
  • Excessive screen time. When video games, computers, smartphones, and other devices have become addictions, anxiety levels increase.

Instances of childhood stress will vary. It may be worrisome attitudes, dealing with a bully, text anxiety, health fears, or many other possibilities. But in all situations, we must remember that we are preparing them for adulthood stressors. Help them build the skills they’ll need to become resilient adults.