Compared with what adults face, it might seem like kids don't have that much to
stress about. But kids have their own concerns — and sometimes feel stress,
just as adults do. And kids' stresses can be just as overwhelming, particularly if
they don't have effective coping strategies.
A KidsHealth® KidsPoll explored what kids stress about the most, how they cope
with these feelings, and what they want their parents to do about it.
The poll showed that kids are dealing with their stresses in both healthy and unhealthy
ways, and while they may not say so, they do want their parents to reach out and help
them cope with their feelings.
The poll underscored how important it is for parents to teach kids to recognize
and express their emotions, and to use healthy ways to cope with the stress they experience.
By guiding them to healthy coping skills, parents can help prepare kids to tackle
whatever stresses they meet throughout their lives.
Results of the Poll
We asked kids to tell us what things cause them the most stress. Kids said that
they were stressed out the most by: grades, school, and homework (36%); family (32%);
and friends, peers, gossip, and teasing (21%).
These are the coping strategies kids said they use the most (they could give more
than one response):
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
About 25% of the kids we surveyed said that when they are upset, they take it out
on themselves, either by banging their heads against something, hitting or biting
themselves, or doing something else to hurt themselves. These kids also were more
likely to have other unhealthy coping strategies, such as eating, losing their tempers,
and keeping problems to themselves.
The idea that kids would do things to try to harm themselves may be shocking to
parents. But for some kids, feelings of stress, frustration, helplessness, hurt, or
anger can be overwhelming. And without a way to express or release the feelings, a
kid may feel like a volcano ready to erupt — or at least let off steam.
Sometimes, kids blame themselves when things go wrong. They might feel ashamed,
embarrassed, or angry at themselves for the role they played in the situation. Hurting
themselves may be a way to express the stress and blame themselves at the same time.
The poll also revealed important news for parents. Though talking to parents ranked
eighth on the list of most popular coping methods, 75% of the kids surveyed said they
want and need their parents' help in times of trouble. When they're stressed, they'd
like their parents to talk with them, help them solve the problem, try to cheer them
up, or just spend time together.
What Parents Can Do
You may not be able to prevent your kids from feeling frustrated, sad, or angry,
but you can provide the tools they need to cope with these emotions.
Notice out loud. Tell kids when you notice something they might
be feeling ("It seems like you might still feel mad about what happened at the playground").
This shouldn't sound like an accusation (as in: "OK, what happened now? Are you still
mad about that?") or make a child feel put on the spot. It's just a casual observation
that you're interested in hearing more about your child's concern.
Listen to your kids. Ask them to tell you what's wrong. Listen
attentively and calmly — with interest, patience, openness, and caring. Avoid
any urge to judge, blame, lecture, or tell your kids what they should have done instead.
The idea is to let a child's concerns (and feelings) be heard. Encourage your child
to tell the whole story by asking questions. Take your time, and let a child take
his or her time, too.
Comment briefly on the feelings you think your child was experiencing as
you listen. For example, you might say something like: "That must have been
upsetting" or "No wonder you felt mad when they wouldn't let you in the game." Doing
so shows that you understand what your child felt, why he or she felt that way, and
that you care. Feeling understood and listened to helps kids feel connected to you,
and that is especially important in times of stress.
Put a label on it. Many kids do not yet have words for their feelings.
If your child seems angry or frustrated, use those feeling words to help your child
learn to identify the emotions by name. That will help put feelings into words so
they can be expressed and communicated more easily, which helps kids develop emotional
awareness — the ability to recognize their own emotional states. Kids who can
recognize and identify emotions are less likely to reach the behavioral boiling point
where strong emotions get demonstrated through behaviors rather than communicated
Help kids think of things to do. Suggest activities kids can do
to feel better now and to solve the problem at hand. Encourage them to think of a
couple of ideas. You can get the brainstorm started if necessary, but don't do all
the work. A child's active participation will build confidence. Support good ideas
and add to them as needed. Ask, "How do you think this will work?" Sometimes talking
and listening and feeling understood is all that's needed to help kids' frustrations
melt away. Other times change the subject and move on to something more positive and
relaxing. Don't give the problem more attention than it deserves.
Just be there. Sometimes kids don't feel like talking about what's
bothering them. Try to respect that, give them space, and still make it clear that
you'll be there when they do feel like talking. Even when kids don't feel like talking,
they usually don't want parents to leave them alone. You can help them feel better
just by being there — to keep your child company and spend time together. So
if you notice your child seems to be down in the dumps, stressed, or having a bad
day — but doesn't feel like talking — initiate something you can do together.
Take a walk, watch a movie, shoot some hoops, or bake some cookies. Isn't it nice
to know that your presence really counts?
Be patient. It hurts to see your kids unhappy or worried. But
try to resist the urge to fix every problem. Instead, focus on helping them grow into
good problem-solvers — kids who know how to roll with life's ups and downs,
put feelings into words, calm down when needed, and bounce back to try again. Remember
that you can't fix everything, and that you won't be there to solve each problem as
your child goes through life. But by learning healthy coping strategies, kids can
manage stresses in the future.
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
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