One of the most valuable skills any of us can learn is to slow down and relax when we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. This is easier said than done, of course, and it actually requires a number of sequential steps, each of which requires unique and practiced skills. The first step is to recognize that we are becoming stressed or anxious. Most of us can tell when we are totally overwhelmed and experiencing many, significant signs of stress or anxiety. However, there are many more subtle physiological cues that can help us know when we are just starting to become anxious. If you can learn to notice and recognize physiological and cognitive cues of stress early in the process, it can lead to quicker and more effective calming strategies. After you recognize you’re stressed, there are a number of effective ways to start calming down, including both physical activities, cognitive activities (targeting worried thoughts) and a mix of both.
One of my favorite resources that I recommend to kids and families to help with relaxation is The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids: Help for children to cope with stress, anxiety & transitions by Lawrence Shapiro, PhD and Robin Sprague, LCPC. This book goes through 50+ concrete, kid-friendly activities to try at home that might help bring down the family stress levels. This book has activities that introduce the ideas of what stress is and why it is important to learn relaxation techniques. It also presents ideas for activities across a range of techniques and with varying degrees of needed practice or support. For example, it has a great basic introduction to helping kids identify some of their own thoughts that might lead to anxiety (i.e., assuming the worst will happen) and find ways to replace those with positive thoughts. It also has lots of activities focused on physical relaxation, including teaching them to progressively tense and relax their muscles or use visualization skills to imagine a relaxing place or prepare for a stressful event.
The authors present several major categories of relaxation when facing existing stressors. One of the most basic techniques is learning how to engage in deep breathing. Again, this may sound simplistic, and the good news is that it is! And yet, many of us forget this advice when we start to feel overwhelmed. This skill involves taking deep, slow breaths through the diaphragm when we start feeling anxious and does a nice job of suggesting ways kids can combine deep breaths with positive thinking. Another major strategy is the use of guided imagery. Kids are often imaginative, which can sometimes lead to stress (i.e., more creative thinking as to what can go wrong), but can also be a significant buffer against stress. Guided imagery is essentially a tool where a parent can read a script and help kids engage their imagination and senses to establish a sense of safety and calm. With practice, kids can learn to find this state on their own in times of stress. There is also an emphasis on strategies that incorporate different physical activities into relaxation, such as yoga, art or finding fun and/or silly play activities that help kids focus less on the negative and enjoy a sense of fun, freedom, security and optimism.
I highly recommend this as a reference for families that have kids that sometimes have difficulty managing stress or anxiety. I especially like it because it emphasizes the importance of presenting ideas to kids on their own developmental level. We often talk with kids about some of these ideas, but even though kids that can engage in an abstract discussion about “stress” or what they’re “supposed to do”, they generally need more concrete, specific ways to understand and practice different skills. And parents usually need resources that do not require extensive amounts of time or preparation to practice or introduce to the family. But if kids and families find just a handful of tools that work well for their families, they can start practicing these at an early age and be more successful managing anxiety at home, with peers, and in school.