We would like to think of kids as carefree creatures whose main obsessions are puppy dogs and rainbows. And yet, as anyone whose tear-stained 6-year-old has run home fresh from a playground insult knows, a kid’s life has disappointments and worries that feel as all-consuming as any grown-up’s. “Any situation we don’t control can trigger anxiety and stress,” says Beth Block, a marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas. And kids have plenty of things that they don’t control—mealtime, bedtime, exactly when to leave SeaWorld. The way to help your children cope with the slings and arrows of kid stress (and eventually teen and grown-up stress) is to restore some of that control. How? By teaching them simple self-soothing techniques that will help them to relax and regroup.
Here are six expert-recommended, kid-friendly ways for your child to shift out of meltdown mode, calm down after a tiff with a friend, or survive the college-application panic. (Big bonus: The techniques will work for you, too.)
The key to getting kids to use these de-stressers? Introduce them when things are cool, says Susan Kaiser Greenland, the creator of the Inner Kids Program, an internationally taught curriculum of meditation for children, and the author of The Mindful Child ($15, amazon.com). “If they learn how to use these tools when they’re already relaxed, they’ll be better able to pull them out and implement them effectively when they’re stressed,” she says. And that kind of power is sweet relief indeed.
De-Stress Technique: Meditation
Why it works: This very basic technique is based on a type of meditation called mindfulness. “It’s about focusing on the body’s physical sensations, as opposed to the mind’s runaway thoughts and feelings,” says Danny Dreyer, a mind-body educator in Asheville, North Carolina, and a coauthor of Chi Running ($16, amazon.com).
How to teach it: Explain it by asking your child to think of a snow globe. When you shake it, you can’t see clearly, which is what happens to us when our mind is flooded with thoughts like “My best friend hates me” or “I’ll never pass that test.” When we pause, the feelings settle (like the snow in the globe) and we can focus. Have her close her eyes and concentrate on one physical sensation. Talk her through it: “Think about your feet. Can you feel them both on the floor? What are your toes doing?” Coach young kids to stick with that sensation for 5 to 10 breaths; older kids can go for a minute or longer.
Times to try it: For anger or anxiety when her routine is disrupted; anytime she’s feeling overwhelmed.
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De-Stress Technique: Deep Breathing
Why it works: 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., the author of Live a Life You Love ($17, amazon.com).
How to teach it: Have your child sit or lie down and coach her to breathe in and out of her nose so that her belly fills with air and empties again. For a younger kid, coach her to fill her belly like a balloon as she breathes in and then let the air out as if she’s blowing water from her nose. You can also have her place a hand on her belly and try to move her hand up and down with each breath. For an older kid, tell him to try to imagine inhaling peace and exhaling frustration.
Times to try it: Lying in bed just before sleep; at school before a big test; during a major homework session, when she needs a “brain break.”
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De-Stress Technique: Listening to Music
Why it works: Studies have shown that soothing music lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and stress-hormone levels. It also creates a mellow mood.
How to teach it: Play different types of music (classical, acoustic guitar, lullabies) in the car or before bed. Ask your child how the music makes him feel: Calm? Happy? “You want to guide him into seeing how music can have a positive effect on his body and mind,” says Lori Lite, a kids’ stress-reduction expert in Marietta, Georgia, and the creator of the CD series Indigo Dreams ($16 each, amazon.com).
Times to try it: Anytime a freak-out looms; middle-of-the-night wake-ups. “Instead of calling for you, they can turn on the CD player,” says Lite. A few picks: the Rockabye Baby! series, with lullaby versions of the Beatles and the Red Hot Chili Peppers ($17 each, rockabyebabymusic.com); for older kids, Classical Kids’ The Best of Mozart ($15, amazon.com).
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De-Stress Technique: Visualization
Why it works: Giving kids something to do with distressing feelings, even though that something is imaginary, can help them manage those feelings and draw attention to positive thoughts, says Block.
How to teach it: “Bubbles are a great way to help kids practice visualizing emotions and letting them go,” says Lite. Real bubbles are a fun visual aid—or you can simply pretend to use them. Have kids imagine filling the bubbles with negative feelings and watching them float away. “Younger kids can stomp out the bubbles when they land on the ground,” says Lite. “Another technique is to imagine filling them with patience or strength, or whatever quality they need most, and sending that out into the world.”
Times to try it: To get over a sad mood (imagine filling the bubbles with the blues); the night before starting a new class (send any fear into the bubbles); when transitioning from school to home (literally blow off the stress of the day).
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De-Stress Technique: Guided Imagery
Why it works: You ask your child to imagine herself in a relaxing situation, talking her through the exercise. Your voice calms her and helps her to focus by giving a script to follow.
How to teach it: Have your child lie in bed with the lights dimmed. Say, “Pretend your bed is made of feathers, and it’s so soft and comfortable that you can’t even move.” Then, starting with the feet, have her imagine that tiny beams of light live inside her toes. “You want to start with the feet to get your child’s attention out of her head and into her body, which means she’ll be less likely to think stressful or distracting thoughts,” says Linda Sparrowe, the author of The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health ($28, amazon.com). Next, describe to her how the light slowly moves up through her ankles, shins, knees, thighs, hips, belly, chest, arms, neck, and head, warming her body as it goes.
Times to try it: When setting the stage for deep sleep; while lying on the table at the doctor’s office waiting for a shot.
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De-Stress Technique: Repeating Soothing Words
Why it works: This is the kid version of a mantra—a “tool of the mind” (one translation of the Sanskrit mantra) that involves the calming repetition of certain special words. When the mind can give one phrase undivided attention, it’s less likely to bounce around. (This is similar to what happens when you give a puppy a chew toy.)
How to teach it: Together with your child, say, “I am,” then take a breath together; after you both exhale, say, “Relaxed,” says Sparrowe. With younger kids, you can repeat this aloud a few times. Eventually, your child can say the mantra silently, so she can use it anytime she needs to feel calmer.
Times to try it: Upsets on the playground; dentist’s appointments; right before a piano recital or the SATs.