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How do I help my child handle stress?

How do I help my child handle stress?

Published: Mar. 3, 2022Updated: Mar. 17, 2022

Stress and heightened anxiety activate the amygdala in the limbic system, the fight-or-flight area of the brain. Sometimes this means kids run away (flight) or shut down (freeze), or they can push back or become agitated (fight). It’s helpful to view your child through the fight-or-flight lens rather than seeing their behavior as oppositional — this gives you the space to be compassionate. If you feel your child is being defiant, you’re likely to feel more helpless; you might lash back, and that’s helping no one. You have to see their defiance as an expression of anxiety.

There are certain things we can do to prevent the fight-or-flight response:

  • Set a timer for every hour and take a break to do a body scan: have the child “scan” from the top of their body all the way down, looking for tension and inviting it to soften and release.
  • Try a “brain hack”: encourage your child to squeeze the muscles in their body really tightly and then release, going section by section from the toes to the neck and face (progressive muscle relaxation). This circumvents the fight-or-flight impulse and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system instead.
  • Practice 4-7-8 breathing: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7, exhale for 8. It is important that the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation, because the parasympathetic nervous system is activated with exhalation.

For more details about how to practice these techniques, check out our article Dr. Lauren Stutman, Psy.D, on How to Ease our Kids’ Anxieties: Pt. 1.

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