Like adults, kids may deal with stress on a regular basis. Healthy coping strategies can teach your child how to manage that stress.

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Stressful situations are a part of life — and so is figuring out ways to work through them.

Children experience stress, too. This means it’s just as important for them to develop stress management skills as it is for adults.

Coping skills, or coping mechanisms, can help people of all ages handle stress, including kids. Teaching your child physical and emotional coping skills can help them navigate the stress that comes with life’s challenges, from school pressure to the ups and downs of everyday life.

Many young children don’t yet have the emotional tools to ask for help — even when they may need it.

Samantha Newton, LCSW, of The Therapy Suite in North Carolina, says that children and teens are still learning how to process what they’re feeling, which can make it difficult to process and identify their emotions and ask for help.

“As a parent, you have to make sure you’re aware of shifts in your child’s mood and behavior,” Newton says.

According to Newton, some children and teens may exhibit symptoms that could indicate distress. Signs to look out for include:

Coping skills help kids understand how to face tough situations, understand and manage their emotions, and work toward regulating stress in their minds and bodies.

“Learning to manage emotions is a skill that kids must practice and is like a muscle that grows over time,” says Annia Palacios, LPC, of Tightrope Therapy in Texas.

The following body-based strategies, according to Newton, may help kids manage their stress. Many physical coping strategies can be used alone and at any time, while some others may involve a game or activity played with a group.

Squeeze-relax game

As a form of progressive muscle relaxation, the squeeze-relax game can be a great technique to calm the mind and body. Newton says it helps kids recognize the difference between tension and relaxation.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Hand your child a ball of Play-Doh or something soft and squishy, like a stress ball.
  2. Ask your child to squeeze the object in their hand as hard as they can, then relax.
  3. Alternate back and forth between squeezing and relaxing several times.
  4. Check in afterward and ask them how their body feels.

5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise

Grounding techniques are mental exercises to help redirect thoughts away from distressing feelings.

The 5-4-3-2-1 exercise is a simple and effective technique that children of all ages may benefit from. All you have to do is activate your senses and count backward from 5 to identify each of the following:

  • 5 things you can hear
  • 4 things you can see
  • 3 things you can touch
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

Red Light, Green Light

Red Light, Green Light is a popular schoolyard game, but it can also serve as a coping strategy for children ages 5 and under.

Newton says this exercise teaches executive functioning skills like impulse control and following directions. Red Light, Green Light may also help promote body awareness and help kids release stress through physical movement.

Here’s a refresher on how to play:

  1. Mark a “finish line” somewhere outdoors, such as in a park or playground, or indoors if you have space.
  2. When you’re ready to begin, call out “green light” to send your child or a group of children running toward the finish line.
  3. Before they get there, call out “red light” to have them stop.
  4. Continue calling out “green light” and “red light” until they reach the finish line.
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Infographic by Bailey Mariner

Other ideas

Note that not all physical coping skills are accessible to all age groups and abilities. Here are a few examples of accessible coping skills you may wish to consider for your child:

  • going for a walk, run, or hike
  • listening to music
  • dancing
  • jump rope or using a hula hoop
  • bouncing a ball
  • blowing bubbles

Emotional coping strategies often include mindfulness exercises, which can be learned at almost any age.

These coping skills can be especially helpful for teens. According to Newton, teens may be more likely to detach and use avoidance to cope with stress.

Positive self-talk

Kids, especially teens, develop negative self-talk for a variety of reasons. This may occur when they start to become aware of what other people might think or have difficulty managing their expectations of parents or teachers.

Teaching your kid how to speak kindly toward themselves also helps them tap into their empathy and compassion toward others.

Newton suggests asking your child, “What would you say to your friend if they were having this problem?”

As they formulate an answer, you might find they’re more likely to use kind words. Then, you can ask your child to use those same compassionate words when describing or talking to themselves.

Positive affirmations may also help kids cultivate positive self-talk. For example, they might say, “It’s OK to make mistakes. I love and accept myself the way I am. I am improving one step at a time.”

Breathing exercises

Slow breathing exercises can be a valuable coping skill for your child.

Research from 2018 suggests that deep and intentional breathing can promote calm, while a 2017 study notes that it may help reduce stress.

Other benefits of breathing exercises include:

  • increased comfort
  • relaxation
  • pleasantness
  • vigor and alertness
  • reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion

While breathing techniques may vary, most involve finding some degree of stillness and getting in touch with the breath in the body. Here are a few exercises to try with your child.

Pursed lip breathing

Pursed lip breathing focuses on slow and intentional breathing. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Inhale slowly through your nose for 2 seconds, filling your belly and lungs with air.
  2. Purse (or pucker) your lips, as if you’re blowing out a candle or cooling off hot food.
  3. Slowly let the air out through your pursed lips for 4 seconds.
  4. Repeat for as long as you need, maybe multiple times throughout the day, if it’s helpful.

Rainbow breathing

Rainbow breathing is pretty much exactly as it sounds: You focus on the colors of the rainbow by looking at various objects around you as you breathe deeply (i.e., “red apple,” “orange cup,” “yellow banana,” etc.).

‘Smell the pizza’

For little ones age 5 and under, Palacios recommends the “smell the pizza” method.

Ask your child to take a deep breath in like they are smelling a delicious slice of hot cheese pizza, then have them exhale and blow on the pizza like they are cooling it down.

Deep breathing for beginners

If you or your child are new to intentional breathing exercises and a visual aid is helpful, this short video can help you get started.

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Journaling and creative expression

A 2022 research review suggests that journaling may benefit mental well-being. Further research is needed, though, to determine whether it may help manage certain mental health conditions.

Palacios says that journaling and expressive writing may help your child learn more about themselves and their emotions. By putting their thoughts on the page, kids can learn to regulate their emotions and increase their capacity for self-reflection.

Journaling can be especially helpful for teens, allowing them to name their feelings on paper and release any pent-up emotions.

If journaling isn’t your child’s thing, other creative or expressive outlets may include:

  • drawing
  • painting
  • listening to music
  • playing an instrument

Coping skills are important for folks of all ages, but children can benefit, too. Teaching your child healthy coping strategies can help them manage their stress and navigate life’s ups and downs with more ease.

If you’re wondering how to incorporate coping skills into your child’s routine, Newton suggests making the strategies part of the whole family’s schedule.

For example, the family might try a breathing or stretching exercise together to release the day’s tension before winding down for the night. That way, it becomes easier for the child to recall how to use the coping skill without feeling singled out.

If you’re concerned about your child’s stress levels and general emotional state, you may wish to connect with a child therapist or psychologist who can help you develop a treatment plan to improve your child’s well-being.