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What Kids Say About: Handling Stress

Every kid (and adult) worries and feels stressed out sometimes. But what do kids do about it? We wanted to find out, so we asked 875 kids ages 9 to 13 to answer some questions about stress.

First, we let kids choose from a long list of stuff that might worry them. The top five things kids said they worried about were:

  1. Grades, school, and homework: 36%
  2. Family: 32%
  3. Friends: 21%
  4. Brothers and sisters: 20%
  5. Mean or annoying people: 20%

Then we asked kids what they do during those times when they feel stressed or upset. Here are the top things kids said they do most often. (Kids who answered could say more than one thing, so these add up to more than 100%.)

  • Playing or doing something active: 52%
  • Listening to music: 44%
  • Watching TV or playing a video game: 42%

That’s good news. Playing, listening to music, watching TV, or playing a video game are often good things to do if you’re stressed out. You get a chance to think about something else.

Being active — like running around, playing a sport, or riding your bike — may be the best choice of all of these. Why? It’s a good way to let out some of that energy that builds up when a person is frustrated, mad, stressed, or upset. Plus, exercise releases chemicals in your brain that help improve your mood.

What Else Do Kids Do?

Here are some other ways kids said they often deal with feeling upset:

Talk to a friend. Right on! Friends can be good listeners and might know just what to say to make you laugh or feel a little better than you did before. Sometimes you might want to talk to a parent or another grown-up, too.

Try not to think about it. If it’s just a little thing that got you stressed, this can work fine. Sometimes it’s best not to let a little thing bother you. But if it’s a bigger problem, not thinking about it is probably not the best choice. It can be OK to take a break from worrying or stressing out about something, but pretending like it’s not a problem isn’t a good idea. Why? Because nothing changes and the problem might stick around — or get worse.

Try to work things out. A great idea! What could be better than trying to solve the problem? Even if you can’t solve the whole thing, with help, maybe you can start solving some part of it.

Eat something. Not such a good idea. Food’s fine when you’re truly hungry. But if you use food to help you feel better, you might eat more calories than you need and gain weight. It also doesn’t solve whatever problem upset you in the first place.

Lose my temper. Oh, dear. It’s OK to feel angry, but losing your temper and yelling and screaming is never a good idea. It also doesn’t help solve your problem — and can make matters worse.

Feel bad about myself. Oh, dear — again. Everyone has troubles and problems — that’s perfectly normal — but sometimes kids blame themselves for the troubles they have. They might feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed if they’ve done something they know is wrong, or if they didn’t do well. But don’t let yourself get stuck in the mud of bad feelings. After all, you’re still learning, like everyone else. By working through troubles, often with help from others, you can find your inner strength. When this happens, you’ll feel better about yourself and will be more optimistic the next time you have a problem. Try to forgive yourself for whatever went wrong. Then try to fix the problem or do better next time. Ask for help with this part if you need to.

Talk to a parent. A super idea! Kids should know they don’t have to face their problems alone. Parents love you and often have good ideas for how to solve a problem. Even if it’s a hard problem to solve, just talking to a parent can help you feel better.

Keep it to myself. This is sometimes OK, sometimes not OK. Kids deserve some privacy and don’t need to tell the whole world about what they’re feeling. But keeping a problem to yourself can lead to trouble. If no one else knows about it, no one can help you.

Cry. This is always sad, but not necessarily a bad thing. Everyone cries sometimes — boys, girls, teenagers, parents, teachers, and even the toughest person you know. Crying is a way to release the tension and upset feelings inside. But too much crying can be a problem if it keeps you from getting control of yourself and trying to figure out what to do next. In other words, there’s a time to cry and there’s a time to get busy!

Some Kids Hurt Themselves

By now, you can see that some ways of handling stress are better for you than others. Sadly, some kids said they hurt themselves when they are feeling upset. About 25% said they banged their head or another body part or did something like biting themselves, cutting themselves, or pulling their own hair.

Kids usually do this because they get so angry or upset that they don’t know what to do. They might feel mad or frustrated and feel like taking it out on themselves. It can be an impulse — something a person does almost without thinking. You probably already know that this doesn’t solve the problem. Even worse, a kid could get injured.

If you’ve ever hurt yourself, try taking these steps next time instead:
  • Talk to a parent.
  • Call a friend.
  • Drink a glass of water.
  • Take a shower.
  • Go outside and play.
  • Watch TV.
  • Play with a pet.
  • Draw, scribble, or color designs on paper.
  • Rip up some paper.
  • Listen to music that will shift your mood.

If you know someone who hurts himself or herself when upset, tell a grown-up so the kid can learn how to stop doing this.

Sometimes, kids have seen adults take their anger out on themselves or on someone else. Of course, they shouldn’t — but sometimes grown-ups make mistakes, too. When adults yell or scream or hit a wall, they set a bad example for kids who need to learn to control their own tempers. Kids might imitate adults who do this and not realize there are other ways to cope with stressful feelings. The good news is that adults can learn new things, too. It’s never too late to manage your temper.

Parents Can Be Key

Only about 1 in 5 kids said they talk to a parent when they’re upset, but a whopping 75% of kids said they’d like their parents to help them in times of stress.

Here’s how kids said parents could help:

  • Talk together.
  • Help them feel better, like with a hug.
  • Give them attention; do something together.
  • Help them solve the problem.
  • Stop yelling.
  • Don’t make them feel worse.
  • Help get their minds off the problem.
  • Pray with them.

Sometimes parents might feel like kids don’t want them to get involved. That’s why it’s good to talk to a parent — even if all you want to say is that this problem is going on and that you’d like to try to solve it on your own. More often, you might want your mom or dad to offer ideas or at least a little encouragement.

You can return the favor by being extra nice to your mom or dad the next time he or she is feeling stressed out. You could draw a card, give an extra hug, or clean your room without being asked. Then your parent may be too surprised to feel stressed!

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD