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Even as adults, it’s difficult sometimes to pinpoint where our stress is coming from. Most, or maybe just some of the time, we’re at least capable of using healthy outlets to express our feelings and relieve stress.

Our kids face different, but significant, stresses daily. Their disadvantage comes when they lack the tools and the practice to identify what is causing their stress and to know how to release that stress.

In this episode we will share approaches you can take with your kids to help them identify the source of their stress and techniques you can use to teach them how to release their stress. Bonus: these things work for grown ups too.

Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins
  • Misbehavior is a red flag of stress in children.
  • Be a student of your child.
  • Don’t feel like you’re not a good parent if you need outside help for your child.
  • Initiate conversations to help your children identify the source of their stress.
  • After talking about the situation that triggered stress for your child, help them make unrelated observations surrounding that experience.
  • Kids may feel stressed because you haven’t dealt with your own stress.
  • Practice positivity.
  • Try visualizing things that are calm, tranquil, or peaceful.
  • Find ways to have physical contact with your child throughout the day, and let that become a habit.
  • Kids are not tidy but they feel less stressed out in a clean room.
  • There’s a connection between how safe and cared for children feel and how well connected they feel to you relationally.
  • Use a routine as an anchor when things seem out of control.
  • Get out of the house to relieve stress.
Show Notes
  • 02:32 Ben: Most of the focus of this show is going to be on relieving stress, but self-awareness plays such a huge role in that. There are some ways you can indirectly relieve stress, and we’ll talk about those, but it’s difficult to deal with stress unless you can get to the root of it. In order for us to be able to help our children, we have to be able to recognize when they’re stressed.

How Do You Know Your Child Is Stressed?

  • 03:10 Rachel: It depends on the kid. The thing they all have in common is that when they are feeling stressed or they’re at their capacity for good behavior, doing the right thing, and making good choices, misbehavior is a red flag. Especially when it’s something they know better than to do, that’s a really big red flag saying, “Something else is going on here.” It’s not that they just want to misbehave. Something else is going on, and that’s a red flag for me. If we have several nights in a row where one of the boys is misbehaving and doing all the things he’s being told not to do, that’s how I know that there’s something deeper going on.
  • 04:08 Ben: It’s hard to separate yourself from the feelings you have about what they’re doing enough to recognize that that behavior is likely coming from a place of being stressed out. Something else is going on and something is bothering them. I did a little bit of research on this question, and some of the markers that were listed were:
    • Acting irritable or moody
    • Withdrawing from activities that used to give them pleasure
    • Routinely expressing worries
    • Complaining more than usual about school
    • Crying
    • Displaying surprising fearful reactions
    • Clinging to a parent or teacher
    • Sleeping too much or too little
    • Eating too much or too little
  • 04:56 That’s a pretty wide range. When I look at that, I feel like my kids are perpetually stressed, because it seems like there’s always one of those things going on. That list almost isn’t useful to me, except for what Rachel said, which is that when you see something that falls out of their pattern. Maybe their pattern is that they do complain a lot.
  • 05:26 Rachel: That could also mean that they’ve been stressed for a long time. It’s really hard to know without actually opening the conversation with a kid.

A lot of times, kids can’t say that they’re stressed out about something, so parents have to be like detectives.

  • 05:44 Ben: Everyone deals with and expresses stress differently.
  • 05:51 Rachel: When I’m stressed, I go into hyper-work mode. I hardly sleep. I hardly eat. I just work.
  • 06:02 Ben: I almost do the opposite. I tend to shut down. It’s good to recognize the markers, but the best thing you can do is to be a student of your child. Be familiar with what’s normal for them and what tends to fall out of the norm.
  • 06:34 Rachel: We’ve shared before about our oldest son when he was having a lot of trouble in school, and sometimes that can be a red flag. Your kid is having trouble in school, and we took him to a counselor. He was dealing with a lot of anxiety stuff, and we didn’t really know how to bring that out, so we brought him to someone else who could be a non-biased person. As parents, it’s really hard for us to separate ourselves from the emotions of having a kid who’s dealing with stress or anxiety. When I think about my kids dealing with those things, that makes me feel anxious, because I want the best for them. I want them to go through life without feeling stress, and that’s probably not going to happen. There are so many outside forces contributing to that stress and anxiety.
  • 07:36 Ben: As the listener, I don’t want you to feel more stressed, like, “Aw, man, now I’ve got all this other stuff…” These are just ideas, and if you have the bandwidth to implement them and they help, that’s awesome. Nobody should feel weird, bad, or insufficient for getting help. We need help from time to time. For us, when our oldest was in that situation where he was dealing with stress, we were going through our own things as well. We were trying to take time with him, which ends up being a lot of time, to work through those things with him. We were doing as much as we could, but we needed help. Having that available really got us through it.

Don’t feel like you’re not a good parent if you need outside help for your child to work through their stress.

  • 08:48 We’re always dealing with some level of stress. I think of it as this thing that builds up. Over time, we’re experiencing things on a daily basis. We have emotions and responses, and all of these experiences add up over time. There are also things that we do naturally that relieve some of those stresses. There’s a bottleneck when we experience more stress than we’re able to relieve naturally on our own. It’s good to build in some regular stress-relieving activities. When you think about your own experience, even when things seem to be going really well on all fronts, which is rare, there’s always some level of stress that you’re experiencing. We’ll talk about acute stress next, but it’s good to recognize that undercurrent.
  • 10:12 Rachel: To add another red flag to that list that Ben had, stomach problems can be a red flag for kids.
  • 10:22 Ben: Oh yeah. That was one I forgot to mention. Kids may complain about feeling sick.

If we recognize that something is going on, the best way we can help our children identify the source of their stress is to initiate a conversation.

  • 10:44 Sometimes, the trigger, the thing that we recognize, becomes the gateway through which we enter into that conversation. If they’re behaving poorly, you point to that, not in an accusatory way, and say, “I noticed that you’re doing this. That’s not the way you normally behave or react. Is there something going on?” If they complain about feeling sick and you’ve ruled out food poisoning and things like that, you can say, “Your tummy seems to be bothering you a lot. Is there something that you’re worrying about?” Just start the conversation.
  • 11:32 Rachel: I remember when I was a kid, I was always a huge worrier. Part of that was because I grew up in a situation where I felt like I needed to be worried about everything. We didn’t have a whole lot of money. We didn’t have a dad because he had left early on. I felt like I was stressed all the time. I remember having a lot of stomach issues. My stress didn’t perpetuate itself in behavior issues, but I became the adult in the situation. I did everything everyone told me, which wasn’t in my character.
  • 12:13 My mom was so busy trying to provide for me, my brother, and my sister, it was hard for her to recognize that kind of stuff. I say that because I want to be able to recognize that in our kids.

Stress, the Mind, & the Body

  • 12:31 I’m reading a book right now called Cure, and it’s about the science of mind over body. There’s a whole section about chronic stress, and we live in a society where chronic stress is the norm. Everybody is stressed out. Chronic stress actually remaps your brain, and whatever part of your brain sees way into the future toward the long term benefits of things actually shrinks. It enlarges the part of your brain that is only concerned with short term benefits.
  • 13:14 Ben: In human history, stress is really linked to danger. It’s the mechanism we use to get out of danger. Stress is a really healthy thing in a scenario where you could potentially lose your life to some predator or you’re battling the elements. Maybe you’re trying to scale a cliff or something like that. The stress response in your body makes you super aware of what’s going on in the present. Because your resources need to serve you in that moment, there’s no need for you to think about the future when you’re trying to fight off a bear. Somehow, that experience has translated into us feeling that sense of danger and stress related to other things, like money.
  • 14:23 Rachel: When I was a kid, we had enough food, but we had to stretch it out, where we were not eating quite as much as kids normally eat because we didn’t have the money to do that. When I lost my job and we were going through all of that, and even now sometimes, I’ll think, “Oh my gosh. The end of the month is almost here and we have to pay the electricity bill.” I feel that flight and fight response in myself, because that’s how I grew up. I grew up worried that we weren’t going to have enough to eat. That’s what chronic stress does to you—every situation related to that is a situation that is going to bring stress. I want to know how to deal with that and how to keep it from my kids.

Discussing Stress With Your Child

  • 15:22 Ben: When we’re trying to identify the source of our kids’ stress, I like the approach of using language that makes observations instead of assigning meaning to something. Thinking about it objectively, as a fact or a statement, helps you separate your feelings from what is going on. When we assign meaning to something, it makes it a little bit more personal, and it’s more difficult for us to see it for what it really is. I’ll make this practical and say, “How do you feel right now?” They might say, “I feel worried. I feel sad. I feel angry.”
  • 16:09 Rachel: Sometimes, though, kids aren’t able to say that they feel worried. They don’t really know.
  • 16:13 Ben: That’s okay. It’s really just the practice of it. If they can’t say how they feel, try to help them. Ask, “What does your body feel like?” Usually, with anger, your face feels a little bit hot and you feel kind of tense. If you’re sad, you might have a sinking feeling in your chest. You can get into the more physiological markers with your child and try to identify it that way. If they can say, “This is how I feel,” that’s an observation. You can say, “Okay, what happened today when you started feeling that way?” They might say something like, “My teacher yelled at me.” That’s an observation.
  • 17:16 Then you can turn that around and you can say, “So when your teacher yelled at you, you felt this.” We’ve talked before about the difference between saying, “She made me feel,” or, “That situation made me feel,” and owning your feelings. There is some level of control and empowerment there. You’re having them say, “I felt this when I was in this situation.” Making observations is really good. In the middle of that, there’s something you can do to add a new layer of how to think about the situation. So far, we’re focusing on the negative feelings and the negative thing that happened.

After talking about the situation that triggered stress for your child, help them make unrelated observations surrounding that experience.

  • 18:15 Ask them, “What’s something else you remember about the room that you were in or what the weather was like outside?” Something unrelated to the trauma they experienced. Maybe it was sunny outside. There were kids at recess from another class. The air conditioning was running, and they could hear it. Somebody was tapping their pencil on their desk. When you bring in these unrelated observations, you’re making the world in which that thing happened a little bit richer. You’re taking some of the focus away from the negative things and you’re making it more neutral. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t feel a certain way when they’re having a certain experience, but part of identifying what happened when and what was going on around that situation helps them have a more objective view of it.
  • 19:40 The more objectively we can look at the circumstances, the easier it is for us to not feel the stress of those circumstances. We can say, “Now that I’ve zoomed out a little bit, I can also see that I was doing this when my teacher yelled at me. She was just trying to get my attention, but I thought she was mad because her face looked like she was angry.” It opens our children’s minds up to other possibilities in the situation as well. That’s about identifying the source of their stress. Having that conversation and trying to help them make observations about what they remember is a powerful way to get there.

Sources of Stress

  • 20:49 I was asking in the chat, “What are some unique things you do to de-stress?” I didn’t have this as part of my outline, but Jeremiah mentioned that he and his family were committed to some church activities for three hours a week, and they finally decided that they needed to say no to that because it was causing stress for their family. As soon as I read that, I thought about how we have had an identical experience.
  • 21:24 Rachel: Multiple times.
  • 21:32 Ben: Sometimes, it’s just the rhythm of family life that becomes a stressor. As a family, are you involved in too many activities? Are there too many things that you’ve said yes to? Are your kids involved in too many activities? Even if those are things they want to be involved in, sometimes our kids don’t know their own limits. They say yes to so many different things, and they think they want to do all of them, but they end up being stressed. It’s hard for them to recognize that.
  • 22:05 Rachel: If we’re involved in all of those things, too, that stress can translate to them. We’re seeing that right now, too. We’re committed to a church right now where we have night activities and Sunday activities, and it has made life super crazy. Since then, attitudes and everything have gone down the drain. We’re going to re-evaluate soon.
  • 22:32 Ben: It could be that you don’t have enough routine or your schedule is too erratic. Human beings thrive on routine, except for some weirdos. For the most part, when you have a regular schedule without too many surprises, that’s how children like to operate, even if they seem to fight against it from time to time. When there’s no set schedule and the kids don’t know what’s going to happen next, there’s some anxiety in that that can cause stress.

Maybe the reason your kids are feeling stressed is because you haven’t dealt with your own stress.

  • 23:29 It’s one of those situations where you’re in the airplane and the oxygen masks come down, and you have to put your own mask on first. You may need to take care of your own stress first, and then, from a healthier place, you’re able to help your kids.
  • 23:49 Rachel: I remember when we had three sons, and the third one had just been born. They thought they heard a heart murmur, so we had to take him to a cardiac specialist. I remember feeling so incredibly stressed in the circumstances around that. The baby was no more than 10 days old, and he was super fussy. He wouldn’t be quiet unless I held him. It was amazing how the stress I felt was transferred to him. He only wanted to be where I was, because he could feel the stress. It’s almost like a weird electromagnetic force field that you give off as a parent, and your kids sense that.
  • 24:39 You may not even be speaking in a way that indicates that you’re stressed, but kids are pretty smart. When I was a kid, that was part of why I was chronically stressed. I knew that my mom was chronically stressed, and I took that on myself. That makes me want to do better for my kids.
  • 25:02 Ben: Don’t think about that, because you can put too much pressure on yourself if your motivation for becoming de-stressed is so they won’t feel that stress. You have to do it for you. Parents, stop being so selfless!

Practices for Relieving Stress

  • 25:56 These practices are really great, not just for kids, but for adults also. These are good not only for acute stress, but also for the underlying stress we experience that mounts on us. It’s good to have practices in place designed specifically to relieve stress. One of the really big things is physical touch. Physical touch releases oxytocin, which causes stress levels to go down. It can be something as simple as rubbing somebody’s back. Any time we’re having reading time in the library, our seven year old will ask one of us to scratch his back for him. He’ll sit there and read. I remember loving that as a kid.
  • 26:53 That’s also one of my love languages, physical touch, like any time someone puts a hand on my shoulder, gives me a pat on the back, or even when our almost six year old tries to jump on my back. Play with their hair, give them hugs.

Find ways to have physical contact with your child throughout the day, and let that become a habit.

  • 27:35 For some of us, it comes more naturally than others. For me, it’s hard for me to be in the same room with my kids without messing with their hair or patting them on the head or something. If you aren’t a person who craves physical touch, it may be more difficult for you.
  • 27:56 Rachel: That’s hard for me. I told Ben the other day, “I feel like I’ve been man-handled,” because they were climbing all over me and they wanted to sit in my lap—everybody. They were all clinging to me. I felt like I had reached my touch quotient.
  • 28:13 Ben: When I asked the question in the chat about what people do, this was one of the ones that was mentioned—physical exercise. For our kids, that’s play. Get them outside. Have a wrestling match with them on the carpet or have a dance party, something that gets them moving and some form of exercise. The bonus to that is that if you do it with them, you’re getting exercise yourself. Positivity practices are really great, because it takes the focus away from the negative things. Positivity practices exercise the part of the brain that focuses on the long term. When you’re stressed out and you’re just focused on the present moment, it’s difficult to see opportunities. Your brain is telling you to look for negative things to be afraid of, because it wants to make sure you can get out of that danger as soon as possible.
  • 29:31 Rachel: Your brain is looking for confirmation. When you see something terrible, your brain looks for confirmation that it is actually as terrible as you imagine.
  • 29:46 Ben: If you’re in actual danger, it’s like your brain is going to imagine the worst case scenario possible so you’re ready for that to happen.

When you practice positivity, it causes you to look for positive opportunities you wouldn’t notice otherwise.

  • 30:11 This could be expressing gratitude, visualizing positive outcomes, and telling yourself affirming statements like, “I am safe. I am loved. I am significant. I am valuable. I am at peace.” It’s amazing how, when you say these things out loud in your own voice, the more you actually believe that and you think in patterns that support those ideas. Mindfulness and meditation is difficult with kids, but we’ve talked before about having a breathing buddy to help you do some controlled breathing exercises. Listen for sounds. Try visualizing things that are calm, tranquil, or peaceful. One fun exercise I found online was to imagine you’re in a bubble and that you’re floating.
  • 31:25 Relaxation exercises are something we’ve done with the boys from time to time. We have them lie down and close their eyes, and then we tell them to relax parts of their body, and we move down from head to toe. Coloring—a lot of adults are getting back into coloring now. They have adult coloring books. I really want one. Another thing you can do is to set up a peaceful environment, and this is something we try to do on a daily basis. We don’t always get all of the pieces in place, but when we have our reading time, I try to put on relaxing music. I try to diffuse essential oils. I have an essential oils diffuser that’s called Relaxation.
  • 32:33 Rachel: There’s also a stress relief one. No stress. That’s really nice. I love it, and I put it everywhere.
  • 32:45 Ben: I like the relaxation one because it has lavender in it, and they say that lavender puts kids to sleep.
  • 32:51 Rachel: Well, it relaxes your body.
  • 32:56 Ben: Have a tidy and comfortable room. I know that kids are not tidy, but they feel less stressed out in a room that’s clean and put together. This was one that Eric mentioned in the chat that he does. He goes to be alone in his car. You shouldn’t put your kid in the car by themselves. That’s probably not safe, but you can help them come up with their calm spot, a place in the house they can go and be alone when they need to be alone and have some time to themselves. Did you have any others, Rachel?
  • 33:48 Rachel: I was thinking more for myself, but those are things I actually try to do. We used to do something called Family Time, and we don’t do it as much anymore because the kids like to go play out with their friends in the cul-de-sac. We used to create things together, and that was a de-stressing time… unless you got stressed by what you were creating. It’s more stressful for the parents than for the kids, but it seemed to be good for them to be together and to create something together.

Managing Chaos in a Large Family

  • 34:30 Ben: If your kids aren’t getting enough time with you or they don’t feel connected to you relationally, that causes stress because there’s a connection between how safe and cared for they feel and how well connected they feel to you relationship-wise. Having a large family, this is one of the bigger challenges we have to overcome. How do we get enough meaningful time with each of them, and how do we get enough meaningful time with all of us together? That’s not to say that it’s easy in a smaller family, but the more children you have, the more your time is divided if you’re trying to have one-on-one time with each of them.
  • 35:29 Rachel: And that creates it’s own kind of stress. Talk about chronic stress. Parents are under it all the time.
  • 35:41 Ben: Jeremiah in the chat said, “When you have one parent who struggles with ADHD and the other with anxiety and the majority of your kids have some combination of both, how do you keep everyone from playing off each other every minute of the day? We work from home and homeschool seven, so we’re together all day, every day, in less than 2,000 square feet.”
  • 36:06 Rachel: We’re in less than 2,000 square feet, so I totally can relate to that, except that they have seven. Ours are all boys, so they’re multiplied by three. We can relate to that, because Ben has a little bit of ADHD and I definitely struggle with anxiety and stress. We go through cycles. I try not to talk about the things I’m stressed about at the table for dinner. The table for dinner is the time we get to talk together, so I try to focus on the positive things that have happened or that we’ve done in the day. When I am super stressed, like maybe a job has fallen through or something like that, it’s hard not to let my panic perpetuate for everybody.
  • 37:22 Ben: I’m having a little bit of difficulty answering this question, but I think the thing that helps the most is our routine. We establish our routine not based on how much money we have, outside circumstances, or who’s in what kind of mood. We established our routine for our family based on values, and we said, “Because we have these values, these are the things we’re going to do. Because we want to do these things consistently, we’re going to make them a part of our daily experience as a family.” This includes things like sitting down and having dinner together.
  • 38:07 We have reading time at the end of the night. Even in the morning, we have have some semblance of routine. We do after-dinner chores together.

When things seem out of control in other places, a routine is like an anchor.

  • 38:33 If you don’t have a routine in place, I highly recommend doing that. If you do and you’re having this experience, try to dwell on the anchor that is your routine. Think about, “I could be thinking about all these other things that are going on, but what are our values? Why are we doing the things that we’re doing?” Going back to that is a way of reminding yourself of who you are and what’s really important to you. That’s where you can start dealing with your own stress. Once you deal with your own stress, it’s much more easy to deal with your family’s stress.
  • 39:24 Rachel: Dan McKennon in the chat said, “Change the locale whenever you can—the library or park can change perspective.” We’ve done that before. We’ve gotten out of the house and gone for a walk, had a race, or just played. Play is so great for de-stressing.
  • 39:48 Ben: Get everybody out of that 2,000 square foot space and go somewhere else. That’s kind of the opposite of what I just said—break the routine.
  • 39:57 Rachel: Sometimes, when we are going through some stressful periods, it almost feels like the house holds stress. You wake up in the morning, and you can feel it already. Getting out of the house sometimes, even for a whole weekend, is really nice. We’re going to my mom’s house this weekend. Get out of that environment, and give that stress time to be swept out of the corners.
  • 40:26 Ben: This might be a fun little experiment, or it maybe silly. Rachel said that it feels like the house holds stress. What if you imagined that stress was clouds or bubbles floating in your house? You say, “Okay, we’re going to get rid of all of this stress,” so you turn off the AC, you open all of the windows and doors, and maybe you even go around and collect it in a trash bag with your kids as a fun, imaginary, pretend game.
  • 41:08 Rachel: I don’t think that would be silly at all. Kids are great at visualization, and they can lead us into that.