Helping Children to “Shake it Off”: Releasing and Reducing Stress

Anyone can feel stress – adults and children. A combination of prior life experiences and other factors, like personality traits and genetics, influence how individuals perceive and respond to stress in their daily lives. Positive stress can motivate and help individuals focus their energy in ways that can improve their performance, help them problem solve, or encourage them to reach a goal or desire (e.g., learning to care for a new infant, preparing to graduate from high school). Negative stress can create mental, emotional, or physical distress, and it falls on a continuum that ranges from tolerable to toxic to traumatic.

Stress is the body’s normal response to change and challenges, and many of the stressors individuals experience daily are manageable and promote growth and well-being. For example, a kindergartner may have a meltdown and become frustrated as they try to tie their shoes, or a young a child may experience anxiety about visiting the doctor. For adults, examples of stress can include feeling overwhelmed when balancing work demands and child care or, perhaps, when dealing with sibling arguments among children. When individuals receive support, they can better navigate stress in ways that could build new skills, strengths, and connections to resources.

Stress, positive and negative, can activate the body’s flight-or-fight response systems. However, when a person experiences negative stress, their body reacts to a perceived threat, and feelings of helplessness, fear, and powerlessness may arise. Consider a time when you were previously in a stressful situation; you may have noticed physical reactions like your heart pounding, your breathing growing faster, your muscles clenching, or sweat dripping from your brow. These physical reactions occur because the brain processes the situation and stressful emotions and, then, sends signals to activate your body’s autonomic nervous system. This system has two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. In response to a perceived threat, the sympathetic nervous system sharpens your senses, like your eye sight and hearing, and it provides the body with increased blood flow, more oxygen for alertness, and energy to respond. The parasympathetic nervous system, conversely, calms the body after a threat has passed.

An old adage encourages individuals to free themselves of stress by “shaking it off.” For manageable, every day stress, this proverb can be true! Kinetic strategies, which involve movement or motion, can provide channels for preventing and reducing stress reactions in the body. Physical activities, like running, practicing tai chi, lifting weights, or engaging in balancing and stretching movements, can have the following effects on the mind and body:

  • Mood can improve when endorphins, which are hormones that are stimulated through exercise,  are released in the body. These chemicals can relieve pain and increase a sense of well-being.
  • Physical tension caused by muscle contraction, such as stiffening and clenching, can be released.
  • A sense of relaxation can be experienced as stored energy or tension is released as this allows muscles to return to their normal resting state.
  • Unhelpful mental and emotional processes can be interrupted. For example, rumination – dwelling on a situation or the continuous looping of repetitive, negative thoughts – can be diminished.

When parents and caregivers engage in physical activity, they are role modeling healthy habits and a way to teach emotional coping strategies to their children. You can help your child develop and maintain a sense of mental and emotional balance by encouraging your child to participate in regular physical activity and movement like yoga poses and walks in nature. Positive and negative stressors can cause powerful, or big, emotions in a child. For example, a child can become overstimulated at a birthday party or a child whose active duty parent is deployed may feel anxiety or anger and may lash out at a younger sibling. Physical dysregulation can decrease your child’s ability to reason, control impulses, and problem solve. When a child is dysregulated in this way, they become more vulnerable to overreacting to additional emotional triggers like feeling hungry, tired, or frustrated with a task or when instructed to transition from an activity.

If an everyday occurrence has caused your child to become distraught, allow them time to calm down and name and accept their emotions. Then, you can help them release the intense emotions and physical tension by engaging with them in movement. You can help them to “shake it off” with activities like jumping or dancing, or you can guide them in settling down and gently caring for themself with activities like simple stretches and deep breathing  (e.g., blow bubbles or pretend to blow out candles on a cake).

You can also make physical activity a relaxing, fun part of your family’s’ regular routines. For example, have an impromptu dance party while putting toys away or sweeping the kitchen floor. Physical activity provides an opportunity for family members to connect, promotes physical health and mental well-being, and helps individuals build coping skills for a lifetime! You can incorporate physical activity into every day moments. For example, use household chores as opportunities to encourage movement: vacuuming, putting away laundry, or playing fetch with a pet. Any movement can help the body release stored tension. To support your efforts, see resource guides on the Thrive website, like Breathe to Thrive and Moving to Thrive.

Resource Suggestion: The book, Good Night Yoga – a Pose-by-Pose Bedtime Story by Mariam Gates, provides illustrated examples of simple yoga poses that children and parents/caregivers can try together. Doing these poses may help your child build their understanding that physical activity can be a relaxation and emotional coping strategy. This book highlights how movements like bending like a crescent moon, arching like a cat, rooting like a tree, and sparkling like a star can be fun and calming.

Try These Movement Activities Together to Release Stress:

(Activities adapted from the website Save the Children.)

Go Slow Like a Turtle!

  • Move like a turtle maneuvering across the beach.
  • Drip, drop! It is starting to rain. Curl up and hide under your shell.
  • Here comes the sun! Come out of your shell, and continue your relaxing walk towards the ocean’s waves.

Lounge like a Lazy Cat!

  • Curl up in a little ball on the floor like a sleeping cat.
  • Wake up with a big yawn and a slow meow.
  • Slowly rise up onto your hands and knees.
  • Arch your back.
  • Slowly stretch out your arms and legs.
  • Relax and lie down again like a lazy cat.

Float like a Feather and Freeze like a Statue!

  • Spread your arms and float through the air like a feather.
  • Now, freeze and stand still like a statue.
  • Slowly start to move and float like a feather again.
  • End in a relaxed state after floating like a feather.

Additional Resources

InsightTimer: This online source and app provide a collection of more than 30,000 guided meditations and recordings for children.

American Psychological Association: How to help children and teens manage their stress

Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC): 7 stress relief techniques for kids

Nemours KidsHealth: Childhood stress: How parents can help

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Move your way

References

Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. (2020, July 6). Understanding the stress response.https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Miller, C. (2023, January 26). How to help children calm down: Techniques for helping kids regulate their emotions and avoid explosive behavior. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/how-to-help-children-calm-down/

Save the Children. (2023). Relaxation activities to do at home with kids. https://www.savethechildren.org/us/charity-stories/easy-at-home-relaxation-activities-to-help-calm-kids

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