This month marks #StressAwarenessMonth. The Children’s Commissioner has conducted some important research into stress and its effect on our younger population. They found concerns over the levels of stress in children and teenagers in Britain over recent years, detailing that “many children have talked to us about feeling stressed… two thirds of the children we spoke with told us they felt most stressed about homework and/or exams, ahead of worrying about what other people thought of them and bullying.”
Stress is a big problem not only for our young people but for us adults too.
Most of us can relate to feeling stressed at some point, whether through work, the demands of juggling jobs or finances at home, or the stress of school or exams for our children. Stress is the feeling we get when our demands outweigh the resources and the capacity we have to deal with them. Quite simply, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
Whilst we are all aware of the risks to our health stress can bring, did you know studies have shown that a little bit of short-term stress can actually be good for us? A small amount of short-term stress strengthens neurons in the brain that are responsible for boosting memory and productivity and it can motivate us to achieve our goals. It’s what motivates us to get out of bed in the morning or to stop and check before we cross the road.
Too little stress in our lives can cause feelings of depression and demotivation, whilst too much can create a whole host of negative effects on our body and our mental health and wellbeing, such as:
- disturbed sleep
- depression (Yes too much stress can cause this too!)
- memory loss and brain fatigue
- skin conditions
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as IBS
- And the list goes on!
We can see then that striving to find a balance is so important for us as parents, and for the health and well-being of our children too.
So, in order to better understand how to combat its negative effects, let’s take a look at how stress is created in the brain:
- When our brain perceives a stressful event, it activates the ‘fight or flight’ system to help us deal with the situation, a primitive part of our brain that exists deep within our brain stem. The types of stressors our ancestors would have faced would have been real life-or-death scenarios – protecting themselves from other tribesmen or wild animals or hunting for enough food to eat. Whilst our modern-day stresses are quite different, such as the bank statement arriving, having a deadline to meet, or an exam to prepare for, the physiological response is the same.
- Our bodies are flooded with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This is a primitive response to stress that would have helped our ancestors to flee quickly from danger or to prepare their bodies to fight. Adrenaline triggers responses in the body which causes our heart rate to increase and more blood flow to be redirected to our limbs. This response would have been super helpful when running from a wild animal but not so helpful for modern-day worries. Movement (just like in primitive times) helps our bodies to counteract the effects of this adrenaline rush and is one of the reasons why exercise is so helpful in managing stress. It is the effects of the unspent adrenaline in our bodies that can build up and cause the negative effects we associate with stress.
How do the Youth Fairies help children and teenagers understand the effects of stress?
The Youth Fairies help children and young people understand the negative effects of stress using the analogy of a stress or worry bucket.
As children go about their day, they fill their bucket with different worries or negative thoughts. This could be:
- worrying about an upcoming exam
- feeling there are not enough hours to cram in all that revision they need to do
- falling out with a friend
- worrying about events at home
- or simply wondering what everyone will think of their new hairstyle.
There are so many stressors for our young people and with more and more pressure to achieve well and fit in, it’s little wonder why so many of our young people’s buckets fill up pretty quickly! As adults, our stresses might be somewhat different, but we have worry buckets too all the same.
And just like any bucket, the more that goes in, the more the bucket overflows. When that worry bucket becomes too full, we see the effects of stress and this can manifest in all sorts of ways – from anger outbursts, irritability, poor sleep, to anxiety, or becoming more withdrawn. Our capacity to think clearly and rationally takes a nose-dive and we get caught in the grips of our ‘fight or flight’ brain.
Whilst our buckets are never completely empty, there are steps we can take to help prevent our children from filling their buckets and help combat the negative effects of stress.
So, how can we help our children to keep their stress or worry buckets emptier so that they can cope so much better?
- Stick to a routine. When everything around us feels uncertain, routines help to keep children feel safe by giving them the sense of feeling more in control and knowing what to expect. This could be from bedtime routines to meal times to activities outside of school. This is important, even during the holidays when it can feel most tempting to abandon our everyday routines!
- Support your child in developing good sleep hygiene. We all know a good night’s sleep is great for our well-being but there are so many factors that can affect the quality of sleep we have. Encouraging your child to turn off all blue light devices at least an hour before bedtime and instead building in a relaxing routine in the lead-up to sleep can help to signal to our brain that it is time to relax. Our brain goes through a vital ‘clearing out’ process whilst we sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the phase where we dream. This process literally empties our children’s buckets whilst they sleep, so they wake up refreshed and ready for a new day. The relaxation audio that all Youth Fairies provide to the children we work with brilliantly supports this process too.
- Encourage your child to engage in physical activity or exercise regularly. As we have already seen, part of the negative effects of stress is caused by the unspent adrenaline in our bodies. This is one of the reasons why moving our bodies and exercising is so good for us. Exercise also helps our brain to produce feel-good chemicals, such as Endorphins, and even promotes brain plasticity, boosting connections in important areas of the brain. There are so many opportunities where we can help to get our children moving more, whether it be building more walking into your routine or encouraging your child to try out a new sport or club.
- Support your child to develop a more positive mindset. Have you ever had one of those days where from the moment you get out of bed everything seems to go wrong? On days like this, it can be so easy to tell ourselves things like ‘today is a bad day’ or ask ‘what’s going to go wrong next?’ By thinking like this, not only are we filling up our stress bucket but we are creating the mindset where even if something good does happen, we won’t notice it because we are so focused on all the things that are going wrong! When your child is having a day like this, help them to notice the good things in their day and spend a few minutes discussing ‘what’s been good?’ As the saying goes, ‘not every day is good but there is something good in every day.’
- Help your child to develop a healthy balance. Homework, exams, and revision might be high on your teenager’s agenda right now but it’s so important they allow time for their own hobbies and interests too. Engaging in the things we enjoy produces happy hormones, such as Serotonin, which is important for combatting feelings of stress and also helps stop that worry bucket from filling up! They might feel like cramming in lots of revision will be helpful, but, as we have seen, stress inhibits memory so revising at the expense of doing some of the things they enjoy, or a good night’s sleep, will only hinder rather than help their performance!
- Encourage your child to find relaxing activities they enjoy. Whether it’s colouring, listening to music, reading a book, or having a bubble bath, activities like these are great for building into your child’s day. There are also lots of child-friendly apps on the market that introduce mindfulness and relaxation to children. There are so many benefits of relaxation: it promotes positive thinking, concentration, and memory and lowers our heart rate and blood pressure too.
- Talk to your child about their worries but help them to move on from them. Whilst it’s really important for children to open up and talk about the things that are worrying them, it is also important that they see it as a feeling or emotion they are having at this point in time. Choosing phrases such as ‘I can see you’re feeling worried right now’ or ‘would you like my help or advice or do you just want me to listen?’ sends the message that this is a feeling that can pass and that there are steps in their control they can take to help them navigate through the situation.
- Be a positive role model. It is normal to feel stress from time to time, and as parents, this might be a feeling you are all too familiar with! Remember though, your child is looking to you to see how best to cope with things when their life feels stressful. Consider how your child might perceive your response to stress – is it a healthy response that you would want your child to develop too? Never underestimate your power to influence this and how your actions often say so much more than your words.
If stress is a concern for you or your child right now and you would like further information, tips and guidance, there is a wealth of information at:
You can also contact your nearest therapist at The Youth Fairy for further help for your child at: