Coaching Children to Handle Stress

by Jennifer Day

Little Anne was 5 years old when her great-grandmother died. By the time we arrived at the house, the ambulance had come and gone and Anne’s grandmother (daughter of the deceased) was standing, grief-stricken, on the doorstep. As we got out of the car, little Anne rushed up to her grandmother, arms outstretched. Usually very affectionate, her grandmother was now enmeshed in her own grief. "Not now, Anne!" she said and pushed the little girl away. Anne was crestfallen, her feelings hurt beyond belief. She couldn’t understand her grandmother’s rejection at all, and never forgot it.

As we try to handle whatever life presents us with to the best of our ability, we are often so caught up in our own experience that we are unaware of the children in our environment and how our responses affect them. Children are not only often neglected, but have never been given any tools to help them deal with either the crisis itself or the adults’ distraction, neglect and/or rejection. This is particularly true in times of great stress, such as in these times of financial crisis, when children are often witness to a variety of fear-filled discussions about the state of our economy.

In trying to protect our children out of love, we often deny them adequate training in how to handle the messier aspects of life. In my work with parents, I am often asked: what is the one most valuable coaching tool we can pass on to our children? My reply is always the same: Life happens, and a lot of it doesn’t always look or feel good. Your job as a parent is to teach and coach your children how to handle whatever life presents them with. And this applies to anyone with children in their lives!

Countless studies during the past 30 years have shown that the ability to manage stressful situations is more significant in determining health, success and happiness than any other single factor. This is because our emotions are considerably stronger than our minds, and if we haven’t been taught to manage our emotions when stress occurs—whether it be in the form of a crisis or just day-to-day problems—no matter how sensible or logical our mind is, our emotions take over our behavior. That is why Anne's grandmother pushed her away.

In order to coach our children to handle whatever life brings, it is imperative that we learn to manage our own emotional responses, as a proactive and preventative tool for handling stress or crisis. Example is the best teacher! One effective way to develop your own emotional management while also coaching your children is to use these Three R’s for Emotional Mastery.

The first R is Recognize. Recognize that you are experiencing stress or another upsetting emotion. This may seem obvious, but most of us are actually unaware of how often we let our emotions spin out of control and say things we later regret, simply because we didn’t recognize or admit to our feelings when they began! State your feelings to yourself, out loud or on paper. This validates your feelings and you can start to move on. Coach your children to do the same, teaching them words to accurately describe their feelings, e.g., frightened, frustrated, sad, mad, disappointed. Children can also draw their feelings.

The next R is Release. Once you are experiencing an emotion that is stressful—in particular a response to stress or a crisis—it is vital that you physically release any tension you are experiencing. This may mean having a good cry or it could mean exerting physical effort appropriate to the situation. Our bodies are designed to perform a physical activity in response to stress. If we don’t, the stress hormones released into the body become toxic. This lowers the immune system, leading to aches and pains in the short term and eventually disease. Running, punching a pillow, jumping up and down, clenching and releasing your fists, or even letting out a good scream can all help. Teach your children how to also release their physical stress in appropriate ways.

The final R is Relax into a good-feeling state. Shift your attention physically down into your chest and heart area—placing one hand gently over your heart can help. Take a few slow, deep breaths and think of something simple that you can really appreciate. Feel that feeling of appreciation in your heart and chest area, enjoying the feeling for a minute or two. When you re-address your stressful situation or crisis, you will find that your perception and response may be somewhat more managed and effective. You'll feel a lot better about yourself, as will your children!

Practicing the Three R’s on a regular basis will make a significant difference to the way you and your children handle yourselves in stressful situations, and will give you a much greater capacity to handle and recover from the aftermath of any stress or a crisis.


Jennifer Day is a best-selling author and coach, specializing in emotional intelligence and "in-the-moment" stress management. She is the Founder and Director of Applied Emotional Mastery Inc. She expands on the concept of the Three R's in several of her books, available from, and her own website,

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