Mindfulness activities to help children cope with stress

Help dealing with stress

Amy Malloy, teacher and mindfulness expert at No More Shoulds, adds to her popular series of Pearson Experiences resources with a special guide to help children during the current crisis. Read on for her practical tips for dealing with unexpected crises and stress.

How can we help children (and ourselves) deal with turbulent situations?

As humans, we are programmed to position ourselves according to the constants around us: people, structures and boundaries. When those constants shift, it can be unsettling for both adults and children alike. 

It goes without saying that the times in which we find ourselves are unprecedented. Rules for living safely are being worked out day by day, and we each have our own approach. If you feel confused and without direction because of a turbulent situation, please know that that is okay. 

We’ll take a look today at why that is to help us understand ourselves a little more and at why these simple mindfulness activities can help us navigate it. 

What causes social stress? 

There may be many reasons for feeling stressed in life, but during turbulent times in society, it is often due to not feeling safe. 

Something in our environment is alerting our survival instinct. This makes our brains produce stress hormones, which get us ready to fight the threat, run from it, or freeze until it’s gone away.

The threat might be to our physical or even social survival – and the two are linked. When we also feel isolated from our social group, which keeps us protected from that threat, things can feel even scarier. 

Human beings are social by nature. We live and work in communities, we connect through love and empathy and we protect each other. There’s truth to the saying “there’s safety in numbers”. 

But it’s not just about safety. We also define ourselves by comparing ourselves to others and working out what we are not. 

Research has found that we identify deeply with our role in society and the ‘pack’ to which we belong. This holds deep ties with our sense of safety, contentment and self-esteem. If the boundaries by which we define and position ourselves have shifted or continue to shift, we will feel unsafe, threatened and therefore stressed. 

Are children affected by social stress in the same way? 

If we then apply this to children, the constants to whom they look for security are the adults in their life. If the adults are behaving differently, the children will feel a shift and feel unsafe and stressed too. If they don’t have their friends alongside them for social positioning, this too can lead to feeling confused and uncertain.

Here are some key ways we can help.

Communicating and listening

Children may often lack the language to express what they are feeling, or even to recognize it themselves. It’s therefore important we offer ways to help them make sense of the world around them, to help them feel safe and to help express their concerns. 

Communication provides the necessary social interaction and models for them how to handle the new situation. It firms up their boundaries, provides a safe space where they feel listened to and acknowledged and this, in turn, helps diffuse their stress. 

The activity below a lovely way to invite children to express any worry they might be feeling, mindfully and with support –  and give them something to do with their feelings. It also has the benefit of helping them breathe fully and slowly, which will calm down their nervous system. 

Breath activity: worry bubbles

Helping them find a safety anchor inside themselves

By helping children to focus on their breathing, we can teach them that even if things feel wobbly around them, their breath is always there. The act of focusing on the breath also helps settle the fight or flight branch of their nervous system into a calmer, more balanced state.

Counting Breaths Activity

These two activities can be really nice daily practices to try and provide some safety and structure to your child or students’ mental health right now. They are also lovely activities to try for yourself – you may like to increase the in and out count of the breath a little bit for an adult breath. 

Find out more with Pearson Experiences

Visit the Pearson Experiences page for a recording of counting the breath to try with your child or students. There’s also a version for you too and lots of other free resources available. 

You can also sign up for Amy’s webinar and discover how families can respond in stressful times, with practical ideas and takeaways to help support positive mental health for the whole family.

The webinar will take place on Wednesday April 22nd. 

Remember, mindfulness in times of stress is simply about one key underlying principle: reminding the children (and their nervous systems) that they are safe, and that not everything has changed. Do keep in touch about how you are getting on and the very warmest wishes to you all. 

How are you dealing with stress during the current crisis? Share your advice in the comments. 

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