By: Rachel Gilgoff, MD, FAAP & Devika Bhushan, MD, FAAP
Stress affects all of us. When something stressful happens—getting in a fight, being bullied, even witnessing a
scary event like a fire or gun violence—our brains may go into freeze (collapse), fight (attack) or flight (run) mode. Our "thinking" brain may go offline and we are ruled by emotion. Afterwards, even simple reminders, like a sudden loud noise or smoky smell, can
trigger that same stress response.
Connecting to counteract stress
The stress response can be lifesaving, like when we face a predator. However, repeated, prolonged or excessive activation of the stress response can lead to wear and tear on our bodies. It can affect our brains, hormones, immune system and even our genes—and potentially lead to poorer mental and physical health.
Teaching children to help manage the stress response can help prevent some of these effects. Equally important, connection and safety can strongly
buffer or counteract stress and reverse these impacts. Just by being there, having a calm tone of voice and listening and connecting with your child, you have the power to lower their stress hormone levels and turn off their stress response. By doing this, you give them space to process what happened and protect their health.
Tips for talking to your stressed child
To most effectively reach a stressed child, it helps to start with the
3 Rs: First regulate, then relate and then reason.
(See "Why Kids Act Up: Helping Your Child Cope With Stress.")
First, REGULATE: Calm the stress response
- Calm your own stress response first. Before talking with your child, take a few moments to check in with yourself and if needed, lower your own stress response levels. What is happening with your child is, of course, going to affect you and others in your household. It is normal to have our own worries and frustrations around whatever is happening. Take a few deep breaths, go for a walk, journal or chat with a friend. If you're having a hard time,
reach out for more help.
- Limit upsetting information. It can help your child feel better faster to limit the graphic images, videos, and news related to the traumatic event. Some families even find it helpful to take a group social media and news break to limit the intake of upsetting information for everyone.
- Maintain routines. Routines help us feel safe and in control in times of stress. Stick with familiar routines, such as around meals or bedtime, when possible so your kids feel the safety of regularity. Also make time for new routines that provide extra comfort and togetherness as needed.
- Healing strategies. Learn about and use additional strategies like better
sleep, time in
nature and mindfulness practices to help turn off the stress response and promote healing.
Then, RELATE: connect
- Take note or ask them how they like to be supported. When stressed, some kids want more cuddles and hugs, while others need more space. What they need may also change from day to day, hour to hour. Consider making a plan about how they would want to be supported during particularly rough times.
- Active, "heartfelt" listening. Put down your cell phone, turn off the TV, and ask how your child is feeling. Really listen to your child. Don't feel you need to have the answers or jump to solving their problem. Sometimes what your child needs most is to feel heard and understood. Validate their feelings and give them space to express their concerns.
When it's time, you can also model naming your own difficult emotions. That helps them understand how to talk about feelings, that it's okay to be vulnerable, and to ask for help if they need it.
- Get curious, not furious. Ask questions to find out more about what is going on, become closer to and better help your child. Even if you disagree with or are worried about how they are responding to the stressful event, it is important to explore your child's worries, feelings and thoughts rather than be judgmental. No interruptions, shaming, blaming or making assumptions.
In your responses, choose kindness and compassion. This can be especially hard when we are feeling our own stress and frustration. Remind yourself that both you and your child are doing the best you can with the resources and skills you have right now. Take moments to be kind to yourself, too.
- Let them know they aren't alone. There are others who have gone through similar experiences; depending on their age, consider connecting them to support groups, peers, online resources, books, videos or a therapist. Of course, also let them know you are there for them: statements like "we'll get through this together" can be really helpful.
Finally, REASON: process and plan
- Honesty builds trust. Kids crave solid information in times of uncertainty. Even very young children know or sense a lot. Ask what they're scared about, what questions they have and what they already know. Correct any misconceptions or magical thinking, but don't lie or misrepresent the truth—be reassuring and give them the facts.
- Tell them what is happening inside. Your child likely doesn't want to be acting how they're acting or feeling how they're feeling. You can help them better understand what's happening in their brains and bodies
and how to feel better. Highlight that they are having normal reactions to abnormal, stressful events. A helpful way to describe the stress response is using the "hand brain model," showing how we may "flip our lid" when we are scared, upset, and overwhelmed. And when the thinking brain goes offline and we are run by our emotions, the steps described here can help. (Also see "Why Kids Act Out: Tips to Help Your Child Cope With Stress.")
- Reach out to your pediatrician. Your child's doctor knows how stress impacts health and can help your family with additional support and resources.
About Dr. Gilgoff
Rachel Gilgoff, MD, FAAP is an integrative medicine specialist, child abuse pediatrician, researcher, science writer, and mother of two amazing kiddos. She is dedicated to improving care for stress-related health issues and promoting lifelong health and wellness.
About Dr. Bhushan
Devika Bhushan, MD, FAAP is an equity- and resilience-focused pediatrician, public health leader, parent, and Indian-American immigrant who served as California’s Acting Surgeon General in 2022. She leads a community focused on resilience and well-being at