Kids Can Cope: Building resiliency in children by helping them manage stress

By Cindy Andrew, Program Consultant (Western Canada), The Psychology Foundation of Canada / John Hoffman, Freelance Writer and Knowledge Broker


It’s time to take action on children’s stress.

Stress is a normal part of life, and our brains and bodies were designed to help us deal with in. Certain kinds of stress are even good for us. However, chronic, unrelieved stress is known to contribute to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, for both children and adults. High levels of stress can also affect children’s ability to pay attention and learn.

Some child mental health experts, including Dr. Jean Clinton, of McMaster University and Dr. Stuart Shanker of York University, are reporting an increase in stress-related problems in Canadian children.  In the 2009 Canadian Community Health Survey, 14 percent of 12 – 19 reported that they experience quite a bit or extreme amounts of stress in their daily lives. Noted child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher says it’s clear that severe and prolonged stress can affect children well into adulthood because of its impact on brain development.

The ability to deal with stress is strongly linked to self-regulation, the set of biological processes and emotional, cognitive and social abilities that have been shown to be more important for school success than intelligence.  In fact, Dr. Shanker, who is Canada’s leading expert on self-regulation in children, goes so far as to say that the crux of self-regulation is the ability to deal with a stressor and then recover.

In other words, addressing child stress and helping students develop the knowledge and skills they need to recognize and manage their own stress is one of the keys to enhancing children’s learning, mental health and resiliency.

While parents and caregivers play a crucial role in helping children manage and learn to live with stress, so too can teachers and others within school communities (e.g., coaches, support staff, peers).  Experiencing “normal” types of stress (like an upcoming test, immunizations or transitioning to a new school) in supportive environments helps children learn how to adapt to the world and deal with life’s challenges.

However, in order to build children’s capacity to manage stress we also need to consider the impact of adult stress. Almost one-quarter of Canadian adults report very high levels of stress in their daily lives (2009 Canadian Community Health Survey). High, ongoing levels of adult stress can create second-hand stress for the children in their lives and also affects adults’ ability to address children’s stress.

Schools are already leaders in supporting children’s social/emotional development and mental health.  Given the connection between mental health, self-regulation and academic success it also makes sense for educational leaders and policymakers to also play a lead role in terms of supporting investments in initiatives that build stress management skills in both students and the adults who work with them.

However, schools are not alone in helping adults and children improve their ability to understand and manage stress. The Psychology Foundation of Canada has a number of programs and resources that can help, including:

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