How play techniques can help children to deal with stress

21 May 2020, 2:30 p.m.

Childhood can be a time without cares and problems, but more and more children are affected by stress and worry – about everyday things as well as when there are bigger problems world-wide. As a parent, you are ideally placed to help your child deal with stress and worry – these techniques also work for adults so you can all use them as a family – as well as helping them become resilient and better able to cope when things don’t go to plan.

The GOSH Play team have many years’ experience of working with children, young people and families. Here’s their guidance for navigating stress and uncertainty together.

What is does resilience mean? 

‘Reacting to change and dealing with it in a positive and calm way’ 

We all have some level of resilience, even children, but there are ways we can all become more resilient so we can deal with life’s challenges.

If your child is unhappy or anxious, it can be tempting to swoop in to take away the source of their worry or shield them from it in some way. A better way of helping your child is to show them ways to be able to deal with whatever life throws at them so that they become more resilient as they grow older. Identifying and dealing with feelings

Start by asking your child to describe what they are feeling – this helps them to be as accurate as possible and where the feelings are in their bodies.

For instance, they may be sad because their pet has died, anxious about what will happen to their pet after death, and lonely because they no longer have their pet around as a playmate.

Helping your child develop the skills, either verbally or using resources and props to share and describe their feelings will be very helpful as they grow older.

It’s good to talk

Talking about feelings can also reduce the physical behaviour that sometimes accompanies stress and worries. Instead of words, try using a variety of emoji symbols instead if your child prefers. Remember to include some ‘happy’ ones too – it is just as important to acknowledge when things are going well and we feel content.

Listen to what your child is saying – give them as much time as they need and perhaps reinforce that their feelings are normal and you understand why they might feel like that.

Some children will be reluctant to talk about their feelings – don’t force the issue but just remind them that you are there for them and be ready to listen when they are ready to talk.

Encouraging problem-solving 

Rather than trying to find your own way of taking away the source of your child’s stress and worry, work together to find a way around it.

For instance, even if our pet’s body has gone, we can still remember how much we loved them and how happy they made us feel – try to help your child find a way of remembering their pet, perhaps by keeping a nice photo of them or doing a painting.

You could help your child make a plan for dealing with their stress and worry – if it is a big topic, help them to break it down into chunks so they can deal with it bit by bit.

  • Maybe design a planner together – moments of calm, creativity, design and decorate a notebook so when the worry feelings arise – you can use colour and image to help explore them. 
  • Make up a song or poem or have an activity ready to go as an outlet. 
Once your child has a plan, don’t dwell on their stress and worry – suggest a fun activity for all of you.

Dealing with things outside our control 

There is so much happening in the world all the time, much of it reported in graphic detail on the television, online and in newspapers. This can evoke feelings and children can become unsettled when listening to conversations.

It is never a good idea to shield your child entirely from the world outside – better that they hear a balanced view from you rather than a scare story from someone else.

As a parent, your role is to reassure your child that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. Answer their questions honestly and if you don’t know the answer, say so and see if you can find out.

Pitching things at the right level 

How old your child is and how emotionally mature they are will influence how you answer their questions and give them information. Be guided by the words they use when asking questions or talking about what has happened.

Try to give a balanced view of what happened, without apportioning blame. It is important that your child is aware that some disasters just happen – it is rarely due to any one person’s actions, there are lots of factors coming together.

Managing your reaction 

How your child deals with stress and worry is influenced by how they see their parents and other people react. If you tend to overreact to any problem or change in routine, perhaps look at ways of managing your feelings. It will be better for your mental health and encourage your child to deal with things in a more balanced way.

If your child continues to want to talk about what is worrying them, don’t dismiss their fears – offer them reassurance and practical ways you are keeping them safe.

For more information and to seek further support about the current crisis, please visit the COVID-19 hub on the Great Ormond Street Hospital website. 

Want to hear more about the Power of Play? Check out our activities hub for some inspiration.

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