Helping Children and Youth Manage Stress

Note: This is a Special Guest Contribution from longtime BackdoorSurvival reader Donna!

This topic is seldom discussed on prepper sites, but by the end of this article I hope you will have developed a greater understanding of just how essential this topic is, not only to self-reliance preps, but to the strength of families, our society and literally to our freedom and way of life.

Stress is all around us. We experience it in some degree almost daily, maybe beginning with a glass of spilled milk or being cut off in traffic. We are teaching our kids how to respond to situations all of the time – they watch, they mimic.

Learning skills to effectively make our own responses more calm and measured allows stressful times to make us stronger and more in control. If we haven’t mastered these skills ourselves, it is difficult to help our children learn calmer responses to everyday stressors. They watch us every day. They watch others.

  • Are they seeing parents who deal with small or large situations without falling apart or becoming angry or even violent?
  • Are we as parents always complaining and seeing the most negative part of a situation, or are we looking calmly for good solutions?
  • Are we problem solvers?
  • Do we take time with our children and youth to discuss alternative ways to deal with difficult challenges?

If we do this we are making a meaningful contribution to their ability to stay calm, in control of emotions and centered in any setting. Our children are able to cope with hard situations if they feel they understand what is going on.

Helping them understand a difficult situation, at least as much as possible, based on their age, is the first goal and will be a great tool in helping them manage their fears in any disaster. When we respond to children’s needs in a comforting way, they learn how to calm themselves.

Teens and older children need to know that adults make mistakes. We are not perfect. Be vulnerable. Let your kids see that you make mistakes too. Allowing them to hear you say, “I could have done better” makes you more human and accessible and gives them the modeling they need to own and correct their mistakes.

These are huge goals, but they can be accomplished through consistent baby steps. Let’s look at some ways we might do this no matter our family dynamic.

Free Time

What is that? Let me reminisce for a moment with a purpose.

When I was a child, after we finished our chores on Saturday or after school or in the summer months we would “go outside and play.” We spent many hours outdoors in almost any weather, building snow forts and treehouses, making up our own games, wading in the stream, catching lightening bugs, riding bikes, playing with siblings and neighbors.

When we got bored, we figured out some new activity by ourselves. We learned to work together and we developed lifelong friendships. This kind of wonderful childhood freedom was the stuff that gave my generation a clearer ability to handle squabbles and differences alone, to be creative and to think through difficulties, to fail and get up again.

We learned how to get along and solve differences mostly independently of adults.

Sadly, this is becoming a thing of the past and as a society we are paying the price. Today, if you haven’t enrolled your 5 year old in ‘organized sports’ at least twice a week you risk being labeled a bad parent. Games are planned and run by adults.

What ever happened to pick-up games, child-organized?

More and more, children rely on others to make life “fun” or solve their problems. By the time they are preteens they are truly bored and don’t have the first idea how to solve a challenge by thinking it through and arriving at a possible resolution.

Think about that a moment: how many times have you heard from your whining child, “I’m bored”, translated that means, “You need to solve this problem for me”?

If we had said that, my mom or dad would have said, ”Oh, okay, I have plenty for you to do” as one of them pointed to a load of towels that needed to be folded. We quickly learned not to be bored!

Setting Boundaries

Children and teens thrive with limits. It gives gives them a feeling of safety and boundaries. Even very young children need limits. Teens may say they don’t want or need them but setting reasonable limits demonstrates your love and concern. Discuss boundaries with your teen and they will appreciate having some input.

Although babies verbal skills and understanding may not be developed, they still need to be redirected when they choose an unacceptable behavior i.e. hitting the cat, pulling your hair. Perhaps just gently taking their hand away and shaking your head without a frown. Redirecting to something else usually works.

If we set no boundaries, how will they know what is expected of them? Later as they start to hit the cat, but stop themselves, it is important to give positive reinforcement. A smile and a tender word will suffice.

Some parents laugh at their baby or toddler’s inappropriate antics. This only serves to reinforces negative behavior. Loving correction is a parental responsibility. A time out place often gives a brief space for child and parent to become calm again. Always make sure you child understands why they must have a time out.

After the appropriate time has elapsed (usually 2 minutes for a 2 year old, 3 mins for a 3 year old etc.), it is important to restore good will with a brief ‘I’m sorry for….’ from the child and smiling hug from the parent.

Can you imagine this sweet face (BELOW) actually setting limits on her darling, ever-obedient, innocent children? I’m saying all this tongue-in-cheek of course!

We tried every trick in the book but never seemed to get away with anything. She probably really does have eyes in the back of her head as she claimed! She’s 96 now!

To a degree, we live in a more dangerous world and parents become fearful of the evil lurking “out there”. But there must be a balance, because children and societies benefit by nature based creative play. I read somewhere that, “Children today are coddled and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play, they will never grow up.

Play is a child’s work! We need to allow them the freedom to play, learn to make choices, and feel confident about solving problems.

A few years ago, I was a summer camp nurse. It was an easy job: scrapes, bruises, sunburn, tummy aches or mild heat exhaustion. But this volunteer job turned out to be an eye-opener for me.

On the first day of camp, I was given a brief medical profile of each of the 75 children and adults. As I read through each medical history I was blown away by this fact: nearly 50% of these children ages 8-12 were on anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs! 50%!!

A couple had even attempted suicide!

Why? What was wrong?

The knowledge of this was shocking and I needed to find out the real ‘why’ of it. I knew these children were not from hard core “dysfunctional” families…What was going on at a deeper level? Of course, there are multiple reasons for anxiety and depression in children but what might have caused this major increase?

In his book Children at Play: An American History (2007), Howard Chudacoff refers to the first half of the 20th century as the ‘golden age’ of children’s free play.

He went on to say, “Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing….. Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, ….increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and for children under age 15 has quadrupled.

How will these medicated and anxious children and young adults manage stressful situations throughout their lives? In prolonged calamities, how would they fare if their medications were suddenly unavailable?

I know these are disturbing concepts, and I mention them as they relate to the world we live in and that our children are inheriting. Prepare your children by teaching your cherished values and kindness through your example, and always allow free play so they can learn self-reliance and the solid problem solving skills needed to meet life’s challenges with confidence.

The following quote is revealing and gives us a place to begin changing the outcomes for our own children. In his book Free to Learn (2013) author Dr. Peter Gray says, “I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

We absolutely MUST allow them freedom to play without stepping in to solve their every little problem or squabble. A simple glance out the window to assure their safety is enough. (Of course, I am not talking about toddlers here!)

Our 7 year old grandson playing in the puddles. He’d just had a wicked water battle and after drying off and changing he decided to go right back outside for more splashing.

Family Time

Besides allowing plenty of “Go out and play time” when our children were small and even through their early teens, we would have a weekly family night. It can be a challenge to get everyone together. Sometimes there is complaining and resistance in older kids, but if we as parents stay strong, hopefully children will eventually come to recognize that they actually like their siblings and parents!

Truly getting to know one another strengthens relationships and builds love, harmony and trust. Also in these family times, we can take the time to teach principles of preparedness, spiritual values and deeper family communication.

Strengthening family relationships through working on projects and playing together, having a night time routine, doing service projects, working together in a family garden, reading books aloud, creating positive fun memories and meaningful communication are activities which will create strong family bonds that will last a lifetime.

Giving each child the opportunity to plan and carry out a family night, plan and prepare a meal or snacks helps them realize that you have confidence in their abilities.

Of course they have been building these skills all along in small ways. Family fun time might be a good tell them you love them. Psychologists report that a teen needs about ten hugs a day…though perhaps not in front of their friends!

What If?

One fun and useful game we’d play was, “What If?

“What if:

  • A bully confronts you?
  • A friend betrays a confidence?
  • You get really angry?
  • You see someone cheating on a test?
  • A ‘friend’ begins talking about what it might be like to shoplift
  • A friend asks you to do join in a destructive behavior?

In this “What If” game, the child is given time to think about the situation and then is asked to respond. At this point, it is important for the parent just to listen non-judgmentally even if you disagree with their answer.

You might ask something like, “Can you tell me more about this?” Allow them to actually think and reach a solution — even if they say, “I’d like to punch him in the mouth!”

You might say, “I might feel the same way if someone did that to me!” Empathize with their feeling and thought. This allows them to vent those negative feelings without fear of lecture or disapproval

They probably already know that hitting is not the solution but allowing them to feel what they feel is okay, they’ll probably eventually make the more appropriate response all on their own.

Giving this safe-zone allows them to think it through and grow emotionally stronger and more sure of what they will do should this situation arise. It helps to establish communication and trust.

Developing this confident skill will have a lifelong benefit and can boost their coping ability. This happens because a parent took the time to gently guide their child in the skill of thinking through a problem before reacting in fear, anger or hostility.

Can you see how this can create confidence and decrease stress? This measured, thoughtful response being created within the child will give him/her better leadership skills and prepare them for a calm handling of small or even large stressors for a lifetime.

Include grandparents, aunts and uncles in spending one-on-one time. This can help a child feel a part of a larger loving family and can give busy parents time to go on a date-night or a single parent time to regroup!

Becoming a Little More Unplugged

Realistically it is hard for parents to compete with digital devices and the bombardment of social media. But stop and think about it a minute. Is that really a true statement? I have heard that said many times. Let me present another view for your consideration. You, of course are free to have a differing opinion!

It may be that they spend long hours with their media because parents are too distracted to make the time to engage with them early on, or are giving in to cell phones, ipads and other devices when they are much too young and/or without following through on rules for their use.

If kids are chatting with friends 24/7 and who knows who else, then we have abdicated our parental responsibilities. Media in its various forms can be a wonderful thing and a helpful tool, but all must be used with responsibility and parental rules and limits.

Many children and teens easily default to those things but would be more well-balanced and fulfilled by less screen time. They often withdraw to entertainment for hours on end, silent and focused on something that is not real, something that is superficial at best and sometimes destructive.

They need and want us to engage them, teach them, learn from them and get to know them more deeply. This is one way they learn to take on our values and become adults who engage in life.

I found the following statistics revealing. A 2010 Kaiser Foundation study showed that elementary aged children use on average 7.5 hours per day of entertainment technology, 75 percent of these children have TV’s in their bedrooms, and 50% of North American homes have the TV on all day. Gone is dining room table conversation, replaced by the “big screen” and “take out”.

They can retreat into something that requires no thoughtful conversation with a real person and whose content is being directed by the creator of the game or activity. As parents we need to consider talking with our children about internet safety, set firm limits on its use, and then stick to those limits absolutely.

Sometimes isn’t it the adults who need to be more unplugged!! We need to be honest and consider our own behaviors as well. Often when children and parents finally unplug, they find that they enjoy activities together, especially if they feel understood and validated. These are needs the media world seldom fulfills.

The needs of our children are all the same — They want to feel loved, needed and know that their feelings and thoughts matter. Isn’t that what we all desire? So if our family life becomes one of “Hurry, hurry, lets go. We’re late, no we don’t have time for that” or “Here, let me do that for you.” (implying that they are not capable), we might need to rethink and adjust our parental goals.

If every second of time is filled with activities outside of the home, (these can even be “good” activities) what time does that leave for spontaneous child play, or the family to just be together talking, playing games, watching clouds, hiking, reading, exploring, getting to know each other. Even occasionally learning how to play a computer game that your child enjoys or playing Wii as a family.

Do they have time left for helping a brother or sister or doing a service project for an elderly neighbor? Should that instead be a priority?

How about learning a new adult skill: preparing a meal, maybe even developing skills of self-reliance learning how to change a tire or build a birdhouse? It’s all a matter of balance, and it seems that the balance can, at times, get a bit out of kilter.

Don’t you think that most parents want to do their best for their family and to raise capable, loving, well-adjusted children?

But we often don’t even realize the direction we are going with training up our children — and by the time we realize our trajectory and that we’d like to refocus, our children are already so entrenched in the hurry and hollowness of daily life with media and excessive activities that the opportunity to change direction is gone or meets gigantic resistance.

Start young!

Children don’t instinctively know how to be productive adults. Teaching this is the job of parents. I know the new thought is, “It takes a village” and perhaps for some it does. But if at all possible we need to focus on, “It takes a family” first.

I’m not sure if anyone in the village loves our children as much as we love them or will sacrifice as much for them, or would give their lives for them. So if we love them, we will teach and guide them with understanding and patience. We will carve out the time, indeed make that personal time a priority.

Effective Problem Solvers & Clear Thinkers

Stress will come into every life and we can’t remove that. What we can do, however, is give them the tools they need to be effective problem solvers. So how can we help them manage difficulties and stress? We can give them the tools at an early age to help them develop those skills and abilities themselves.

Small children can feel that they are a useful part of family life. This will give them the confidence and peace to be unafraid to tackle larger and harder challenges on their way to becoming responsible adults. It will give them skills to fully reach higher and be better, kinder individuals and it will help them to be a manager of their emotions, and a clearer thinker in times of stress?

Don’t “wing” parenthood. Think about what it is you want for your children. It usually boils down to this….I want my children to be happy, productive, other-oriented and kind adults. Guiding that path is the parent’s privilege.

Our grandson making cookies at Grammy’s house. He’s been “in training” since he was 4 years old and is getting more confident in the kitchen.


Allow me to share one recent event that took place at our home. Each year we cut and stack about 8 cords of wood. Due to my husband’s poor health we needed some help. The last two cords we had delivered and dumped in a pile near the previously stacked firewood. It looked rather large!

Two Cords of Wood to Be Stacked

While talking to one of my cub scout Mom’s she mentioned that her son needed to do a service project and they wanted to stack that wood for us. So later in the week 3 teens and one 11 year old arrived. We were so grateful!

My husband showed the older boy the safest way to stack wood. If it isn’t stacked securely, it could roll down and cause injury then he went back indoors and watched a few minutes from the door. The four youth worked together to finish the project.

Well, a week passed by, and I was with my cub scout pack decorating a truck for the local fireman’s parade. The same young man (Daniel) who took the lead in stacking our wood was there helping his little brother. In the course of the evening I mentioned to him a comment that my husband had made.

My husband had simply said to me, “That young man was impressive.” When I told Daniel this he stopped decorating and stared at me for a full 5 seconds then said, “That is a real compliment.”

As I thought about his response, I knew exactly what he was saying and how it was meant. As parents, friends and within society, we have “stock” compliments. Because they are easily said and often overused, they have lost their meaning. If my husband would have said, “That was a good job!” or “Hey thanks!” those comments would have been acceptable, but not nearly as effective in conveying my husband’s thought’s about the youth himself.

Sure the job was well done, but the young man himself was impressive! Can you see the nuanced difference? My husband’s measured and simple comment conveyed approval and appreciation of the young man. Kids sense things deeply and so when a genuine compliment is given they are inspired and uplifted. When I saw Daniel again he came over and said, “If you need anything else done, I’d like to do it.” That made my heart happy!

We can always use our words to inspire and uplift others and perhaps even change a life. Appreciate your children’s sincere efforts and let them know in a specific, meaningful way….even sometimes taking the time to write a note to them and sending it in the mail. They will remember it forever.

I recall a saying that goes like this, “Kindness is the oil that takes the friction out of life” It is essential to reduce stress and anxiety. Could it reduce the number of children on anti-anxiety drugs or anti-depressants? I am sure it would not hurt!

So here is another way to help children reduce stress: be kind to them and when they are kind to others help them identify that good feeling they have inside.

Truck is Decorated All Ready for the Parade

Develop Skills at an Early Age

Include children in the family’s preparedness goals and teach them the how and why of preparedness. Go over disaster scenario’s that are more likely to happen in the area in which you live. This can be done in a way that does not cause undue fear.

Give them important jobs to do and practice carrying out these plans as a family. Doing this gives them confidence. The unknown is what brings fear to the forefront. Developing self-reliance skills provides children a measure of courage.

Our 9 month old grand- daughter getting comfortable in the kitchen. She’s 14 months now.

These skills should be practiced with even small children in a fun and positive way. Disasters are upsetting and difficult for children to understand. There are many agencies available to assist families with small children to cope with losses and things not easily understood. But it remains the family and extended family who are central to developing lasting trust and stability.

Repeated negative media exposure can be a high stress factor for a small child. If a disaster, like the world trade center disaster, is viewed over and over again by a small child they may think that the situation is happening over and over again.

Our grand-daughter’s First Pie Crust: Tiny Perfectly imperfect finger prints

It is important to provide as much calm normality as possible. Children are very perceptive and can pick up on adult’s feelings and fears. As adults we must assess the real situation as far as possible and be careful not to follow any escalating group panic mentality.

Food Stressors

Adherence to the maxim “Eat what you store and store what you eat” could be more important than you think. Many children refuse to eat or even to try a new food. If your children are not familiar with foods you have stored for self-reliance, they may refuse it.

Let’s talk about how self-reliance foods can be stored and used for the maximum benefit of your whole family. Early preppers stored wheat, rice, oatmeal, sugar, oil, beans and maybe a few other items. Are these foods your family eats on a regular basis. If they are not you have two choices that will offer a better option.

  1. Begin introducing these items to your family and continue them as part of your plan if they are acceptable.
  2. Change your food storage plan and store only the foods you family normally consume.

During a disaster, shortage, or any life-changing event, it is important to maintain as much normalcy as possible. If, all of a sudden the only thing available is a strange food, this situation becomes a huge stressor.

Here is a stratagem that will get children on board, but you can’t wait until the disaster is at your door. Ask for your children’s opinions and ideas. If they contribute to the planning and executing of a successful food plan they are most like going to eat at least part of the food.

If they say peanut butter, then there are several pretty decent powdered peanut butters available for moderately longer termed food storage. Stock up and use it in rotation…restock as you begin to deplete your storage. Allow them to go through catalogs with you.

If they like carrots, allow them to plant/buy and can carrots with you. Include them in the process. Ask for their opinions and take them to heart.

Experiment with dehydrating foods. It is fascinating to children and again, if they are participants in the whole food storage process, they have a vested interest in using it. It may be a small thing, but in the end it could be a life sustaining strategy.

Final Thoughts

This is not a comprehensive list of the things we can do as parents to provide our beloved children with the abilities and skills they need to meet every stress with control and confidence. Life can be hard. Life is meant to challenge us.

As parents it is a given, we definitely will make mistakes, sometimes perhaps big ones…forgive yourself, apologize and move forward.

Of course, we can do everything possible to reach a good outcome, but our children eventually choose for themselves the path they will take. It may not be exactly what we’d like for them, but if we continue to love them, set a good example and treat them firmly but kindly then we will have done our best.

I hope you have developed a greater understanding of just how essential this topic is not only to self-reliance preps, but to the strength of families, our society and literally to our freedom and way of life. We can do this!

Disclaimer: I am in no way a child expert, just a Grandma, Nurse and Wife with homemade experience gleaned through the years. So smile, take what you will and disregard the rest!

About Donna: Donna’s childhood was in a time when it was safe for Mom’s to say, “Just be home by dinnertime” and children were free to roam woods and fields all day. Helping neighbors, family meals, using your imagination, honesty, politeness, and doing chores was a way of life.
She went on to become an R.N. working in a busy hospital and then later doing medical research. Donna and her husband home educated their children for 23 years. She has regularly taught self-reliance workshops for the past 25 years. She leads weed walks, forages food and medicinal plants, is an avid canner of about 1000 jars a year. She’s a cub master, enjoys being a genealogy indexing arbitrator, is an amateur radio operator as part of emergency preparedness and has fun watching the quirkiness of her laying hens.  She is Grammy to (in her humble opinion) the two most fabulous kids in the world. Faith and family are first priority.

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Ensuring your children can process stress in a healthy manner is key to their well being, especially in times of crisis! Read through our article to find suggestions on how to help your kids learn these healthy habits.

  1. we see more children that cannot handle stress. stress comes only from their inability to make choices or take actions. this must be taught from the time they walk. if they know they must make a choice even one they dont like they can do it. it is when they must depend on others or have depended on others to make choices for them that when they must do it for themselves they haven’t the abilities to think for themselves and make the choices. and as a result the mind stresses what is done? we drug them up. we do not help people by making life easy. life isnt easy and when you dont have your teat you make bad choices. I grew up having jobs in the home.even when I couldnt do them with the same efficiency as an adult and asked for help the response was figure out how to do it. I used this my entire life and at seventy five need only pain meds for a damaged back from a car that hit me while walking. I need no other medication. stress I have none. I had parents who knew how to raise a child

  2. Interesting article – I never realized that children’s unstructured playtime was so important to their development of problem-solving skills and confidence but it makes perfect sense that it would. You also make great points about the need to protect young children from repeated exposure to televised disasters/tragic events, and about the benefits of actively involving them in the family’s food storage plans!

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