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How to Help Children Cope with Stress: Expanding Their Window of Tolerance

Want to learn how to better guide children to develop stress management skills?

Firstly, it's important to comprehend the impact of stress on children. Short-term stress can be beneficial, prompting a child to rehearse for a piano recital or motivating a teenager to study instead of socializing.

However, persistent stress—stemming from relentless parental expectations, societal unrest, or violence—has different effects. If not properly managed, chronic stress may lead to an array of physical and mental health issues. It can result in high blood pressure, compromise the immune system, and contribute to conditions like obesity and heart disease.


It can also lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, which are becoming increasingly widespread among young people.

Stress manifests differently in young people and may not always resemble those in adults. Children and teenagers, like adults, can develop healthy ways of coping, even when they have had life-altering losses. Young people and their parents or caregivers can learn to identify the symptoms of excessive stress and, with the proper tools, manage it.


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Contact JarvisHypnotherapy to help you or your child build healthy and effective stress coping skills.


Childhood can be fraught with a range of issues including separation anxiety, phobias, complications in friendships, body image, and many others. Parents need to be equipped with a new framework for assisting our children's anxiety problems by understanding and using Siegel's (2010) "Window of Tolerance" and the influence of shame (Sanderson, 2015), alongside effective coping skills.

Though anxiety might feel unpleasant, it's really our body's way of trying to protect us by telling us to get ready for danger. It's like a personal alert system. But sometimes, this system can become too sensitive or overactive and start reacting to harmless things as if they were dangerous, causing us to feel stressed and scared for no real reason. This can be overwhelming.

As parents, it's incredibly hard to watch our children in such distress, but it's important to remember that always stepping in to remove their stress doesn't help them handle these feelings and cope on their own.

Similarly, dismissing their fear or just telling them to "get over it" can also be hurtful. This can make them feel ashamed or make them think there's something wrong with them for feeling scared, making it more difficult for them to adapt and cope. If children always try to avoid the things that scare them instead of learning how to manage these feelings, it could lead to more anxiety as they grow up.


We all have "windows" of what we can handle and understanding this concept –both for parents and children– can be a productive way to help children get better at adapting to, tolerating, and coping with tough emotions like anxiety.

Our body is always working to maintain equilibrium (homeostasis) by releasing hormones. When these hormones are balanced (inside our “window of tolerance”), we do better at handling situations more appropriately. Inside this "window", we can adapt, handle our own emotions, and deal with problems more smoothly.

But, we all have a limit to what we can handle at any given moment. When things get too much for us to tolerate, our hormones respond in one of two ways outside our "window":

One, we might shut off or plummet into a low-energy state (where the part of our nervous system that calms us down after stress, called the parasympathetic system, kicks in). This is the freeze response to stress or danger. In this state, we may feel numb to emotions, overwhelmed with shame, withdraw, dissociate, or feel depressed in order to cope with the trigger or situation.

Or, two, we might go into a high-energy state (where the part of our nervous system that helps us react to stress or danger, called the sympathetic system, is engaged). This is the fight or flight response to stress or danger. In this state, we might feel a rush of strong hormones, feel angry, feel chaotic, feel anxious, become overly alert and the symptoms that come along with these.


How does the 'window of tolerance' relate to anxiety problems?

The size of our windows can change based on what's happening inside us or around us. When we are feeling sad, stressed, not getting enough sleep, or lacking self-regulation skills, the range of what we can tolerate shrinks.

Having a small window means that we can tolerate less, hence, we're more likely to get triggered and shoot out of our window. If a child hasn't learned how to adapt and cope effectively, their 'alarm system' can get progressively sensitive as they grow into adults.




How can shame restrict this window?

It's normal to feel frustrated when we're worried about our children's well-being. But sometimes, this can generate frustration in us which leads us to making them feel bad about themselves. This can be subtle things like rolling our eyes at them, or more obvious things like saying "Oh, for God's sake," or "Don't be so silly!"

Unfortunately, these messages can make them feel like they're defective or there's something wrong with them which goes into their self-identity. So, they learn to handle stressful situations with negative self-talk that reflect the ‘shamed’ experience. This makes them come up with ways to avoid feeling "defective," which further shrinks their windows and doesn't really help them deal with uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way.


How to reduce shame while allowing the window to widen?

1. Keep in mind, the best ways to fight feelings of shame are compassion and empathy.

2. Stop reactions that make them ashamed of themselves (this might mean you need to work on expanding your own window of what you can tolerate).

3. Let them take time to explore, actively listen to them with understanding, be curious about what they're going through rather than focusing on your own interpretations of their experience.

4. Make them understand that what they're going through is normal, so they feel less ashamed and more open to explore and talk about it.

5. Try to counter shame with healthy self-pride, helping them develop self-compassion and self-acceptance.

6. Help them build resilience so they can better handle shame and prevent its damaging effect.


How to build resilience to hone their coping ability?

1. Teach them beliefs like: The world is safe for the most part, people are mostly safe; I can handle most things; I have some control over what happens to me, and I can accept things I cannot handle.

2. It's OK to make mistakes; they help us learn how to do better next time.

3. Set goals that are reachable and stay hopeful.

4. Praise their efforts, even if they don't get the result they wanted.

5. Do gratitude exercises where you talk about three good things about your day at the end of the day (or whenever applicable).


What are fear-reducing techniques that expand one's windows of tolerance?

1. Techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been proven to be effective with anxiety. They teach healthy ways to handle maladaptive emotions by identifying thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that aren't helpful. Gradual exposure to what scares them, in a safe environment, can help them overcome their fears, step-by-step.

2. Techniques from Narrative therapy can help children see the problem as separate or external from themselves. This lets them have power and autonomy to deal with problems in imaginative ways. It also stops them from feeling like the problem is entwined with their identity.

3. Mindfulness, or focusing on the present, is also a good treatment approach. It brings us closer to the center of our "window of tolerance."

4. Techniques that are compassion-focused help remove the feeling of "being defective" or shame. They teach how to be kind and accepting of oneself in order to become stronger and widen their "window of tolerance."


Reflecting on the 'window of tolerance' for both us (parents) and our children can help us be more understanding and mindful of our feelings in relation to our "windows." This can help both us and our children learn how to self-regulate to get back inside our "window," so we can handle the situation better.

If you need a professional to help your child handle stress and develop healthy coping skills, contact JarvisHypnotherapy today.


Also, check out the previous article from JarvisHypnotherapy: How To Become a Better Thinker In 2024.





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