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Help Your Child Reduce Stress and Become Resilient

Dr. Michele Borba has suggestions to help children reduce stress and build resilience.

One in every three children has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder like anxiety or ADHD since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Now more than ever, it’s essential to learn how to reduce stress and minimize anxiety.

See 7 Ways to Reduce Anxiety with Dr. Michele Borba for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Dr. Michelle Borba is an internationally-renowned educator and award-winning author of twenty-four books. She is a motivational speaker who as spoken in nineteen countries on five continents, and has been a consultant to hundreds of schools and corporations, including Sesame Street, Harvard, the US Air Force Academy, and the Royal Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. She is also a NBC contributor, has appeared on shows including Today, Dr. Oz, and CNN, and had her work featured in TIME, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and more.

Dr. Borba is currently an educational psychologist and writer, but she started her career as a special needs teacher. Despite some of the children she worked with being diagnosed with severe learning disabilities and emotional issues, some were doing just fine. She wondered why. This launched a forty year journey to learn why some kids struggle and others thrive.

Eventually, she found the answer: Resilience. Resilience reduces stress and helps children bounce back from adversity. And resilience can be taught.

Stress in the Time of COVID-19

Before the pandemic began, about 1 in 5 American children were diagnosed with a mental health or anxiety disorder. After the pandemic hit, that number jumped to 1 in 3, according to the CDC. We are in a national crisis.

But this child mental health crisis wasn’t started by the uncertainty of a global pandemic. Dr. Borba saw a trend of rising anxiety prior to COVID-19 – the crisis just amplified an existing issue. Scientists have been analyzing different generations decade by decade, and have been seeing increases in anxiety and other mental health disorders for years.

Lots of people think they have the answer for why this is: A culture focused on test scores, less time for children to play or relax, an increase in screen time. But Dr. Borba doesn’t think pinpointing the specific reason will be much help. There are hundreds of factors that all likely affect it a bit. In the end, we know there is a problem. So, Dr. Borba asks, what are we going to do about it?

Why Some Children Thrive Despite Adversity

Dr. Borba greatly appreciates the work of Dr. Emmy Werner in helping identify some of these factors. Dr. Werner grew up in Germany during World War II. She later became a child psychologist at University of California, Davis, and scientifically studied how children react to adversity. Her biggest experiment studied over six hundred children facing severe adversity for forty years. Despite situations full of extreme difficulty, she found a third of them were doing okay. So she began to explore why.

Dr. Werner found two factors that influenced if a child would thrive despite adversity. The first was an adult who wouldn’t give up on the child. It didn’t have to be a parent – a coach, a grandparent, or a neighbor could also fill that role, as long as the child had a calm, caring champion fighting for them.

The second factor Dr. Werner identified was that the children who thrived had learned protective buffers. They knew skills to help them reduce stress handle adversity. These skills for handling adversity are teachable. Any child can learn these buffers to reduce stress and make them more likely to thrive.

The Teachable Buffers to Reduce Stress

Dr. Borba has identified several teachable buffers that can help children reduce stress. Every kid needs these protective buffers. Whether your child is struggling or seems to be doing fine, they will benefit from learning these skills.


A confident child knows their strengths and has a hobby where they feel competent and accomplished. Hobbies can help reduce stress, and your child can use it through college and beyond. Make sure you carve out time for them to actually do their hobby.

Having a hobby can help your child build confidence and reduce stress.

A hobby isn’t something you add to your child’s agenda. It has to be something they choose for themselves. If you’re pushing them to do it, it’s not a hobby, it’s an obligation. Your child should be the one pushing to do it.

Empathy and social connection

One of the reasons our anxiety is going up is we’re all in a state of loneliness.

Dr. Michele Borba

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a lot of friends. This does mean that they have empathy and know how to connect with another person.

One way to build empathy is through volunteering – but only if it’s relevant and interesting to the child. During the pandemic lockdowns, one group of children saw how isolated some of their friends were and started making quarantine gift bags. Some of them decorated bags, some wrote notes, one delivered the bags by bicycle to their friends’ driveways. Every day, they would get tearful calls saying how happy they were that someone cared. Not only does volunteering build empathy, but it can reduce stress and help children feel hopeful.


Many kids give up on things too soon. Often, this is because we rescue them too much. We don’t want to see them fail, but we cheat them out of the opportunity to get curious about different solutions and figure it out for themselves. Children who thrive identify the problem and come up with their own solutions.

If your child is struggling, ask them what the problem is. Be non-judgmental and calm, but don’t give your suggestions. Ask questions and guide them towards thinking of their own solutions. If they’ve never had to come up with their own answers before, it may be difficult. But with practice, they’ll get better at exploring options on their own.


Thriving children are reality-based, but they also don’t let pessimism erode their thinking. They find silver linings and know how to reduce stress and counter rising pressure. One good way to encourage optimism is to expose your children to good news every day.

Another great way to help your children learn optimism is to practice it yourself. If a parent models optimism, it will rub off on the child. Reappraise situations to get out of a doom and gloom mindset. Try coming up with a mantra like, “It’s okay, I can get through it,” and use it when you’re struggling. Eventually, your voice will become the voice in your child’s head encouraging them on when things get difficult.

Self-control, integrity, and perseverance are also buffers that can help your child be more resilient.

Every Child Needs Skills to Reduce Stress

There’s no way for us to predict which buffers are children are going to need. As much as we want to, we can’t protect them from every traumatic situation. Our best way to help them is to give them the skills to reduce stress before they need it.

Whether they are knee-deep in a mental health crisis or look like they are fine, every child needs protective buffers, and we have got to give them these tools.

Dr. Michele Borba

Not every skill or buffer works for every child. Some children find it easiest to calm down with relaxing music. Others use glitter jars, or reading books, or a calm-down corner that they made, or watching their pet goldfish swim around its bowl. There’s no cookie cutter approach and no one thing that will help. Children face different kinds of adversity and need a variety of ideas. Try lots of things, find what works for your child, and don’t give up.

This isn’t an overnight process. It’s a new parenting toolkit that you can use as your child grows from toddler to college student and beyond. Dr. Borba’s book Thrivers is full of ideas and advice to help you help your child reduce stress and be more resilient.

Identifying Lacking Skills

How do you identify when your child is lacking these important skills and buffers? Dr. Borba recommends connecting with other people who know your children and honoring these opinions. Children act differently in different settings. Your child’s teacher sees a different side of them than you.

You can also observe your child in different situations. Watch for TOO – behavior that is TOO different from normal, problems spilling into TOO many areas, a change that’s TOO dramatic, raises your concern. TOO much.

Every kid has bad days once in a while, so one ping on your parental radar doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. Notice and track when these issues occur. You may discover a pattern. If your child has issues around 3pm on Thursdays, investigate what happens around then. You may be able to reduce stress for your child by identifying and removing a problem. If the issues happen all the time, though, it’s time to call a mental health professional.

If your child is really struggling, talk to a doctor about mental health treatment.

Mental health care still carries some stigma, but much less now than in the past. Parents often say to Dr. Borba, “If only I’d gotten my child help sooner.” If your child needs mental health care, it’s important to get them that care.

Don’t be the “if only” parent. Our children are hurting … all we need to do is be the parent and be proactive.

Dr. Michele Borba

Learn to Reduce Stress Before a Crisis

Marines have to deal with intense, stressful situations. Before they can reduce stress, they have to notice they are stressed. They do this by learning each other’s stress signs – the things they do different when they’re stressed. The signs of being stressed out are different for everybody. If you watch your child, you can figure out their stress signs and help them identify when they are stressed.

Once you (and they) know that they’re stressed, it’s time to take steps to reduce stress. Dr. Borba recommends the 1-2 breath. It’s very easy to do. First, take a deep, slow breath from the abdomen. Hold it for a moment. Keeping your focus on it, slowly exhale for twice as long as the inhalation. This is a great way to maximize relaxation, but it may take some practice for your child to get it.

Practice is key here. Kids desperately need stress reducers they can use anywhere, any time. But you can’t think when you’re stressed. It’s hard to remember skills in a crisis if they only learned them as part of a unit in health class. Practice before stress happens so they can use it when stress happens. Like getting good at a sport requires muscle memory, being able to reduce stress in a crisis requires “muscle memory” for relaxation.

Thrivers can think straight because they can put the brakes on impulses.

Dr. Michele Borba

Building Emotional Literacy in Your Child

Emotional literacy is key to social connection and resilience in your child. A child who has built emotional literacy can open their heart up to other children and make strong connections. It also builds empathy. Our kids have been in front of so many screens and had so little face-to-face interaction that their social skills are dormant. Dr. Borba has even seen a rise in social anxiety because of lack of practice in social situations.

The gateway to empathy and social connection is seeing others face-to-face. Kids need to see each other in person. We also have to make the effort to model good social skills ourselves. Our children model us, and even though it’s difficult, it’s beneficial for them.

You can start small to build emotional literacy. The movie Inside Out is one Dr. Borba highly recommends watching with your child. Even when watching other things, you can point out when characters’ feelings are obvious in their expression and body language. That will help your child learn to read the feelings of others and build empathy.

Empathy helps the whole society, it’s the glue that holds society together.

Dr. Michele Borba

You can find Dr. Michele Borba online at Her most recent book, Thrivers, is available in paperback, audio, or Kindle format on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

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