Helping kids manage the stress of uncertainty

Children and teenagers, like adults, crave certainty. This is why fortune-tellers and horoscopes have been with us for thousands of years! It doesn't matter how many times these things are debunked—as human beings, we want to know what will happen next and children and teenagers are no different.

Uncertainty is uncomfortable, but not unbearable

Research tells us that uncertainty makes our brain work harder. When there are too many unknowns, it takes more mental effort just to get through the day. To some extent, parents can provide certainty, in the form of regular routines and consistent parenting. Doing this supports children's development, by helping them concentrate on learning new skills, rather than worrying about what will happen next. For example, a set morning routine can help children focus on learning how to be more independent.

However, it's not possible, even in ideal circumstances, to control every aspect of life. Learning to tolerate some uncertainty and deal with change is a valuable emotional life skill. It's not something that tends to happen naturally, though, so it really helps if parents and families can support children and teenagers to develop this skill. Some kids can find this more difficult than others, and it may take them longer to learn.

Strengthen your child's coping skills. Read more about resilience.

Support your child's emotional skills

Kids and teenagers need help to manage feelings of uncertainty. This is even more important in times of stress. Right now, even as we continue to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic, there are still many things we're not sure about. We can be thankful to have advanced medical knowledge to help us through it, but even as vaccination rates rise, there are effects on education and the economy that will last for some time. Our children may be wondering what's coming next.

Children and teenagers learn a lot from the adults around them, just by watching and listening. Adults can set a good example by showing, through actions and words, that some uncertainty can be tolerated. We don't have to love it, but we can deal with it. Some parents feel as if they need to have all the answers. But it's fine to say to your kids that you don't know something! Actually, it's better than fine because you're modeling that it's okay to not know everything. You're also helping teach your kids a life skill that's vastly underrated: asking for help or more information when you need it.

It's also important to be as truthful as you can when giving information. One way to positively respond in this scenario is by suggesting that together, you can try to look for more information. You can also encourage keeping an open mind and looking for chances to keep learning more.

Learning to manage difficult emotions takes practice. A positive, loving environment where kids can talk about their emotions really helps. Kids need to feel valued. They also need to know it's okay to express a range of feelings—and that if they express uncomfortable feelings such as worry or sadness, parents won't either minimize the problem or become extremely upset. Parents can show they accept children's different emotions, but also give guidance on expressing them appropriately. For example, "it's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hit someone".

Rather than burying uncomfortable emotions, kids need to learn to talk about them. Sometimes small children are better at drawing pictures to describe their feelings. Even older children may need help to name or recognize feelings and share them. Feelings can also be expressed and managed in other ways—for example, through creative outlets such as music or sport, spending time in nature, or keeping a journal.

Encourage your child to believe they can cope

You can also encourage your child to develop confidence in their own emotional resilience. This will be useful in the future as children navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life. Everybody feels sad and upset sometimes, but these feelings will pass. It takes time to learn to cope with unpredictable and stressful situations. But a positive family environment helps children learn that even uncomfortable feelings can be managed in healthy ways.

Another concept to teach children is that we can use problem-solving skills to help us cope. Rather than telling children the answer, it can be useful to prompt children to come up with their own ideas. For more complex problems, a structured problem-solving process can be used. Learning these skills help children to cope with what's happening right now. They also help them cope with future challenges.

There are practical, easy-to-use tools you can learn by doing a Triple P Positive Parenting Program. These help you support children's emotional wellbeing and development, even in times of stress and uncertainty. You choose what suits your family and how to apply it.

Triple P Online and Teen Triple P Online are interactive online programs. They cover a wide range of positive parenting tips and strategies. The COVID-19 module has specific tips on coping with worries during uncertain times.

If you live in an area where face-to-face services are available, ask your Triple P provider for tip sheets on specific issues.