The Science of Stress: Understanding the Brain to Help Children Manage Emotions

The Science of Stress: Understanding the Brain to Help Children Manage Emotions

By Kelley Sovol

You may have heard the explanation before, about how our brains evolved in early human days to help us determine whether to fight or flee in the face of imminent dangers like saber-toothed tigers. You may have also heard that, in modern life, our brains still respond to threats in much the same way.  

For many adults, the modern-day versions of saber-toothed tigers can be a challenging work deadline, a whining child, a tense interaction with a colleague or significant other, or even simply a scroll through daily news. For children, modern-day versions of imminent danger could be a difficult math lesson, an argument with a friend at recess, or a perceived injustice with a sibling.  

Essentially, we all face threats when the world around us isn’t going the way we want it to. And no matter our age, we all experience the same basic response to this perceived threat, even though the stressors and threats can vary widely for everyone. Understanding this brain response can also help us learn how to alleviate it with small, simple actions!  

What happens in the brain when we perceive a modern-day threat on the horizon?

  1. A sensory message of the threat (visual, auditory, etc) is passed to the amygdala and hypothalamus.
  2. These centers trigger a coordinated sequence of actions in our autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary functions like breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure, among others.
  3. The autonomic nervous system alerts the adrenal and pituitary glands, which respond by releasing adrenaline (epinephrine), and then cortisol
  4. These biochemicals make our heart beat faster, pumping blood to muscles and vital organs.
  5. They also make our breathing more rapid, and open the small airways in the lungs wide to get as much oxygen as possible to the brain.
  6. Our senses sharpen, and muscles tense.
  7. Our body is now primed and ready to fight, flee, or freeze.

Can we control this brain response?

Yes and no.

No, because it happens instantaneously. This is why we are able to do things like jump out of the way of an oncoming car before we’ve even consciously registered the threat. The upside of all this speed is an increased chance of survival when the danger is a real bodily threat, which is great. The downside is that we can’t do much to prevent the sequence from initiating in the first place, which means it may activate multiple times a day during smaller stressful moments, even when they don’t pose a physical danger.

BUT, while we can’t control the initiation of the response, we can control how we manage it once it’s activated.

We can choose: hit the gas or pump the brakes

  • If our brain thinks that the threat is still present, it will continue hitting the gas by flooding our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol.
  • On the flip side, if our brain thinks that the threat has passed, it will pump the brakes by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Our cortisol levels will fall, which enables our breathing, heart rate, and other automatic systems to return to their resting, baseline state. 

How to pump the brakes as an adult

  1. Breathe. Conscious breathing is our single most powerful tool. Although breathing is an automatic, involuntary function, we can choose to direct our attention to our breathing and change its pattern in the moment. Take slow, deep breaths and deliberately make your exhale longer than your inhale—it’s the clearest signal to your brain that the threat has passed. If you’d like a visual, try one of these sites or apps for just a couple of  minutes when you find yourself tense. They all have options to set the exhale visual to be longer than the inhale:  
  2. Laugh and smile. Laughter and smiles release biochemicals that reinforce the message that we are safe and that a threat has passed. Try a STAR breath. The STAR acronym stands for “Smile - Take a deep breath - And - Relax.” It doesn’t have to be a cheesy grin. Even a small, half-smile instantly sends neural messaging through our brain via neuropeptides, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These all work to generate a sense of safety and wellness. Pairing this half-smile with three deep, slow breaths is a super-powered way to shut off the stress response.
  3. Exercise. Low to moderate exercise helps to dissipate the cortisol in our system. Stick with low to moderate intensity, such as going for a walk, a light jog or bike ride, or yoga because in some cases, intense exercise has the short-term effect of increasing cortisol.
  4. Write or meditate. Doing a guided meditation or writing down our thoughts and feelings can help us to be more aware of thought patterns that we often fall into, and the act of writing or meditating helps us to gain space from the immediacy of the feeling. That little bit of mental space can help us to become better over time at distinguishing the serious “tigers” from minor stressors, and remind us that we have agency and options to take care of ourselves and our brains!  

How to help kids pump the brakes

  1. Teach conscious breathing. Breathing is their most powerful tool, too! Teach the STAR breath at any age, as seen in these sweet paired videos. They are videos of two siblings who learned this technique in childhood, and continue to use it in their young adulthood. You can show them to kids of any age so they can see it in action and see how it can be a tool for life. 
  2. Teach kids how their brains work. This can be an explanation like Dr. Dan Siegel’s hand model of the brain, which can be easily modified for all ages from preschool to adulthood. Here is a great version for the youngest learners. For older kids and teens, you can also be more explicit about all of the biochemical effects mentioned above.  Knowledge is power, and these details give kids the confidence to know that they aren’t powerless in the midst of their stress and upset.
  3. Encourage drawing or writing out feelings.
  4. Wait until kids are calm and relaxed to teach these concepts and strategies. If you try to teach them when they are upset, they will have a difficult time processing the information because their brain’s resources have been diverted away from their prefrontal cortex (the thinking and learning part of the brain), to their survival and emotional systems.  
  5. Use simple phrases like, “You’re safe. Keep breathing. Feelings come and go. I’m going to take some deep breaths for both of us and you can try it with me if you want.” When kids are upset, it’s not a good time for long conversations, asking a lot of questions, or insisting on a particular strategy.
  6. Utilize calm, deep breathing as a way to model co-regulation for kids. Your presence, and your deep breathing, and your use of calming phrases (see above) will all help their brains to understand that the threat is passing. Their cortisol levels will begin to fall, bringing them back to baseline. This is co-regulation in action!

If you start to lose your cool

Humans are wired to mirror and be influenced by the feelings of those around us, so in most situations we will either “catch” our children’s upset, or they will “catch” our calm. If our composure starts to slip, kids recognize it and sense that a threat is near, pressing the gas pedal down further. So, if we start to feel our composure slipping away, the best thing we can do is to be transparent and model our own process for them. Trying to mask, repress, or deny our own stress doesn’t work—it leaks out anyway! Instead, see it as an opportunity for them to learn by watching you.  

Be honest about your own feelings and how you are taking care of them, without placing any blame on the child. For example, “I can feel my body getting tense, and my heart is beating faster right now, too. I am going to take three deep STAR breaths to take care of my feelings. You can join me if you want to.” For an older child, you can be even more explicit: “I can tell I’m starting to feel frustrated. I’m going to take a moment to myself for some deep breaths, and I’ll circle back to you soon when I’m in a good place to talk.” Being transparent and narrating this way is how we co-regulate, and it’s how kids can learn to self-regulate on their own. They see an authentic model of how to notice the stress, and how to take action to alleviate it!

About Kelley Sovol:

Kelley has served as a 4th grade teacher at University School of Milwaukee since 2011. Additionally, she is currently the Lower School Social-Emotional Learning Department Chair. She is fascinated by brain science and has devoted many hours to exploring how our brains impact behavior and emotions.  As a classroom teacher and a parent of two young children, she loves learning new ways to understand, guide, and support all children.

Explore recent articles