How to Beat Stress: The Scientific Guide to Being Happy by Alyssa Shaffer (Book Excerpt)

Excerpted from How to Beat Stress: The Scientific Guide to Being Happy by Alyssa Shaffer, published March 2020 by Centennial Books.


When I was 15, I’m pretty sure my biggest source of stress was whether my parents would finally allow me to get my own (landline) phone in my bedroom.

My twins are now 15, and I can’t even begin to fathom the amount of pressure they face on a daily basis. Between worrying that their social media posts aren’t worded exactly right (and then panicking about the number of “likes” they get); trying to keep on top of an ever-mounting pile of homework and fretting their grades aren’t high enough; and squeezing countless practices, rehearsals, lessons and meetings into an already jam-packed schedule, it’s a wonder they are able to function at all.

As a parent, I naturally worry about my kids’ mental health as much as their physical well-being. And I know I’m not alone in my concern that my kids are coping with more stress than ever. “The level of stress today does seem to be much higher than among previous generations,” notes Kate Lund, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Seattle, and author of Bounce: Help Your Child Build Resilience and Thrive in School, Sports and Life. “There’s a lot more emphasis on having to be the best at something as opposed to just enjoying the process.”

And the stress can start early. Even very young kids start to feel stress at higher levels, adds Lund, especially if they are more conscious of their own feelings, also known as having emotional intelligence. Stress seems to really ratchet up in the tween and teens years, however, and while it’s more prominent among girls, boys have their issues to face as well.

“Kids are becoming increasingly more sensitive to different kinds of traumas today,” notes Ari Yares, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Potomac, Maryland. “They are facing a lot of things today that we didn’t have to worry about 30 years ago.” That’s especially true of social pressures, where every post and comment is carefully analyzed, and issues like cyberbullying have become all too common.


Parents may also unintentionally be making it more difficult for kids to navigate stress. “Kids have always had to face different forms of stress, but the difference today is that by overprotecting our kids they’ve become less adept at coping with challenges,” says James Millhouse, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Atlanta and the author of The Parents Manual of Sports Psychology. “That ‘everyone gets a trophy’ mentality that we often apply to kids’ activities means that they don’t necessarily understand that it’s OK to fail.”

Developing effective coping mechanisms may, in fact, be one of the best lessons we can teach our kids. “We want our kids to be motivated to push through difficult situations and apply themselves as effectively as possible. Sometimes a little stress can be a good way to do that,” adds Millhouse. And since we all have to face stress at some point in our lives, the better equipped they are to handle that pressure, the more easily kids will be able to thrive in even difficult situations.

But as a parent, how do you know when that pressure is too much? The signs aren’t always obvious, but there are a few characteristics that might appear. “Your child might always seem to be worried, or not able to see the joy in what’s around her. If it seems that it’s hard to pull anything positive out of them, it’s likely that they’ve reached a tipping point,” says Lund.

It’s almost never too early to give your child the tools he or she needs to increase resilience, build confidence and conquer stress. “You don’t have to expose them to pressure, but giving even small challenges can help, whether that’s completing a puzzle without help or navigating a playdate without being overly supervised,” says Millhouse. Here are some more ways you can help your child feel strong in even high-stress situations.

Don’t shy away from the hard stuff.

One surefire way to feel confident under pressure is to embrace challenges when they come. “Kids need to learn that not succeeding the first time around isn’t the end of the world,” says Lund. “Challenges are nothing more than opportunities for growth. When you try and try again, you’ll develop a more flexible way of thinking.” After a while, she adds, kids will internalize that they have an ability to succeed and call upon that resolve when times get tough.

Sign up for (some) activities.

Whether it’s soccer, chess club or the school play, encourage your kids to get involved with an organized activity. Millhouse is a big fan of youth sports, which he says is a place to practice all the skills you’ll use later in life (like learning how to win and lose, and teamwork), but you don’t need to be nurturing a future Olympian to see the benefits. “When kids are exposed to a wide range of activities, they can find where they may excel and develop a passion—and that can ultimately give them more confidence,” agrees Lund.

Think positive.

Whether you’re taking an exam, dealing with a bully or facing a pitch at the plate, your attitude makes a big difference in how you respond. “You want to get into what we call an ideal performance state,” says Millhouse. With it, you feel confident, relaxed but alert, and feeling like you are going to be successful. “We teach this to athletes but it applies to any stressful situation,” he explains. To start, focus on the process, not the outcome. That means concentrating on what you are doing (like taking a test) and not the outcome (whether you will pass or fail). Positive self-talk is also important. “Instead of thinking, ‘This test is so hard,’ think about, ‘It will be a challenge but I know I am up to the task.’ You want to believe that things will go well,” he adds.

Learn how to be mindful.

As adults, we’ve started to embrace the practice of mindfulness, or learning how to be more fully present. Very young kids are naturally mindful (ever see how fixated a toddler can get watching a squirrel?) but we tend to lose that heightened awareness as we get older. “Mindful practices can be highly effective among tweens and teens,” says Yares. He likes to teach kids to engage in the “STOP” technique, especially when they start to feel stressed. “Stop what you are doing and slow down. Take a few breaths, inhaling for four counts, holding your breath for four counts, then exhaling for four counts; repeat that four times. Observe what’s going on and how you are feeling. And finally, proceed and try to think about the most important thing you should pay attention to right now.” This technique helps to push the pause button and pull you into the present moment, he adds.

Lund works with her young clients on a similar form of mindfulness training called Heart Math. Although the program is tied to a video game, it incorporates deep breathing while also focusing on something that actively makes you happy. “Once you learn to do it, you can call up that sensation whenever you are starting to feel stressed. It’s a mind-body technique that helps to actively manage emotions,” she says.

Have an open conversation.

“It’s important to talk with your kids about stress in general,” says Lund. Keeping the lines of communication open about if and when your child is encountering high levels of stress means your child will be more likely to come to you when she hits a rocky patch. While you’re at it, share your own experience when it comes to coping with an uncomfortable situation, whether that was an argument you had at work or a mistake you made during the day and how you fixed it. “This way your child doesn’t feel like everything hard that happens is the end of the world,” adds Lund.

Model good behavior.

How do you react to stress? If you handle it in a positive way, chances are your kids will also be more adept at coping. “We often take our own stress out on our kids—yelling at them to clean up after a tough day, or being curt,” says Yares. “It’s important to get your own stress under control in order to help your child.”

Alyssa Shaffer appreciates what it takes to live a healthier, happier, more balanced life. A longtime writer and editor who specializes in health, nutrition and fitness, she is the author of four best-selling books on these topics. She is the former executive editor of Muscle & Fitness Hers and fitness director for Fitness magazine and has written for dozens of consumer print magazines and websites. Alyssa lives and works in New York City with her husband, teenage twins, and a very sweet dog who helps alleviate stress with every belly rub. Visit






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