The Best Stress-Relief Toys for Helping Kids Process Their Feelings

You might want to buy some of these for yourself while you're at it.

by Emily Kelleher
Originally Published: 
Four stress-relief toys set against a blue-and-yellow background

Between a global pandemic, an unprecedented economic crisis, and an uncertain back-to-school season, we’re all stressed, and kids are no exception. The difference is, unlike adults, kids often lack the language to articulate their stress and the skills to self-soothe. In addition to movement, talking with a calm and non-judgmental parent, and, if necessary, getting professional help, stress-relief toys can help kids express themselves and self-soothe.

Kids’ stress may manifest in different ways, says North Carolina-based psychologist Caroline Hexdall, Ph.D. — from irritability to trouble sleeping or refusing to complete normal tasks and activities. Psychologist Regine Muradian, the author of Franky and the Worry Bees, agrees: Stress in kids, she explains, can look like nail-biting, fidgeting, excessive playing with the hair, stomach pains, nausea, rapid heart rate, diarrhea, and shortness of breath.

Kids work through stress differently from adults, though, and toys can be an important tool in the stress-relief toolbox.

“Playing is the language that children really understand,” Hexdall says. “It doesn’t require a whole lot of in-depth thinking, it can be more spontaneous, and often when we’re playing, we may express ourselves in a less inhibited way. We really get a sense of how kids are feeling through play. We can kind of communicate our message to them in a way that it’s sort of speaking their language,” Hexdall says. Muradian adds that toys are “helpful for distracting the mind and redirecting stress and anxiety to the toy.”

There’s a big market for stress-relief toys and activities, from the classic stress ball to therapy dough (aka rebranded play dough) stress-relief coloring pages, and meditations. Hexdall says parents should choose stress-relief toys based on their child’s interests: Go with “whatever they’re drawn to. If it’s sports, maybe finding a stress ball that matches the theme of the sport.”

Toys that require a lot of touching and encourage movement can be particularly useful for stress relief, Hexdall says. “Toys are often tactile, which helps release more emotion through movement. Anything that they can kind of sink their hands into is something that kids really seem to enjoy,” Hexdall says. In her office, she uses things like putty, stress balls, pipe cleaners, and other fidget toys, as well as something called a Hoberman sphere. Though the name might not sound familiar, Hoberman spheres are classic – they’re that spiky plastic and/or wire spheres that can contract and expand. Hexdall will sometimes use them with clients as a metaphor for big emotions or as a visual for breathing techniques.

Adults can join in on the fun too. Muradian says play can be an effective means of stress reduction for adults, as it releases endorphins, and research shows that more playful people tend to be less stressed and have healthier coping mechanisms. It makes sense: Stealing your kid’s lavender silly putty beats reaching for the booze. Here are some great stress-relief toys to start with.

The Best Stress-Relief Toys for Kids

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