Strategies to Avoid the "Overwhelm"


"A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Lao Tzu

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” Henry Ford

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Many great minds have been in agreement that we can manage seemingly insurmountable challenges when we break things down into smaller goals. Goal setting is, in fact, a teachable skill. But for many, life’s challenges can become daunting and paralyzing. The good news is that children and youth can develop a toolkit of strategies to draw upon when the “overwhelm” looms so that everyday worries don’t develop into serious anxiety.

In scientific terms, the brain supports tasks that require concentration and thinking with Executive Functions. These Executive Functions[1] provide the groundwork for the brain to plan, organize, problem solve, prioritize, reason and control impulsive behaviour. Overcoming a fear, solving a problem, preparing for an upcoming event, learning a new skill and even completing a task can all become situations that require some extra coping skills. 

Adults play an important role to support children and youth navigate challenges and build their toolkit of strategies. For example, when everyday tasks become a source of stress and frustration for children, it signals the need to look at how these challenges or task instructions are being heard. Assess whether the expectation is appropriate for the child’s ability and developmental stage. When adults ask children to complete a task - consider how it is framed so that children can see and participate in the little successes that build up to a larger achievement. When adults detect distress in a child, acknowledge it but don’t rush in to complete the task for them. Help them be courageous[2] and cope with the challenge.

The following are examples of strategies to turn a big task into smaller, manageable chunks.  These strategies can be used from early childhood to early adulthood.

  • Take one item at a time over to the table to set it up for a tea party.

  • Put one toy at a time back in the toy box.

  • Read one chapter at a time.

  • Do homework in ten-minute intervals with a two-minute break in between, use an egg timer.

  • Practice the piano in two fifteen-minute segments rather than in one half-hour session.

  • Create a step-by-step plan to finish a school project that involves a half hour of work a day.

  • Map out the steps that are needed to find that first summer job or apply for college.

Help children and youth practice chunking up big goals with some guidance and encouragement. Practicing these skills strengthens Executive Functions[3]. This might be done [4]by talking through the task step-by-step, creating a coping step plan or using a technique such as list making and mind-mapping to sort out more complicated challenges. Timelines, calendars and bar charts are visuals that are helpful to track the progress of longer term tasks and to celebrate successes each step of the way.


Dr. Adele Diamond, neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of British Columbia, is one of the world's leading researchers in development science. She studies how executive functions can be modified by the environment, modulated by genetics and neurochemistry and can be derailed in certain disorders.  In her words, Executive Functions "are skills essential for mental and physical health; success in school and in life; and cognitive, social and pyschological development."

This video clip (click More) filmed during the Dalai Lama Center's Heart-Mind Speaker Series offers advice about helping a "shy” child be courageous. Moderator Maria LeRose and author Dan Siegel role play a parent and shy child interaction.

Research also suggests that activities that bring children joy and pride, help them feel included and keep their bodies strong and fit improve Executive Functions. This may include music, art, sports or school programs that nurture emotional development. 

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University provides a guide "Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence" which describes a variety of activities and games that represent age-appropriate ways for adults to support and strengthen various components of executive functioning in children.

Each chapter of this guide contains activities suitable for a different age group, from infants to teenagers. 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.