Support for the kids in your life
We do our best to create safe, loving environments for our kids, but we must have the expectation that the safeguards we put in place cannot and should not last forever. As the rigors of real-life seep in, the best thing we can do is be open to and ready for the impact it will have on our children, and pay special attention to the invisible yet very mental hardships they may experience. Children, like adults, experience stress and anxiety but most have not yet developed the necessary skills and understanding to effectively communicate these emotions. Fears of contagion, the difficulty that comes with decreased socialization with friends and time away from school — these can be difficult issues for children to navigate. Mask-wearing affects breathing and can also increase feelings of discomfort or anxiety. These emotions can manifest as irritability, distraction, or sadness in children. Sometimes, children will complain of a physical symptom like a stomach ache or headache when anxious.
Anxiety in children is common, and even an expected component of some developmental tasks. For example, in toddlerhood, separation anxiety can arise when a child is distanced from a working parent or when they go to school. Thankfully, most children’s anxiety can be managed through gentle interventions that help them process their feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress.
These interventions, or coping skills, can be modeled by caregivers and parents to teach children how to decrease their own stress and worry. Here are some simple yet effective techniques that may help:
Caregivers/parents should first start by actively monitoring their own anxiety. Children can be little sponges and often notice even the most subtle changes in the household. Your own response to stimuli is heavily influential in how children observing you will behave in turn. Learn to calm yourself first so that what your child sees when they look at you is the behavior and mindset you want them to emulate.
Simple breathing techniques help calm the mind and focus attention. To teach this to children, an illustrative prompt is most effective. Try “Sniff the flower and blow out the birthday candle” to cue for inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth to calm breathing. Practice this with your child and then encourage them to continue their own — give positive feedback to reinforce their efforts. Statements such as “work to blow the stress away.” Help further illustrate the concept.
Monitor screen time and create a plan. Then stick to it! Literature shows too much screen time can worsen anxiety in some kids. Screens are an essential part of our lives now and healthy habits are essential to managing their effects. For more tips and information on healthy screen use, visit this resource by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Sometimes, a little redirection is the most effective way to reduce a negative stress reaction. Physical activity, interactive games, reading a favorite book or even a new one — just a few minutes of diversion can help children feel better and make space to deal with their apprehension later, when they and you are in a better frame of mind.
Normalize stress. Negative feelings can be overwhelming and disorienting. Letting kids know that everyone has these same feelings from time to time and that it’s okay can help to reassure them. Teach them to seek help from an adult, ideally their parents or primary caregivers, when they are feeling especially worried or anxious before it affects their school or daily activities. When they do, try to exude calm and assurance, as you gently explore what could be precipitating their fear or worry. Continue to reassure them that these feelings are normal and may be unpleasant but they can be managed with practice.
Share your own experiences. Acknowledge your feelings to your kids — attempting to hide or deny these feelings can be confusing and may promote feelings of guilt or shame when your children experience these emotions themselves. Just as important, communicate how you cope with the feelings. You might say, “I’m feeling scared right now, but I know it’s not that likely that the thing I’m scared of will actually happen. I’m going to call my sister/spouse/best friend for advice and then I’m going to take a walk to clear my head and think it through.” Self-care when parenting is important, as is passing on the practice to your kids. And remember — you have to put your own oxygen mask on first in the event of an emergency.
The above are just a few suggestions to help your child create their own stress management system. Each child is unique, and may exhibit vastly different indications of stress and will need their own processing strategies. If your child’s anxiety seems to be worsening or interfering with daily activities, talk to your child’s Pediatrician or seek the support from a mental health professional.