Helping Children Cope in Times of Distress
Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It is what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference. -Virginia Satir
One of the most-asked questions posed to me by parents is “What can I do to help my child?” This question brings me joy every time because it reassures me that the parent is truly attuned to their child’s needs during a difficult time and is trying their very best to help their child move forward. However, this same question also brings me an element of pain when I hear it coming from a parent as it often comes from a place of despair, distress, and hopelessness. I believe that, as parents, there are few things in this life that can compare to that feeling of complete anguish in fully knowing that our child is hurting, yet we cannot find a way to help them.
Like adults, children may not know what to think, how to feel, or how to act when they experience difficult times in their lives. Events that might be confusing,scary, or sad for adults may be even more confusing, scary, or sad for children. Children often develop emotional and physical reactions when faced with difficult times. While some children may only experience a few worries and bad memories that quickly go away, other children may develop long-lasting reactions. Some children may continue to react as if the event just happened, even if it happened weeks or months ago.
Children’s common physical reactions to difficult experiences include:
· Trouble getting to sleep and/or staying asleep or sleeping more than usual
· Feeling nervous, jumpy, or restless
· Headaches or stomachaches
· Reduced or increased appetite
· Easily startled or upset by loud sounds (like sirens,backfires, or thunder)
Children may also show emotional and behavioral changes, including:
· Reduced attention span and/or trouble focusing
· Spending more time alone and wanting to be away from friends and/or family
· Avoiding people, places, or things that may remind the child of the experience
· Angry tantrums
· Aggressive or defiant behavior
· Increased sadness and/or tearfulness
· Changes in school performance (like lower grades, reduced class participation, “daydreaming” or “zoning out” during class activities, and acting out)
Needless to say, when our child is experiencing symptoms such as these, it can quickly take a toll on us as parents. Yet no matter how concerned, frustrated, or overwhelmed we may feel, as parents, we have the power to help our children recover. Our comfort, support and reassurance can make them feel safe and secure, guide them through their fears and grief, and prevent them from suffering lasting psychological effects. Below are 3 things I usually recommend:
1. Remember to find support and take care for yourself.
Children look to adults for reassurance during difficult times. The best predictor of a child’s ability to cope well is having a parent who is coping well. You can best help your child when you help yourself. Do not discuss your anxieties with your children, or when they are around, and be aware of the tone of your voice, as children quickly pick up on anxiety. Instead, talk about concerns with friends and relatives; it might be helpful to form a support group. If you belong to a church or community group, keep participating. Try to eat right, drink enough water, stick to exercise routines and get enough sleep. Physical health protects against emotional vulnerability. To reduce stress, do deep breathing. If you suffer from severe anxiety that interferes with your ability to function, seek help from a doctor or mental health professional; if you don’t have access to one, talk with a religious leader. Recognize your need for help and get it. Do it for your child’s sake, if for no other reason.
2. Encourage your child to talk about confusing feelings, worries, and reactions.
Let your child know that you understand their feelings. If a child expresses a concern, do not respond by saying, “Oh, don’t be worried,” because they may feel embarrassed or criticized. Instead, simply acknowledge and confirm what you are hearing: “Yes, I can see that you are worried.” What children need most is someone whom they trust to listen to their questions, accept their feelings and be there for them. Don’t worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say — after all,there is no answer that will make everything okay. Look for natural openings to have a discussion. One way to encourage conversation is to use family time (such as during mealtimes, morning routines, or before bedtimes) to talk about their concerns and provide reassurance.
3. Help your child learn and use age-appropriate coping skills and engage in co-regulation to increase their ability to self-regulate.
We aren’t born with the ability to cope with our emotions.We have to be taught. However, many of us weren’t taught healthy strategies, yet it’s vital that we teach our children the coping skills they need to navigate overwhelming situations and challenges well. Expect some emotional outbursts from your child. When you see your child becoming upset, help your child calm down. There are many simple, yet highly effective, relaxation and coping strategy ideas available on Google with a quick search (harness the power of the internet!). Additionally, children in general have difficulties regulating their emotions and impulses. We as parents often attempt to coercively regulate our children’s unwanted behaviors through commands, threats, and punishments that invariably inflame the situation and that generate resistance rather than learning. When children have not yet learned the skills for rational self-regulation, they need the help of caring adults to calm them and help them think rationally. Co-regulation is the first step on the pathway to self-regulation (more on this concept in a future blog post).
In conclusion, how we respond as parents to our children’s distress can really help. Creating a structured, safe, and nurturing home is the greatest gift that we can give to our children. A healthy relationship with our children allows them to begin and advance the recovery process. Remember that it is in the context of our parent-child relationship that our children learn trust and respect, two important building blocks of their safety and well-being. As Dr. Bruce Perry puts it, “Relationships are the agents of change, and the most powerful therapy is human love”. This is even truer when said relationship is that of a parent.
If your child is having trouble coping with distress and you find the need for additional support at this time, consider talking with a pediatric mental health professional to help identify the areas of difficulty. Together, everyone can decide how to help and learn from each other.
Healing Minds Behavioral Health, PLLC is a private mental health practice with a specialization in trauma-focused services for children, adolescents, and families. You may contact us at 210-418-2546 for additional information.