We all experience stress in our everyday lives and children are no exception. April is National Stress Awareness Month and while you are checking in on your own mental health be sure to check in on the little ones in your care.
There are several frequent behaviors that could be an expression of stress. In fact, many of these should sound familiar from your own responses to stress. What should you look for?
- Learning issues such as a lack of focus and concentration. If a child is stressed they might only be able to focus on the worries on their mind instead of the lesson or task in front of them.
- Problems understanding cause and effect when it comes to their behavior and the disciplinary action taken. When we are stressed we often see things as irrational that we would otherwise accept and understand. Consistency in your response to their behavior is very important, so they can build trust and make the connection.
- Physical reactions such as heightened startle responses, moodiness, lack of empathy, trouble sleeping, and nightmares. These are all natural responses your body has to stress at any age.
So what do you do to help little ones dealing with stress?
Teaching self-quieting and coping skills to children can help them manage stress throughout their lives. When you think about how you react to stress imagine what it is like for a child. Their brains are still developing the ability to respond in slower, more rational ways so they are more likely to be high-jacked by their automatic survival responses of fight/flight/freeze.
First, offer emotional security; let them know they are safe to express themselves around you. In this safe environment offer sensory healing opportunities such as play, art, and writing that allows them to work through their emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
Many children don’t fully grasp emotions even when they aren’t stressed. As Barbara Oehlberg reminds us, “feelings are abstract and uncertain issues for children”. If they can practice identifying them in others they may be more comfortable owning their own emotions. Looking at images of others helps them realize their feelings are a normal and natural part of life.
Sometimes even we, as adults, need to remember that it is okay to be stressed and that we need to have ways to cope and work through it. So to build resiliency for long term success we need to help ourselves and children express and label feelings, develop self regulation, manage fears that are disguised as anger, manage stress, and solve problems instead of mask them – remember children model the behavior they see so if you can do it you will help them learn to do it too!
Here is a great activity to remind everyone (adult or child) that there is always someone there to value them . . .
Source: Oehlberg, Barbara. Making It Better: Activities for Children Living in a Stressful World. St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2014.