How Do Stress and Anxiety Show Up in Our Kids and How do We Support Them Through It

Apr 13, 2020

We are all surrounded by this tragedy and uncertainty.  The stress and anxiety that this reality plays out is different for all of us.  And for some adults and kids, this type of stress and anxiety is a new and unfamiliar feeling. Being home all day every day is very different than what we are used to.  This is a reality with a level of fear, uncertainty, and economic shutdown. This transition is rocky and complex. All that being said, don’t forget that this transition is a process and will take time until we all find our groove.  Some rhythm and flow will begin if it hasn’t already.  

Our lives have been disrupted which includes our comforts, our routines and our support systems. We all have an alert system to warn us of potential danger.  Some of us are more sensitive than others and some people’s alert systems are not as sensitive and this has to do with prior trauma and prior ability to manage and regulate during times of stress.  On that note, stress is good for us, it’s important and not something we should be afraid of. It’s actually part of how we build resilience. 

So what do we do with all of this stress & anxiety?

I say this time and time again, we need to first start with recognizing our own feelings.  Take a moment to sit with your own stress and anxiety. Our anxiety is often future-based, it’s a threat of the unknown.  We worry about what the future will bring knowing that we can’t control the future. We need to recognize it and then shift the gear into the present moment.  We are not at the mercy of our thoughts. Pay attention to what happens in our thoughts. What are they trying to say? We don’t need to stop our thoughts. We can notice the thoughts and move on.  We have mirror neurons which are neurons in the brain that activate when we perform an action or when we see an action being performed.  If we have a fearful reaction, and we don’t deal with our own fear it will transfer to our kids.  Our kids feel less safe when they pick up on our anxiety, stress and worry. We have the opportunity to work on ourselves.  

How can we help our children?

First, notice what behaviors may be related to their stress & anxiety. Their worries may show up in the form of some challenging behaviors like talking back, regressions in eating habits, regressions in sleeping habits, regressions in bathroom habits.  If you have a tween or teen they may isolate themselves in their room, have difficulty focusing, be more angry than usual or have unexpected emotional outbursts. If you have a toddler they may respond by hitting you or a sibling. Our children are often not able to effectively communicate their worries and concerns in a way that is clear for us to understand.

Secondly, giving your child several opportunities to share their worries is a great gift.  This can be done through talking, through playing out their worrisome scenarios, through drawing or through role-playing.  This might be tough with older kids so it’s then that you’ll want to check-in, but take their lead as to whether they are up for taking.  Using a collaborative approach will help build a connection and solve some challenging behaviors.  When we see challenging behavior it’s because the expectations or demands exceed the ability the child has. So it’s then that our children need even more support from us.

Lastly, get outside, get some movement, use humor, take breaks, spend some time quietly and do whatever is necessary to keep a healthy relationship with another.  That might mean letting go of some of the school and/or work expectations. That might mean letting go of getting the laundry done or that special meal.  Connection and relationship building is what will be the best predictor of making it through this with strength and resilience. 

With regard to resources that could be helpful: Go Zen is a fantastic resource for children with anxiety. Mediation and sleep apps are great for settling down for bedtime or even using mid-day. We really like the Calm app and our new-found buddy, from Zenimals. My girls love snuggling up with their little turtle! This is a fun coloring book to use as a calming strategy. Books are great tools. Books like this one are designed to speak to the child’s age which is great when we can’t find the words. OH and one more thing (there’s just so much!)…for talking to your kids about the Coronavirus you can use this social story or this cute video from Brainpop. If you need more ideas, please reach out.

I’m offering compassion to all of you!  I know this isn’t easy and at the same time, I know you can do it.  And if you feel like you can’t, please reach out. I’ve got your back!

Maria Sanders is a Licensed Social Worker and PCI Certified Parent Coach®. She works with parents struggling with any parenting challenge, from getting a child to sleep to communicating with a taciturn teen. A lot of her work is supported by Conscious Parenting and Collaborative Problem Solving. Maria works one on one with parents virtually (phone or video) or in her Montclair office. She offers programs to public schools, independent schools, preschools, pediatrician offices, professional organizations, and corporate settings.