It feels like life is getting more and more stressful with each passing day. Watching and experiencing overwhelming situations such as hurricanes, floods, fires, shootings, and political strife is wearing on one’s body, mind, and soul. It seems we can’t escape it, and yet, we must prevail.
Our kids are feeling the stress too; many are even traumatized by these difficult life experiences and what’s going on around them. I recently spoke with someone from the Florida Keys who works mentoring high school students, he said life is very challenging for everyone, “Many have lost their homes, their jobs, and everywhere you look there is destruction”. And yet, at the end of every conversation, people stand up, feel their own resilience, and want to help others, particularly children.
Kids look to their parents, extended family, teachers, and friends for understanding and support. If you have children, are a teacher, or work with kids in any capacity, you may be unsure, even confused about how to help them manage the stress and trauma they are facing. Below are 7 tips on how you can help your child/student.
Understanding stress: When a child experiences frequent, chronic, or overwhelming stress, brain patterns can change and a child can think, feel, react, and respond differently. A child may become easily agitated, anxious, impulsive, hyperactive, unable to focus, lack empathy, have low emotional control, poor decision-making, and weak problem-solving abilities. Chronic stress can also cause a host of minor, and sometimes significant, physical health problems such as an impaired immune system, slowed growth, aches and pains, and poor digestion. Long-term stress can change the pathways of the brain and so it’s important to address, soften, and treat stress as soon as possible.
Understanding trauma: Experiencing “trauma” means a child has endured an event that has overwhelmed their ability to cope. Children can experience trauma even just witnessing a traumatic event—this is referred to as vicarious or secondary trauma. Having a significant emotional or physical traumatic incident can also change how the brain functions. The post-trauma symptoms are similar to those with significant stress, but more intense and chronic. Immediately after the experience a child/student might be on constant alert, worried, fearful, struggle with processing information, withdraw, become aggressive, have eating or sleeping problems, feel guilty, and/or have new or unusual physical problems. If a child isn’t given the proper support and opportunities to deal with their emotions, their behaviors and problems can become chronic, even last a life time.
- Establish a routine and safe surroundings: Kids need to feel safe. After extreme stress or trauma this need is accentuated. Feeling safe comes from having reliable adults around them, as well as having routines so they know what’s next in their lives. If you are surviving and managing the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, it’s helpful to get back to a routine as quickly as possible. Establish a new routine if you have to, but try and incorporate some of your old routines if you can. In a classroom, set up your space so that a child feels organized, safe, but not trapped. In a home or classroom, you can have a safe area/room where there is comfortable seating, plants, flowers, relaxing scents like lavender, peppermint, or eucalyptus. Play calming music.
- Encourage them to express their feelings: Take time every day (more than once a day) to talk about how they are feeling. Listen to them with heart-felt energy and reflect back what you hear. Be honest about what’s happened and what they can expect, but try to be positive to help your child/student have hope for a better tomorrow. The Imagine Project is a wonderful tool for parents, teachers, counselors, etc. to give kids the opportunity to speak what’s in their hearts. Talking about their feelings will help them get their emotions out of their hearts and heads, as well as have a better understanding of what has happened to them.
- Minimize further stress and trauma: When you’ve survived natural disasters and you are living in the mist of destruction everywhere this can be hard to do. You may not be able to keep them from seeing what’s happened around them, but try and minimize further bombardment of negativity by watching positive shows on the TV or computer. You can decorate with positive images, even look at positive images on the computer. Watching inspiring movies and videos will help. Anything to offset the negativity they feel in their hearts and hear all around them. Remember they can hear, see, and feel what you feel and say, try your best to be positive.
- Use calming techniques for yourself and your child/student: When we experience intense stress or trauma, our nervous systems speed up and it can be very difficult to slow down. This can be exhausting, causing long term health problems. Using mindfulness techniques such as meditation, yoga, SuperBrain Yoga, will help a lot; even try a walk in nature for just 10 minutes a day. Use these techniques to help calm your child or student’s nervous system so they can think, process what’s happening, and move forward (these techniques will help you too). Calming down your nervous system is critical for all ages to heal and help others heal. Calming music in your home or classroom, essential oils diffused around you, even chimes in the distance can be helpful. Anything that sooths your/their body, mind, and soul.
- Play: Play can be very therapeutic for children struggling with stressful or traumatic life experiences. Doing something completely different and getting away from life gives a well-needed break. Play can also give kids the opportunity to process the scenario that’s been difficult by acting it out within the play. If you see kids doing this, don’t stop them (as long as they are being appropriate), they will work through it on their own, in their own time—play is a perfect avenue to process and move through stress and trauma. Give them opportunities to laugh. Laughter is great medicine for all ages, particularly kids. A good belly laugh helps us all—watch videos, tell jokes, whatever works!
- Human connection: A hug, holding hands, a gentle hand on another’s shoulder—human touch releases a neuro hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin offsets the negative effects of stress and trauma in the body. The more touch we have during difficult times—the more support we feel in our body, mind, and heart. Teachers know their boundaries with their students—do what you can. Parents—the more hugging and holding the better (for both of you). Encourage kids to do one act of kindness every day. Reaching out and giving to others in need also releases oxytocin. Teaching kids to help others, (even when the person who is helping is in need) builds character and resilience.
- Hope: We all need hope in our lives. Kids are naturally hopeful; they see possibility in anything if you let them. If your children/students are struggling to see hope, give them ideas by showing them what’s possible. Even a small deed done for another makes us feel good and brings us a sense of hope. Let them imagine what might be possible in the next days, weeks, months, and years. Dreaming is powerful and we need it to move forward. The Imagine Project journaling process encourages imagination and creates new possibilities in a child’s life. It’s fun to imagine—and it’s a light-hearted, a welcome break from the negativity of stress and trauma. Make a game out of imagining. One person takes a turn saying, “I imagine…” then the next, and the next. Take turns. Add in what each person is grateful for in the mix. Imagination, gratitude and giving to others gives kids hope at a time they are struggling to see it.
To learn more about helping kids/students with the stressful and sometimes traumatic events of life and the world, see The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress (Yampa Valley Publishing, 2017)
Dianne Maroney, RN, MSN is a thought leader in the area of stress and trauma in children. She is nurse, speaker, and author of multiple award winning books including The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress (Yampa Valley Publishing, 2017). For more information go to www.theimagineproject.org