How to Help When Kids are Stressed
Ideas for Handling challenging kid behavior when you are stressed
Being isolated at home with young children isn’t easy. The increased stress from being cooped up, together (all the time!), against the backdrop of scary news and a terrifying economic climate can make emotions run high for all family memb
ers. Though some kids may jump for joy at school being cancelled, others may have a harder time and the changes in their routine may amplify challenging behaviors. Kids feel this stress too, though they may show it in different ways than adults do.
Some kids can talk with us about their feelings, but when they’re overwhelmed or don’t have the vocabulary to have a conversation about feelings, they may communicate their stress in other ways; they may show changes in behavior, changes in sleeping and eating habits, tantrums, trouble with impulse control, and whining or being clingy can be signs that your child is feeling stressed.
Much like the oxygen mask metaphor, if you are trying to help a little person with their big feelings, it helps to keep yourself calm. Use self care tools to take care of your own needs so you can be there for your child.To help your child when they are feeling stressed, be patient with them and try to view their behavior as communication rather than “being bad” or “annoying.” Make time to connect with them, play a game, do an art project, cook something, or let them choose an activity. Doing an activity together can help kids feel secure and valued. Listen to their frustrations, their fear, their anger. If they don’t have the vocabulary for their feelings yet, help them learn the words for what they are feeling.
Some kids thrive on structured routines, other kids prefer things to be more free-flow. Whatever your child prefers, your schedule does not need to be color coded and it doesn’t need to be perfect. Try to find something that works for your family and do your best. When I say do your best, I do not mean your “Type A” style best, I mean do the best you can without sacrificing your peace and while trying to balance the often conflicting needs of family members. This is messy and loud and chaotic in the best of times; In times of crisis, being gentle with yourself is part of doing your best. So be gentle with yourself and be gentle with your children and when you fuck up (because we ALL do) be gentle with yourself again.
Introduce your child to healthy ways to cope with stress. For young children, playing is a great way to counteract stress. Getting outside and doing active play can help everyone to feel more optimistic. If you must remain indoors, try heavy work activities like bear crawls, jumping, or running laps around the house. Play eye spy looking through a window. Art and sensory activities, such as modeling clay or foam soap can be calming for some kids. Distance learning resources can stimulate your child’s mind and avoid boredom, but don’t underestimate your child’s need for down time too. Kids don’t learn well when they are stressed. Some kids may seek quiet time away from parents and siblings to recharge. You are bound to need some quiet time too. Its really hard to be calm and collected with a stressed child when you don’t have any time away. If your child doesn’t nap, try setting up an activity that they might enjoy playing alone, such as play dough near you in the kitchen, reading a book, or listening to a children’s story podcast.
Talk with your child in an age-appropriate way about why their routine is changing and what types of things they can expect for the near future. Let them know they can ask questions and listen to their concerns and feelings about it. When you are parenting during a crisis, there are bound to be some bumps in the road. Reach out to your support network if you need help or a listening ear. Connecting with people facing with similar challenges can make you feel less alone and help you get through it.
Handling big tantrums:
- Keep them safe. If they are in a space where they might hurt themselves or others, either move them to a safe place or remove any objects or people that might get hurt.
- Let them have their feelings however loud, angry, sad, or scared they may be
- While they are having their feelings, check in with your own. Use your coping skills to give yourself some brain space and stay calm during your child’s meltdown. Are you breathing? Check your mind hobgoblins. Use a mantra or repeat a calming phrase if you need to. “This is hard, but it will be ok” and “they are having a hard time, not giving me a hard time” work well for me. Give yourself some mental breathing room, even if you don’t have physical breathing room. Listen to music or a podcast on earbuds, imagine that old “Calgon take me away…” commercial. Make a cup of tea. Don’t go down with the ship.
- If you find yourself at a breaking point, remove yourself from the situation. Lock yourself in the bathroom, step outside or call someone to confide in. Don’t beat yourself up for reaching your breaking point- everyone gets there from time to time. Pat yourself on the back for stepping out when you need to.
- When you are both calm, come back and work on solving whatever problem arose with your child. Its ok to leave the “lesson” if you aren’t in a good enough headspace to deal with it calmly right away. You can always talk about it later, if you feel you need to. Or not if you feel you don’t.
- Adjust your expectations. Survival mode is not the time to be Super Mom. Grazing on goldfish crackers and a bit of extra screen time never killed anyone.
- Meet kiddos needs to help prevent problems
- Connection (family & social)
- when you are in good headspace, take a few moments to do an activity together with your child. You do not have to give your child constant attention. Finding a balance between encouraging independent play and “together time” is key.
- Connection (family & social)
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