Parenting During Times of Stress: What to Watch for with Your Children and How to Help

Whether it’s a natural disaster, individual family trauma, or as now a pandemic, families can struggle when daily life is thrown upside down due to these events and the stress evades our every action and all our thoughts. Children are not immune to this and even infants and toddlers know that something worrying is happening. They will respond to the stress we are exhibiting which in turn raises our own struggles as parenting a stressed child is all the harder. It becomes a negative cycle and impacts all family members. So, what should we watch for in our littles to know how they are experiencing this and what we can do to limit the negative impact on them? By now we know how to wash our hands in order to keep our family physically healthy but how do we keep our young children (and thus ourselves) psychologically healthy?

Research shows that one of the best protections for children is having a parent (or caregiver such as grandparent) who is reliable, consistent, and caring and who protects them from the disaster/trauma. The parent has to become the shield against this outside force. And that shield needs to be a loving and caring relationship from which the child learns to feel secure and to know that no matter what is going on, they are loved and protected. A child who lacks this knowledge over time starts to distrust the world. They are angry and sad because the world is a worry to them. This eats away at their emotions and over time comes out in both short-term and long-term (depending on how long their security is insecure) negative behaviors and emotions.

This is not to add to our stress or scare anyone at all but simply to remind us that as parents we must be aware of our behaviors and psychological responses in front of our children. They are watching us and absorbing our emotions as well as our actions. How we engage with social media or television, how we speak with others by phone, how we yell at drivers in other cars, grab toilet paper off shelves, or how we snap and shout as we are worried about the impact of this virus, are all infused into our child’s learning about the world.

If they are learning that the world is a scary, virus-infected place that is unsafe and makes adults angry and confused and less able to engage with them in warm and responsive ways then they are going to act out in both the short-term through visible negative behaviors and long-term in more maladaptive physiologic and psychologic responses to life. We need to remember that we cannot change the virus, the stock market, or political responses to all of this but we CAN make sure we equip our families with the loving relationships and positive parenting strategies needed to weather the world right now.

Let’s break this down by ages of what to watch for and how to start helping offset what is happening in the world:

Parenting During Times of Stress: Infants and Toddlers (Ages 0-2)

Parenting During Times of Stress: Ages 3-5

Parenting During Times of Stress: Ages 6-12

Parenting During Times of Stress: Ages 13+

 

Parenting During Times of Stress: Infants and Toddlers (Ages 0-2)

As parents we often believe that infants and toddlers are immune to what is going on in the wider world. We watch news on television that makes our body tense with worry and fear while our baby is in our lap or our toddler playing beside us. We nurse the baby while phone scrolling through health warnings and country-wide shut downs. Our cortisol (stress hormone) levels soar as we worry about our family’s safety from the virus or how to financially provide and support everyone while staying home or from crashing stock markets. With all of this very real stress we may overlook seeing our little ones intensely watching us and absorbing that stress which exudes from our bodies. We may not notice how they also hear the scary tones and language from our media and the adults around us or mimic our anger or sadness. When we shout at our phone in frustration, we may soon see our toddler kick over their block tower a few minutes later or six-month-old arch their back away from nursing. They are learning from our physical actions and from the messages our body and emotional output are exuding.

Behaviors we may see–

  • May be clingier than usual and especially when you are on the phone or speaking to others.
  • May cry at bedtime or not want to be put down (this is normal but you may see more intensity in it).
  • Regression back to physical behaviors already learnt such as having toileting accidents, wanting to nurse more, not wanting to walk alone…
  • Fearful of strangers, noises, or anything new (above normal).
  • Changes in diet such as not wanting to try new foods or only wanting to nurse (toddlers).
  • Waking more in the night.
  • Fear of bath or sitting in a known high chair (fears of known experiences).

What we can do–

  • Practice patience and tolerance (for them and ourselves).
  • Limit their (and our) exposure to social media and news/television. Come up with an action plan for when and how long we will engage with media and make that during their sleep times.
  • Keep regular bedtime routines as usual but be sensitive to their need for increased proximity to you. This may be a time to cosleep if not doing so already and never use cry it out methods as this is linked to long-term trauma and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Cosleeping is a wonderful way to promote skin to skin contact and provide reassurance and support.
  • Keep or develop soothing bath time routines. Use lavender oils in the bath (diluted per age of child), and play and sing during bathing.
  • Use massage to help sooth fractious infants and integrate this into the regular routine of the week as it will help promote sleep and even growth.
  • Try to maintain feeding routines for you if breastfeeding babies and for toddlers it helps to organize their day and allow for predictability which they thrive on. Infants should nurse on demand of course and toddlers fed when hungry but a general routine for older twos helps provide a sense of security and flow.
  • Engage in play with your infant and toddler. A rousing game of peek-a-boo and silly faces to induce belly laughing will get the endorphins (happy hormones) rising in both you and your child.
  • Essential oils that are calming can be used in a diffuser around the home.
  • Allow for clinginess – carry little ones when they want to be held and stay close to them if they are wanting this. Providing this support will NOT spoil your little one or make them clingier later on. It will give them the security they are asking for and in fact will make them more independent as they grow older. A sling is a great accessory to helping with this.
  • If you have to leave your infant or toddler then let them know you are going and reassure you will be back soon.
  • If more than a short separation, then leave a blanket or shirt that smells of you with them and for toddlers a photograph is nice (laminate).

Parenting During Times of Stress: Ages 3-5

Children during this age may feel helpless and uncertain about what the danger is or if they are going to personally experience it. They may not have the language skills to know what to ask or describe how they are feeling. Helplessness and anxiety can lead to a shutting down in development and often a regression back to earlier stages of development. Children at this age are learning so much and usually embrace it with exuberance and joy but when seeing parents anxious and stressed, they may bottle learning up and then exhibit negative behaviors which fuels adult stress and the ability to parent calmly. It becomes a negative cycle in which we are stressed, our child feels this and acts out, we are confused and upset by the negative behavior and so parent poorly, and our child feels this and continues or increases the negative behaviors! We are the adult and so must be the one to break this cycle and change the pattern of negativity. This requires we take a hard look at our behaviors and practices such as social media, television, engagement in play, schedule, and our own stress level. Healing ourselves is a huge first step in helping to keep our children on track emotionally and physically.

Behaviors we may see–

  • Difficulties with focus on play or learning activities.
  • Regression back to physical behaviors already learnt such as having toileting accidents, wanting help with feeding (or to nurse more if breastfeeding) or getting dressed. Stepping back to being “a baby.”
  • Loss of speech or regression back to lower level of speech.
  • Bed wetting.
  • Acting out with more drama, aggression, or whining.
  • Fighting with siblings or friends or withdrawing from engaging with them.
  • Exhibiting more stomach or headaches.
  • Bad dreams or nightmares and not wanting to be alone during the night when previously OK with this.
  • Changes in appetite.
  • Competing to get parental attention.

What we can do—

  • Avoid media when they are around as news or videos on our phone can be disturbing and confusing for littles. Have a plan for when you will watch without them. You may find this helps lower your stress significantly too.
  • Play WITH them. Research shows that play for people of all ages lowers stress. We often call it Flow as adults but losing an hour of our day when engaged in playing dolls or building block cities is a great way to lower our stress and take the place of social media.
  • Routines are important for young children. Not so restrictive that you won’t change to meet the family needs but enough that children know breakfast is shortly after they wake and usually includes X or Y. Dinner is in the evening and usually at X place in the house. Then comes bath and books etc. Having a flow to the day helps children self-regulate and feel secure and calmer. We all appreciate this!
  • Bedtime calming routines such as a lavender essential oil in the bath and/or massage can help. Reading is always calming.
  • Cosleeping or a mattress/pad on parent’s bedroom floor still helps children feel secure if they want that. For the bulk of families in cultures around the world this is the norm.
  • Let littles help with household chores and start to gain a sense of responsibility. They can’t cook the entire dinner but they can help you bake a cake or make pancakes. They can also help fold laundry. Asking them to work with you is also a time to chat about any fears or concerns they are having. Or it’s a time to just have fun.
  • Art and creative expression are great ways to see what is going on with your child. Sit and draw or roll clay WITH them. You do yours and let them do theirs but you can prompt by perhaps drawing the family and talking about everyone. Have them do likewise and listen to what they are saying.
  • Physical activity is obviously hugely important at this age. Pull up videos of silly dancing or fun activities. Use masking tape on the floor and mark out obstacle courses. Get hula hoops and use them or put them on the floor to jump in and out with. Small bean bags to juggle with and make games out of are wonderful. Even just announcing “brain break” and starting to do jumping jacks will make your littles laugh and join in plus give YOU the activity too!
  • Gentle boundaries are not to be afraid of. Talk to your child about what is acceptable and what isn’t in your family. Do this when everyone is calm and maybe even find ways to draw it and then put this up on the wall to remind everyone.
  • Use video conferencing for engagement with extended family and friends. Let them chat with grandparents or their friends and use the silly faces and hats available in some programs. You can even snap photos of this at the time for them to print out and remember later.

Parenting During Times of Stress: Ages 6-12

Children at this age are even more perceptive to absorbing what is being said on the news, on social media (either their own or reading over our shoulder), and hearing ALL conversations we have. They are becoming less egocentric than preschoolers (focused on the self) and now may start to worry not only about their own health but also that of parents and grandparents etc. It still wraps back around to their worries about what would happen to them if we were in hospital or worse and they pick up on this similar anxiety that we may have as a parent. This is the age where we can really start to discuss Plan A and Plan B and engage them in contingency planning so as to reassure them that we have thought this through and they will be just fine (of course we need to actually have done this planning!). Children at this age really do model parental behaviors and so we need to be very cognizant of our responses to the current situation. While the virus is of course impacting our short-term plans and way we live life, we need to also know that our everyday behaviors are teaching children the skills of life. Let’s step back and think about what we want them to learn from this in the bigger picture and then let’s figure out how to model that to them within our family system.

Behaviors we may see–

  • Increased difficulty with focus during play or learning.
  • Anger or frustration during normally enjoyed activities (throwing Legos down out of anger or ripping up artwork).
  • Arguing more than normal.
  • Competing for attention from parent or jealousy among siblings.
  • Nightmares and clinging at bedtime.
  • Bed wetting that wasn’t happening previously.
  • Changes in appetite or food choices.
  • Regression to early behaviors that have already been learned (suddenly cannot zip up a coat or tie shoes).
  • Forgetfulness (having to be asked repeatedly to do things they normally do).
  • Withdrawal from friends or siblings.
  • Stomach or headaches.

What we can do–

  • Tolerance and patience! This can be difficult when you are stressed and worried but following many of these limitations will also help you lower your stress.
  • Set gentle limits and boundaries as even during trauma we need to know what is acceptable or not.
  • Speak with your child when not in the middle of an argument to set up boundaries. Agree during calm family discussions what the “rules” of the family are.
  • Limit exposure to media. Take an active role in what you think is acceptable for your child and what is not. Think about your own exposure as well. Remember that having the news running in the background brings in a constant level of stress that is impacting everyone’s cortisol levels.
  • Try to set up boundaries of when you will watch and then what your child will watch.
  • Regular exercise and activity (indoor if necessary) can help let off steam. Make it silly and fun. Dancing, animal yoga, obstacle courses, and fun competitions can all let off tension and stress.
  • Routines of healthy eating and sleeping are important for everyone. These do not have to be rigid but everyone thrives knowing approximately what the day will entail.
  • Provide a range of learning materials that can engage your child. From books to puzzles or clay, it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to strew your home with items to keep children active and engaged. Cook and bake with them. Set out various ingredients to make potions (flour/food coloring/baking soda/cornstarch/vinegar….) after you listen to Harry Potter on audio book and then let them be creative.
  • Provide a range of art and creative materials as above but then engage WITH your child. Use those fancy coloring books and pencils. Paint a picture or make a clay pot. Don’t worry about how they look but model that the experience is what makes this fun. Show them it’s simply about being with them and creating rather than the output.
  • Use play to prompt them to share and express worries. This is a great time to informally chat about what is happening in the world. Use prompts to help get them started and then just listen.
  • Clarify any misconceptions they have by showing them appropriate sites (such as good online sources for how to wash hands) or by finding books about germs/viruses (Magic School Bus is one example).
  • Have them participate in household chores with you as again this another opportunity for discussion.
  • Promote engagement with family and friends via video.
  • Read aloud and listen to audio books.
  • Watch shows/movies they would like with them and even engage extended family by video. Is there a series or comedy that you can all start on the TV at the same time with Skype going on via computer? This way grandparents or extended family time can be part of the fun. You can even arrange to make the same snacks to eat or all be in pajamas etc. Use video streaming to your advantage.

Parenting During Times of Stress: Ages 13+

Adolescents are fully able to comprehend the trauma and what is happening with the virus but that does not mean they are as equipped as adults to understand how to cope with it and to organize their emotions. As parents we need to openly discuss what is happening but still limit exposure to media (obviously easier at age 13 than 18) or help guide them to information that is helpful and clarifying rather than hype and fear mongering. It can be a good chance to increase critical thinking skills and how to search for appropriate information. This is a great time to really pull together as a team and to enlist their help in the entire family’s learning about the situation and what actions to take. They can help teach younger children how to more intensely wash hands, model not touching their face (and remind you about this), be the keeper of hand sanitizer when you go out, and generally be part of the family safety team. Younger children of course should do this as well but by giving more responsibility to your adolescents you let them know you trust them in both their knowledge and competence. This helps grow their self-confidence during traumatic times and allows them to take on a leadership role which can help draw them out of any negative internalizing behaviors that can be manifesting. Sometimes we also have to prompt them to engage such as asking them privately to help you with family game night. Explaining why this is good for their younger siblings and that you need them to help you gives them another chance to take on a leadership role and that responsibility. Of course, we need to model this and be part of the experiences and not hand them off to our teen!

But while we are helping our adolescents take on more adult, leadership roles, we also need to give them time to still be children. Making their favorite early childhood foods for them, giving them back or foot rubs, reading aloud together, coloring together, painting their room, clearing out a closet and having a silly fashion show, watching shows or cartoons enjoyed in childhood, are all ways to let them still be a child and let off stress. Follow their lead on this though as some may want it more than others and again the differences in ages 13 to 18 can change their response.

Behaviors we may see –

  • Physical symptoms such as stomach or headaches or even rashes.
  • Sleep disturbances (increased or decreased).
  • Changes in diet (increased or decreased).
  • Lethargic.
  • Inability to concentrate or focus on a task.
  • Agitation and short fuse/anger.
  • Withdrawal from friends or siblings.
  • Forgetfulness.

What we can do—

  • Encourage them to speak about their worries but don’t force (natural times to chat are during an activity such as baking, chores, or doing art together).
  • Art activities together.
  • Board games or family game night.
  • Prompt them to play video games online with friends or video chat.
  • Household chores with you.
  • Routines are helpful and will differ for each family but having some semblance of schedule helps everyone expectations; even if it’s just a general time for family dinner.
  • Ask for their help with younger siblings (such as reading or playing with them).
  • Giving responsibility and purposefully seeking them out to help you.
  • Monitor social media and television viewing not in a punitive way but by discussing how it can increase our stress or have incorrect information. Then MODEL this; lead by your actions and engage them in a plan of how to be a thoughtful consumer of media.
  • Share clarifying media and discuss it with them. Show them how to find sensible sources.
  • Read aloud together as a family.
  • Listen to audio books together.
  • Watch shows/movies they would like (be brave and know it’s a short stage) with them and even engage extended family by video. Is there a comedy that you can all start on the TV at the same time with skype going on via computer? This way grandparents or extended family time can be part of the fun. You can even arrange to make the same snacks to eat or all be in pajamas etc. Use video streaming to your advantage.

 

As a Family Consultant, Dr. Kate Green helps parents make decisions about their children’s development and learning by using research-based strategies and information in combination with their intuitive inner voice to help understand what is optimum for their family. She has guided educational decision making and learning for three decades now - working in the early childhood, elementary, and adolescence age groups to mentoring adults through doctoral degrees. She has five very successful, alternatively educated young adult and teen children of her own and loves to help other families make decisions that enable their children to joyfully co-exist and excel.

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