Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many people anecdotally note that the world is a more stressful place. This stress is obvious in the reactions and reports of children and adults alike. Stress is the body’s/mind’s response to change and the need for adaptation, including positive and negative situations and events. Stress can cause fear or feelings of being overwhelmed. And fear can generalize into anxiety – when the original fear-inducing situation causes a person to feel fearful or anxious across several situations, including future and past events. Stress is a normal part of life and so is the emotion of fear. When these experiences become chronic, we start to notice changes in the functioning of ourselves or a loved one. Helping children in our lives to manage stress starts with us helping ourselves as adults and modeling our own stress management. Although we may say the right things to help soothe children, if they witness our anxiety and distress chronically in our behaviors, their sense of self and feelings of safety in the world are impacted.
One way we can help children is by modeling self-awareness. Practicing emotional regulation and/or self-care does not have to be perfect. Simply allowing yourself or your child to process feelings and helping to create the opportunity to “turn it around” by finding uplifting experiences will help release the stressful feelings. What might this look like?
A parent who is obviously irritable, upset, angry, or stressed can narrate the experience to their child to ensure that the child does not feel that their parent’s distress is directed toward or caused by them. As a parent, you could say to your child, “I’m sorry I am a little cranky right now. I am having a tough time. I just had an argument with a coworker, and it has left me pretty upset, but I am working on feeling better. I just need a few minutes to myself, and I will be ready to play.”
This type of dialogue and active co-regulation (i.e. trying on of coping skills with your child) builds their self-awareness and resilience in the face of their own strong emotional reactions. Stress is normal, but chronic stress and anxiety can cause health concerns, academic and social difficulties, and poor self-esteem. If your child routinely struggles to process emotions with your help, or their attempts to use coping skills with you consistently fail to help them regulate, consider seeking professional help.
Tiffany L. Keller, PsyD of MiraCare Group
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Testing Center Coordinator
Other resources you might find helpful:
Stress from Mental Health America
10 Ways to Manage Everyday Stress
Stress Center for Teens
Create a Stress Catcher from National Institute of Mental Health