5 Ways to Help your Child Survive a Stressful Event
My best friend in college lives in Tennessee. Andrea and I became friends as we studied together for Microbiology exams. There is almost nothing harder than passing Dr. Jarsfter's Micro exams. It took trading each other's notes and quizzing each other on the floor of her bedroom to pass those exams. From there, our friendship grew. She got me a job in her dad's medical office. I helped her put together a backyard reception for her wedding. Eventually, her family sort of adopted Chris and me, inviting us to spend Thanksgiving with them since we were so far from home. They are a very musically-gifted family, reminding me so much of my own family. Singing around the grand piano was normal for them. I felt right at home.
We rarely get to see each other these days. I'm thankful for texting as it has kept our friendship alive. We send notes at all hours of the day and night which works for us because she's an OB/GYN. She delivers babies at all hours of the day and night! She may be my only friend who is awake to respond to a prayer request at 2:00am.
Recently, Andrea's texts have been about a new diagnosis that is wiping her out. It's hard to be so far from her. My heart wants to be near her to support her in all the ways that my beautiful girlfriends supported me last year. I'm learning to support from a distance.
One way I can support Andrea is by sharing some of the tools we used to help our kids process their own stress during my trauma. Andrea has a daughter, 7 years old. Like us, she has had to navigate how to help her daughter process stress while she herself has been in and out of the hospital over the past four months. This is not something I've talked a lot about here, but it came up this week in a text from another friend. A friend with two littles. A friend who just found out she has cancer. She texted me, "How can I help keep my little ones' anxiety to a minimum during my hospital stays and recovery?" This is such a good, important question. I decided to make a short list of the things we did that helped. Some of these things we learned from our counselor. Others we learned by trial and error. I hope it is a help to you.
5 Ways to Help Your Child Survive a Stressful Event
Skip the Extras
Right away, decided was is absolutely necessary and what is not. We decided that eating and sleeping were necessary and everything else was not. So, we pulled our kids out of their regular actives like soccer and violin. We also pulled them out of school for a week (or longer). As the stress reduced, we added things back slowly. We took our cues from the kids. If they appeared stressed, we pulled back again. Our mantra became: It's ok to do this temporarily. This is not permanent. It is just what we need to do right now.
Science has shown that stress hormones build up and can be released through movement. If you do not move, the stress hormones continue to build up. Without a release, you can cause internal psychological damage because your child will learn to ignore the stress feelings in her body. Her body wants to move to release stress, but she cannot move (for whatever reason) so she ignores the need to move. Make sense? So, take your kids outside to the park and let them run. Or let a friend take them to the bounce house gym. Or play indoor games like Twister. Our counselor highly recommends that you make the play reciprocal to help your child feel attached to you even in their stress. Reciprocal play is where you somehow play together, like pushing them on a swing or playing catch. If you cannot do physical play (like me), then verbally play together. For instance, let your child run a lap around the park and you call out her times. "15 seconds, 16 seconds, 17 seconds..."
When your child cannot be with you during a stressful event, a transitional item can be a huge help. This item does not need to be significant, it just needs to belong to you. Give the child your item and ask her to keep it safe for you until you return. I gave my daughter one of my bracelets to hold onto. I once, in desperation, reached into my purse and grabbed a chapstick and asked my son to keep it safe for me. The transitional item is a permanent, tangible reminder of you that they can look at and touch when they cannot look at or touch you. You can do this in reverse as well. My daughter had me hold onto one of her toy horses when I was in the hospital, to keep until we were together again and I could return it to her. Transitional items have been a very successful tool for us.
Keep 'em Close
In attachment therapy, we learned that 3 feet is the magical distance for creating a sense of safety in a child. When our kids are spinning, we bring them to within 3 feet of us and keep them there. We can literally watch them calm down from the inside out. Every. Single. Time. To keep your child within 3 feet can take some creativity. For us, we find it very useful to ask our kids to help us in the kitchen while we make a meal. Or sit and draw next to Daddy while he takes a phone call. We continue this at night, which is the scariest time for our children, by bringing them into our room to sleep. Our kids all know how to make little "nests" on the floor by our bed. They've all done it. ALL of them. If you are ok with them in your bed, then go for it. They will feel safe and comforted and will sleep better.
Kids have less tools to deal with stress. Where an adult may take a walk or journal or even talk it out with a friend, a child may not have the forethought to move or the words to express their stress. Instead, they will do very unexpected things. It is common for a child to show stress by displaying negative behavior or behaviors that are found in younger children. This is called regression. Repeat the mantra to yourself: It's ok for her to do this temporarily. This is not permanent. It is just what she needs to do right now. Give her all the grace in the world. Accept the behavior as an indicator of her stress, not as a personal attack. Bring her close. And if possible, give her words. Say, "It looks like you may be feeling yucky inside. That's ok. I feel yucky too." Acknowledge her stress and if possible, give her words to talk about your situation. "Mommy's body doesn't feel right. The doctors are going to check it out." Talk about your situation in age-appropriate terms. Maybe give her a word picture. We used this line for my situation. "Mommy's lungs have a leak. The doctors are going to try to fix the leak. Mommy will need to stay with the doctors for a few days. And she's going to be really tired when she gets home because the doctors had to fix the leak inside her. So let's be gentle with Mommy, ok?" As they ask questions, try to answer with what they NEED to know. You don't need to give them all the details you would give your mom. Just enough for them to feel heard and understood.
I hope those tips help you. And for goodness sake, get your kids to a counselor. Trauma is real. Kids who process trauma in a healthy way will make it through. Sometimes, a person will say to me, "Kids are resilient." Their statement is like comparing kids to cats who always land on their feet. It's true, kids are resilient but they are not felines. They need help to know which way is up. Kids need help to bend and flex and grow through trauma. So, give them grace. Support them like crazy. And pray for God to always show you how to love them best. He will. He loves them too.