During challenging times or periods of uncertainty in our lives, children—even as young as infants—can pick up on our stress levels. They worry along with us as we hear unsettling reports on the news or overhear conversations about being able to pay rent this month or worry about a relative who is ill.
It’s important to take notice of your child’s behavior when your family is going through uncertain times or a crisis. Is your child not sleeping well, washing their hands more than usual, or having more outbursts? This could be a sign that they are also struggling to process the stressful world around them. As parents, we are our children’s guiding light through a world filled with scary stuff. And it’s our job to keep our children safe and to make our children feel safe, secure, and loved—especially in the face of uncertain times. This article offers tips to reassure your child that your family is your top priority during times of stress, as well as ways to minimize worry in your home.
Tune in and tune out
When there’s a stressful event going on in our lives, it tends to become the topic of conversation in the home. Your child might overhear conversations between you and your partner, friends, or family members about job loss, natural disasters, or illnesses. Televised news reports can also upset children with stories and images of robberies, kidnappings, and economic insecurities.
If you have younger children in the home, consider saving your “serious” conversations and watching your news-of-the-day for when your child is asleep.
If you are an avid news follower, you might consider narrowing down your sources of information to a select few trusted websites, programs or newspapers. It’s all too easy to get sucked into reading news story after news story on tragic events. Information overload and the need to stay constantly up-to-date drives up our stress levels and distorts our perception of threats to our families, and could negatively impact the way we parent. Our children look to us to set the emotional tone in the home. They will feel your calm as well as your stress.
During stressful times, take a moment to tune into yourself. Ask yourself: “How is this affecting the way I parent and interact with my child?” “How is my child being affected by the current situation?” “In what ways has my child changed or acted differently?” Then you can use your calming strategies to readjust if you choose.
Insert some pleasurable moments into your stressful days. If you can, take five minutes to play together, put on some upbeat music and have an impromptu dance party or fly paper airplanes around the house. Take time to follow your child’s lead in play; this will inoculate the whole family with the resilience to get through this time and come out the other side stronger and more together as a family.
Safety is priority #1
There are going to be times when you can’t shelter your children from bad news or scary stuff. Elementary age and older children will hear stories from friends at their schools about neighborhood robberies or violence in your city. There will also be times that in response to what’s going on in the world, your family may have to implement safety procedures in the home that affect your child, such as wearing a protective mask while out in public or not being able to visit the local park. Many children will want an explanation for these new rules.
In all conversations with your child, stay as calm and comforting as possible. Make sure that your child knows — through your actions and your words — that it is part of your job as their parent to do everything within your power to keep them safe and that this is exactly what you are doing. For example, say I’m your parent, it’s my job to keep you safe and we are doing everything we can.
For worried children, talk about what stands between them and danger: parents, grandparents, teachers, police, firefighters, government, doctors, and nurses. Sometimes using a drawing can help kids visual a protective circle of “helpers” around them.
Older children and teens might want to have a deeper conversation about their worries. Let them voice their concerns and ask them what they know about that particular topic (For example, they heard about a school shooting from a friend). Use this moment to dispel any myths or false information they might have received. Then answer their questions as honestly as you can.
If you are worried, they are worried
Remember that children are sponges—they absorb the positive stuff and the negative stuff. So when you are worried about something, your child is also going to be worried about it. Use times of uncertainty and stress to focus on the positive. Give extra support, encouragement, attention, and love to your child. And don’t forget to offer hope. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).