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The Many Faces of Stress in Children and Teens

Last week I walked downstairs to find my two sons playing a game of chess. “How delightful!” I thought to myself. We had been practicing social distancing for a couple of weeks already, and everyone in our family was getting antsy. Seeing my kids getting along like this was like balm for my weary parenting soul.

But it didn’t last long.

The game ended abruptly when one threw the chess board off the table and stomped upstairs. His brother responded by falling to the floor in a sobbing heap. The last thing I heard before the door slammed upstairs was, “Cheater!” This sent the other into another round of sobbing. I was tempted to try to immediately  figure out what went wrong in the chess game. Did someone really cheat? Is this how we resolve conflict in our family? Should I ask them to start the game over again?

Instead I decided to just sit quietly on the floor next to my son. After his sobbing subsided I opened my arms. He took my non-verbal cue and crawled into my lap. After some more breathing and crying, he quietly said “I miss my cousins.”

It wasn’t really about chess after all.

It took my other son upstairs a lot longer to settle down. After the storm had passed he later admitted, “I have no idea why I got so angry.”

Child tantrumming stressed on floor

The Many Faces of Stress

It is no surprise to anyone living through the COVID-19 pandemic that kids across the world are experiencing a great deal of stress. Whether it is uncertainty, upset routines, economic insecurity or lack of social support, the list of stressors is long and varied.

The challenge is that children can’t always express stress in clear ways (we grownups can’t always either). Surely, some children express stress like my youngest child did after the chess game imploded, crawling into our laps and asking for comfort. This expression easily evokes empathy in us parents and invites us towards our children. More often though, the faces of stress are more difficult to detect and can be frustrating, maddening, and exhausting. They include:

Regressions.

Examples might include a potty trained child who starts having accidents, a child who could fall asleep alone who now needs a lot of extra soothing, or one who was pretty self-directed who now needs hand holding to get work started.

Anger and irritability.

This might manifest as flashes of rage or as low level but consistent annoyance and grumpiness.

Fatigue.

This might be the teen who wants to sleep all day or might explain why kids are uniquely exhausted after just a few hours of distance learning.

Apathy or disengagement.

This might be the teen who appears to “not care,” questions the need for physical distancing, or uses humor to blow off conversations about the virus or its impact.

Perfectionism.

This might be the child who falls apart when they can’t figure out how to do an assignment exactly right or who stays up late studying for an exam they are already well prepared for.

These faces of stress make a lot of sense when you consider how the brain responds to anxiety. When we encounter danger, our entire brain responds by shutting down from the “top down.” In other words, the stress response system can hijack the “thinking brain” and put our feelings in charge instead.

Comforting a porcupine

Rather than evoking empathy in adults, many children’s behavior acts more like quills or barbs, repelling adults away. It is easy to misinterpret the stressed porcupine as a child with a “bad attitude,” “lazy,” or even “combative.” We can also make things worse by greeting these behaviors with punishment or shame. Not surprisingly, this only escalates the stress levels and doesn’t help kids re-engage their thinking brain for emotional regulation and problem solving.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes when children are under stress. Indeed, children and teens alike are comforted by structure and warm limits, especially during times of great uncertainty. But all children, especially our porcupines, need our understanding and our emotion coaching as they navigate this difficult time.

What can we do?

Calm.

When we respond to our kids’ big feelings with our own, the result is escalation. Getting to calm helps our children relax and means that both of us can access our thinking brains for problem solving.

Getting to calm strategies include:

  • Take a break.
  • Count, drink some water, pet a dog or cat , hand massage.
  • “I need space.” Or, “Let’s talk about this when we are both calm.”
  • Move.
  • Be gentle with yourself.
  • ____________ [fill in your own here]

Connect.

Connection is the primary way that our children regulate stress and get to calm. When our kids throw barbs at us it is tempting to respond in kind. Instead, it is an important time to communicate that, “our relationship can handle your big feelings.” We need to remember that, “Not all behaviors are okay but all feelings are okay.”

Responses for connecting:

  • “This is hard, isn’t it?”
  • “I am right here when you are ready to talk.”
  • “I know this isn’t easy and I know you can do this.”
  • “Let’s sit together until your body is calm.”
  • __________________

Coach.

Once we have calmed down and are connecting (rather than distancing), then we can help our kids’ to name and regulate emotions and practice different behaviors. This might involve enforcing a consequence but should also involve communication, coaching, and problem solving.

Coaching strategies:

  • “You seemed really angry at me, is that right?”
  • “Next time, you can say “I am so mad at you!”
  • “What do I need to know about what just happened?”
  • “What can you do next to make this right?”
  • ___________________

The reality is that living through this pandemic is hard for everyone – adults and kids alike. We’re going to have good and bad days. Learning about the faces of stress doesn’t mean that we will never be triggered or avoid turning into porcupines ourselves. When we do, this isn’t the time for extra parental guilt or shame. It’s an opportunity to model what repair looks like. “I’m sorry. I know I hurt your feelings. What can I do to make it better?” It is the time to get extra support if we need it and to model that even when we are stressed, we keep finding ways back towards each other.