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Helping Young Children Cope With Stressful Events

For families experiencing stress following a traumatic event in their community or in the world more broadly, it is important to remember that children’s feelings are rarely mediated by conversation alone. If young children are feeling (or absorbing) stress or uncertainty, we would do well to think and notice what they do with what they’ve heard, as well as think about what we can say.

My kindergartener, for example, recently processed stress in a number of non-verbal ways including needing extra hugs, making art for everyone in his life, and making everyone in our family the kindergarten equivalent of a worry-stone (a malformed ball of half dry clay).

Parent helping child deal with stressful event by rubbing their hands.

Here are some ideas for helping children cope with stressful events that go beyond words:

Let them lead the conversation

Constantly reassuring children that “things will be okay” often inadvertently alarms them (and for many families isn’t always a realistic reassurance). Resist over-offering verbal reassurance and over-talking in general. Answer questions but also look for non-verbal signs that your child may be anxious. This might include being scared to go to daycare or school, extra weepy, clingy, or irritable. They might seem completely fine – and that is normal too.

Reduce background media

No matter what channel you are tuned in to, media coverage of the issues confronting our country is dominating every newsfeed. If you think children aren’t watching, you are probably wrong. Being mindful and purposeful about media consumption is a simple way to ensure that children have the time and space they need to focus and get to calm.

Go outside

The natural world is a powerful antidote to stress and anxiety. This doesn’t mean that you need to plan expeditions to remote wilderness areas. Finding green space close to your home helps mediate stress. Encourage your child to lay down in the grass. Look up at the sky. Find some water and throw rocks. Play in the sand and the dirt. Find the moon.

Let them play

Children work to solve social problems through play. While getting over-involved and directing play can undermine its value, that doesn’t mean that we can’t support and help sustain play. Feel free to observe, take your child’s lead, and add to the complexity by asking supporting questions. These “play scripts” can offer you a really interesting window into how your child is processing events or feelings that they may not have many words for.

Connect, connect, connect

Be willing to read a couple of extra books, offer hugs, rough house, snuggle, and find as many ways as you can to connect. Spending time laughing, reading, dancing, and throwing leaves together is a very effective way to communicate a sense of security.

Listen

Rather than doing all of the talking, be sure to listen to what your child says about school, including what is happening on the playground or on the bus. If you hear about teasing, cruelty, or meanness be sure to follow up and get involved.

Be prepared for things to come out sideways

Lead with connection when it comes to discipline and behavior. This doesn’t mean that there are no rules and limits (indeed, consistency helps children feel secure), but anxiety comes out sideways and backwards for all of us, especially for children. Many parents are surprised when their child responds with a happy “Yes!” to the question “Are you okay?” only to melt down in a fit of uncharacteristic rage over an imperfect play-dough project ten minutes later (hint, it’s not about the play dough). Be patient with your child and with yourself. Make sure to prioritize connection in these moments.

Helping helps

As Fred Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Writing a letter to the president, sending art or notes to family and friends, helping at school, or attending community events and actions are all fair game.

Check out our age-by-age tips for helping children and teens in the aftermath of mass shootings for more specific ideas related to those events.