Life is stressful. That’s a fact. To grow and learn we must try new things. Struggling, prevailing, and tolerating failures along the way builds confidence and the deep feeling in a child that “I can do it.” But the positive aspects of struggle and stress are lost when the amount of stress becomes too great and/or sustained.
Persistent and long-lasting stress on the mind and body caused by overwhelming emotions leads to traumatic stress, a condition characterized by a nervous system in overdrive. The brain’s emotional centers lock into a state of DANGER and the body operates in fight, flight, and freeze modes.
Traumatic stress feels awful. The body tenses and succumbs to many other physiological changes leading to digestive problems and headaches, for example. Furthermore, children overwhelmed by emotions can’t engage positively in learning, as curiosity in the outside world is a byproduct of a calm nervous system, not one that’s in a state of high alert.
Imagine for a moment what it feels like when you are terrified. Do you feel well? Do you feel like learning, engaging in life, socializing with others? No! When children and adults alike are terrified, we want to run away, hide, and find safety again as soon as possible so we feel better. When we are scared, we feel vulnerable and insecure. After a while, we feel hopeless, numb and even dead inside. Depression, chronic anxiety, substance abuse, isolation, and aggression, are all symptoms of traumatic stress.
So, what can be done to help a child experiencing traumatic stress? Help them to feel calmer. Here are 7 ways:
1. Be with them — connection is soothing.
John Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory, taught us that children need to feel safe and secure to thrive. It may seem elementary, but the first aspect of creating safety for a child is being there so a connection can be established.
A child with traumatic stress is scared (even if they don’t appear so on the outside, like how a bully or aggressive child may present). Simply having someone in the room can be a comfort even when there is push-back from the child. Being alone heightens fear.
2. Be gentle so as not to inadvertently startle or jar a child.
A child suffering traumatic stress is fragile and prickly, a byproduct of a hyper-aroused nervous system. We live in a very left-brain dominant culture where we don’t talk nearly enough about emotional safety conveyed through right brain communications. Right-brained communications are the non-verbal cues we unconsciously pick up from one another. Right-brain communications include tone of voice, eye contact, and body language.
Adults should strive to speak in a gentle, calm voice with soft eyes and slow movements to avoid jarring or startling a child. Just think about how you like to be approached when you are upset.
3. Play fosters safe positive connection, and positive connection is calming.
Play feels good and healthy for all people no matter what age. According to Polyvagal theory, play stimulates the social engagement system of the vagus nerve, the body’s largest nerve, and therefore relaxes the nervous system.
Play helps a child feel better and calm down. But play involves so much more than a game. It involves a connection, smiling, speaking with a cheery and playful tone of voice, and movement. All of those actions calm a child.
It may seem counter-intuitive to initiate play with a child under stress, but if they are receptive, it gives the nervous system a chance to calm down. Even if for a little while, a moment of playfulness is good.
4. Help a child name their feelings.
Putting language on emotions helps calm down the nervous system. We can use stories, our own personal stories or ones we create, to help a child put language on their emotions. For example, a mother could share with her traumatized child, “When I was little, my mother went away for a long time. She was sick, so she had to go to where doctors could help her. Even though I understood why she went away, I was still so sad and scared. And, sometimes I even felt angry at her for not being there for me. All those feelings are so natural.”
There are many ways to help children put language on their feelings. You can show them drawings of little faces with many feelings and they can point to the ones they relate to. You can help a child name their feelings with games, drawings, and puppets.
5. Help a child express their feelings.
Emotions contain impulses that generate biological energy. This energy needs to be expressed so it doesn’t get pent-up inside. For example, if a child is in danger, their brain will trigger fear. Fear sends signals throughout the body, setting off impulses to run. But if a child is in a situation where they cannot run to safety, like being restrained by Mexican border patrolmen, all that energy gets trapped in the body and leads to symptoms of traumatic stress.
Helping a child express their emotions can be done in a variety of creative ways, such as the through art, play, stories, fantasy, puppets, or by helping the child verbally or physically express themselves. You should feel free to experiment and take your cues from the child for what works best. Cues to look for that indicate you are helping a child are expressions of relief, happiness, calm, and a desire to play and connect more. If an intervention is not helping, you’ll see a child’s face and body demonstrate more tension, sadness, anger, rigidity, and withdrawal.
6. When a child accepts it, give hugs and other physical affection.
Holding, rocking, stroking, hugging, and swaddling can help soothe a stressed nervous system. Again, take your cues from the child. If they don’t like something, don’t do it. You can tell by the way the child looks and reacts if they are responding positively or negatively. If they stiffen, it’s a protest. If they relax and soften, that’s a green light.
7. Reassure a child and help them make sense of what’s happening.
A little reassurance goes a long way. Be explicit! Say things like, “You will be ok,” “This feeling is temporary,” “You are not alone,” “It’s not your fault,” and, “You don’t deserve this.”
Don’t lie to a child. Do look for truthful ways you can reassure them that they are safe now and will not be alone. Explain what has happened and what is currently happening. For example, in the case of parental separation, “Mommy and daddy are safe and soon you will see them again. Until then, we’ll be together every day and I’ll take care of you.” Reassuring a child that they didn’t do anything bad and that they matter helps because children internalize shame, a sense that they are bad or unworthy when they feel bad.
Humans are wired for connection and thrive in conditions of safety and security. When safety and security is compromised, we must do everything we can to restore a child’s sense of safety and security as fast as possible. There are many educational resources available to adults, like the Change Triangle, that teach how to minimize stress and foster recovery in children. The cost to our society is great when our children suffer.
To learn more about how to understand and safely process your and your children's emotions, pick up a copy of the award-winning self-help book, It's Not Always depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect With Your Authentic Self (Random House and Penguin UK, 2018)