As the United States enters the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, children are facing additional stress and many new routines. Managing the stress and anxiety of so much change looks different for each child within each family. Hayley Willetts, a behavioral health expert with HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals, emphasizes the importance of making sure children are appropriately handling stress. “Kids may not be capable of expressing their feelings or knowing the right words to describe how they’re feeling, so it’s really important to get to their level and ask questions they will know how to answer,” she says. Examples of those questions include, “Tell me what was good and what was bad about your day today,” and “What kinds of things are you worried about right now?”
The American Psychological Association offers the following tips to recognize if children may be experiencing stress or anxiety:
- Withdrawal from things the child usually enjoys.
- Trouble falling or staying asleep.
- Unexpected abdominal pain or headaches.
- Extreme mood swings.
- Development of a nervous habit, such as nail-biting.
Parents can actively help kids and adolescents manage stress by:
- Start the conversation to let kids know you care about what’s happening in their lives.
- Notice times when kids are most likely to talk – for example, in the car or before bed.
- Stop what you’re doing and listen carefully when a child begins to open up about their feelings or thoughts.
- Let kids complete their point before you respond.
- Listen to their point of view even if it’s difficult to hear.
- Resist arguing about who is right. Instead say, “I know you disagree with me, but this is what I think.”
- Express your opinion without minimizing theirs – acknowledge that it’s healthy to disagree sometimes.
- Focus on kids’ feelings rather than your own during conversation.
- Soften strong reactions, as kids will tune you out if you appear angry, defensive or judgmental.
- Say “and” instead of “but.”
- Say “could” instead of “should.”
- Say “aren’t going to” instead of “can’t.”
- Say “sometimes” instead of “never” or “always.”
- Model the behavior you want children to follow in how they manage anger, solve problems, and work through difficult feelings. Kids learn by watching their parents.
- Don’t feel you have to step in each time kids make what you may consider a bad decision, unless the consequences may be dangerous. Kids learn from making their own choices.
- Pay attention to how children play, the words they use or the activities they engage in. Young children may express their feelings of stress during play time when they feel free to be themselves.