Children wear and label their stress differently than adults. The normally polite child turns into a monster. An energy-charged child turns lethargic. Eating or sleeping patterns change. Complaints about headaches or stomach aches become common.
When does a parent take out the mental first-aid kit to determine what’s wrong and how to treat the underlying cause of stress or anxiety? How do you keep from using a Band-Aid versus getting at the root of the problem? Moreover, how do you give your kids the lifetime strategies to deal with stress, anxiety and even trauma?
Harris County Department of Education Special Populations Director Darlene Breaux, a former principal, recalls a student named Tom. The autistic student was so traumatized by past taunting and bullying from his former classmates and teachers that he was nonverbal and experienced anxiety from the moment his mother drove up to his new school.
“He needed to feel safe, and we needed to be transparent in everything we did to build that trust,” she said. “We had a plan and put a loving, structured, transparent environment into place. He opened up and flourished. For me as a principal, that was the most rewarding experience.”
The next three years, Tom gained the confidence to deliver the announcements each morning for his classmates. Although Tom’s story is unique and extreme, he learned to overcome his anxiety.
“As adults we all learn to develop resilience, and we can help our children develop it as well,” said Harris County Department of Education Assistant Superintendent of Education and Enrichment Dr. Kimberly McLeod, mother to three boys under age 13.
“Involving your children with helping others is a good strategy for empowering them,” said McLeod.
Organizations like the Boy Scouts or youth church groups offer opportunities to lend a hand, she said. Helping others through volunteering helps develop socialization skills as well.
Webster defines resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” The American Psychological Association lists volunteering as one of “10 Tips for Building Resilience in Children/Teens:”
- Make Connections: Teach your child how to make friends, including the skill of empathy, or feeling another’s pain.
- Help your child by having him or her help others: Children who may feel helpless can be empowered by helping others.
- Maintain a daily routine: Sticking to a routine can be comforting to children, especially younger children who crave structure in their lives.
- Take a break: While it is important to stick to routines, endlessly worrying can be counter-productive. Teach your child how to focus on something besides what’s worrying him.
- Teach your child self-care: Make yourself a good example and teach your child the importance of making time to eat properly, exercise and rest.
- Move toward your goals: Teach your child to set reasonable goals and then to move toward them one step at a time.
- Nurture a positive self-view: Help your child remember ways that he or she has successfully handled hardships in the past and then help him understand that these past challenges help him build the strength to handle future challenges.
- Keep things in perspective and maintain a hopeful outlook: Even when your child is facing very painful events, help him look at the situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective.
- Look for opportunities for self-discovery: Tough times are often the times when children learn the most about themselves.
- Accept that change is part of living: Change often can be scary for children and teens. Help your child see that change is part of life and new goals can replace goals that have become unattainable.
While learning to cope with stress is important, there are times when a professional needs to be enlisted. Feelings of hopelessness, rage, withdrawal and threat to harm yourself or others are often signs of suicide and cannot and should not be ignored.
“Overwhelming stress takes its toll,” said McLeod. “Each and every one of us needs help from time to time, and mental health professionals help with strategies to deal with problems while also being mindful of overlying mental illness issues.”
Resources to help with mental first aid:
American Psychological Association (resilience)
American Association of Suicidology (understanding and helping)
The JED Foundation (parent resources)