How to help your kids cope with stress and adjust to the New Normal
Stuck at home for months, their routines disrupted, and missing their friends, kids can also buckle under many changes. Spot the signs of stress and know what to do to help kids cope.
My three sons celebrated the announcement of quarantine. It meant school was out and summer came early. It meant no more early mornings to beat rush hour and no more long afternoons doing homework. While their father and I worried about keeping our family safe during the new normal, our boys worried about whose turn it was to play Minecraft.
As the current situation dragged on, however, my sons began to complain that summer was wasted indoors. It was a beautiful summer, too. With no traffic-caused smog, the bluest sky they’ve ever seen called for play, but in our condo complex, the rules were strict: High-risk individuals and minors were not allowed to step outside at all.
It felt cruel, and though they didn’t know that word, my sons began to act like they did. They bickered constantly. The littlest thing could set off my eldest. My middle son stayed up way past his bedtime. My youngest kept eating, asking for food all the time even after we just finished a meal. “They can’t use up all that energy since they can’t go out and play,” I told myself.
I wasn’t sure but it looked like my kids were stressed out. Though they were safe and sound, and our home was filled with many things to distract them from the crisis outside our door, they were still acting strange. So I asked Fiona Gorospe-Sandoval, MA, RPsy, a child psychologist at the ALRES early intervention therapy center in Quezon City, to talk about child stress and how we parents can help our kids cope.
SIGNS OF STRESS
All children will encounter stressful events: going to a new school, losing a pet, moving to a new house, fighting with their friends. Most children will experience mild stress symptoms in response. There will be days they’d mope, they’d have no appetite, or they’d be easily annoyed. This is normal and, with strong emotional support from their family, the kids adjust. However, some children may find it difficult to adjust to drastic changes. The new normal is definitely a profound event and our kids need more help to cope with the stress.
“Anything that is out of their usual behavior can be a sign of stress,” Sandoval said. As parents, we know our kids. If the normally makulit child is now listless, if the matakaw child isn’t eating, if the quiet child is now yelling at everyone, we know something’s wrong. Sandoval says to watch out for these signs:
Lack of interest in play
Kids are naturally playful—and play can be boisterous activities with a group, imaginative play with their toys, immersing themselves in hobbies like crafts, music, and videogames. When kids disengage from play, this is a sign they are having a hard time coping. Sandoval says, “When a kid cannot do this major preoccupation, there must be great trauma or abuse experienced for them not to be able to play.”
Changes in sleep patterns
When your child starts having difficulty falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night, this may mean they’re feeling anxiety. This can also manifest as more sleep - sleeping in or napping frequently so much so that they miss meals or activities they consider fun. Some kids who have been toilet-trained may start bedwetting.
Changes or pain in their body
Stress triggers muscle spasms. This can manifest as eyelid twitches, headaches, a bad tummy, or leg pain.
As parents, we know our children so we should notice when they’re not being their usual self. However, be alert for behavioral changes like prolonged sadness and clinginess and an increase in irritability and aggression.
Lack of appetite
Stress can manifest either as a loss of appetite or increased appetite. Again, your knowledge of your child will inform you which one is unusual. Some children say they’re not hungry at every meal and not even their favorite food can tempt them to take a bite. Others, meanwhile, may eat more than usual and look for food all the time, even between meals.
TIPS TO HELP YOUR CHILD DEAL WITH STRESS
When we parents recognize the signs of stress or anxiety in our children, it’s important that we give them the support and guidance they need to manage their emotions. Sandoval suggests ways on how we can help our child cope:
Assure them that they are safe.
“First and foremost, children must be given reassurance that they are safe. We don’t have to give them a false sense of security, but parents should be careful with what their kids can take emotionally and psychologically. Though we should be honest with our children about safety, there is no benefit in talking about deaths and doom day in and day out.
“We can let them appreciate that this is a difficult time for all of us and that everyone is trying to adjust. The important thing is that mommy and daddy will do everything they can to protect them so that together, they will cope with this as best they could.”
Accept their emotions as valid.
“I’d like to advocate for the child to be allowed to express what he/she truly feels. More often than not, we grow up being restrained to feel sad (‘Stop crying, mga lalaki hindi dapat umiyak’), to feel anger (‘Don’t get mad, masama magalit’) or to feel scared (‘Huwag kang duwag!’). It’s like the only positive and acceptable emotion is happiness.
“As a groundbreaking animated film emphasizes, every emotion is important. Every emotion has a reason. We respond to circumstances with the ‘correct’ feeling in order to be mentally well. Acknowledge these unpopular feelings as appropriate. Who would be happy not to be able to see and hug friends, or spending playdates during the summer, having grand reunions with relatives?"
Look forward to the future.
“Sometimes we will have bad days, but we must always follow this up with hope and transcendence. The worst that could happen is that they think that only bad things continue to happen, that there is no hope or light at the end of the tunnel. And usually, that’s what makes them feel there is no future, and nothing to look forward to anymore.
Parents should be honest but reassuring to their kids - present the reality, but end it with a statement of hope for the future (and it wouldn't hurt to follow this with a comforting hug and kiss).
Play with them.
“In our practice, play is the panacea for all types of stress and amazingly, kids have the natural tendency to revert to play in order to cope with anything. When they are missing their loved ones (kids with OFW parents), they play. When they are bullied, they play. When they feel sadness and grief or experience great loss (like typhoon and natural-disaster victims), they play. And play isn't only pretend play, with toys, but also includes art, music, and multiple media like sand and clay.”
WHAT PARENTS MUST REMEMBER
Sandoval points out the importance of managing our own stress before we can deal with our kid’s emotional struggles. Many times, we are so focused on our own problems that (1) our stress affects everyone in the family, and (2) we can’t recognize the needs of our children.
“We as parents should always look first inside of ourselves, how we truly feel during this time, or any difficult time we undergo—loss of a loved one (death or separation), illness, or financial difficulties,” Sandoval says. “If we are anxious and stressed, it can and will affect our children because they can sense our true feelings no matter how we keep up a strong front.”
When we are going through a difficult time, it is normal for us to feel grief, fear, and even anger. However, our children should not be the receptacles of our frustration and helplessness with our circumstances. Sandoval says, “It is unfair for parents to lash out and punish their kids for a small thing they did just because parents are mad at something at work or because parents aren’t able to manage their own anxieties during this time.”
We can manage our stress by looking for a new hobby that involves our hands, like knitting, painting, or gardening, so our anxiety has an outlet. We can also control what our minds absorb so managing our social media use is a good idea. Sandoval suggests mindful meditation. “Although it may be difficult to practice at first amidst the daily clutter we experience, mindful meditation may help quiet our minds and inner turmoil. It can help us manage the overwhelming toxicities we encounter externally.”
Another thing we parents forget to do is just to ask our children how they are. “What we may also overlook is to ask them directly if they are okay,” Sandoval emphasizes. “I always tell parents to ask their kids this on a daily basis: 'How are you today?', 'Is there anything you would like to talk about?', 'I’m here to listen.' Even if their response is rejection or a flat no, they should always feel and hear that there are people who unconditionally love and care for them, and that they matter.”
*If your child is manifesting aggravated stress symptoms, please seek the advice of professionals. Sandoval suggests your child’s pediatrician who can then assess the situation and refer you to psychologists or therapists.
About The Writer
FRANCES AMPER SALES
Frances Amper Sales is a writer for beauty, lifestyle, and parenting publications. She was the happy editor-in-chief of entertainment title, OK! Philippines, until she made the happier decision to work from home and raise her three sons with her husband, a novelist and editor. While Frances has always enjoyed her career, it was only when she began writing her parenting adventures on her blog, www.topazhorizon.com, that she felt that her writing mattered as thousands of fellow moms and working women shared how her candid and honest stories inspired them to embrace motherhood without pressure and guilt, just love.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and does not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.