COVID-Related Stress and Anxiety
It can be challenging to help kids feel calm during COVID. The last 6 months have been a stressful time for parents and for kids. As school re-open uncertainty is the only constant, and anxiety-levels have sky-rocketed. Add on to this the slow burn of frustration and stress from the constant changes due to COVID and it’s leaving us all on the edge of losing our cool. So how can you help your kids feel calm and safe in times such as these?
Complex Trauma and the Brain
In my work as a counsellor with children and youth I participated in an amazing training through Complex Trauma Resources for how to help children who have experienced chronic neglect and abuse. This experience has caused their stress response systems to become permanently switched on leading to problems with executive functioning (planning and impulse control). Poor executive functioning leads to behavioural and emotional problems at school and at home further increasing stress on children and care-givers. But what does this have to do with COVID and your child?
Chronic Stress and Emotional Regulation
Have you noticed that you’ve started to feel exhausted or burned out in the last months and weeks? It could be because of your body’s response to COVID-19. The fear and uncertainty caused by COVID has caused a low level and permanent activation or everyone’s stress response. For parents this is problematic because it makes you less patient with your kids in a time when they need you even more. For kids it’s challenging because in order to do well in school and at home they need to feel safe and secure. In order to calm the stress response you must first understand how it works.
When you become stressed the lower part of your brain that manages emotions and survival functions (breathing/heart rate) goes on high alert. Throughout human history this response has enabled us to escape physical danger like fire, and wild animals by turning off our higher brain functions (that deal with logic and reason) and activating the lower brain systems which help us be alert to danger and fight or flee from it.
The stress response is good at keeping us alive, but it’s not at keeping us calm and emotionally regulated. When our stress-response is activated we act in ways that we often regret, sometimes hurting those around us. I know the times when I’ve said or done things I regret is typically when I’m stressed out or tired right after coming home from work. Watch the video below for a simple model for understanding how our brains respond to stress.
Have A Routine
One thing that adds stress to our day is not knowing what to expect. By having predictable routines and rituals you will help your child feel more safe and secure in these uncertain times. Write the schedule on the fridge as a visual cue and include meal times, school schedule and the calming activities you will learn from this article.
Calming the Stress Response
Here are some practical strategies you can use to help your kids feel calm by soothing their stress response. Pick 4 activities from the below list and do them each for 10 minutes. Plan with your child which ones they want to do and put them in the schedule. These are opportunities to connect with your child and help them to de-stress either in the morning or after the day’s events.
If you are calm you will be able to help your child enter that same state. If you are feeling stressed do something to help yourself become calm before engaging with your child. This can be as simple as taking 6 deep breaths. Six seconds in and six seconds out- to ground yourself before engaging with your child.
Calming front he Bottom Up – Sensory Based Activities
When kids are stressed they aren’t always able to “use their words” to regulate their emotions, especially younger boys. You can help them regulate from the bottom of their brain up by engaging in calming sensory activities with them.
- Pass a ball back and forth
- Jump on a trampoline
- Walk, jog or run
- Go for a bike ride
- Rocking in a swing, hammock or chair
- Yoga or stretching
- Wrap your child up in a blanket like a burrito (pressure can be soothing)
- Cover them in a “nest” of blankets and cushions on top
- Run hands through sand or rice in a bucket
- Use a hair brush to brush their skin or on top of their clothing
- Sit side by side on the coach
- Brush your child’s hair
- Give them a back rub or shoulder massage
- Chair Pull: Sit in a chair and pull on the bottom as hard as you can for ten seconds and then relax and stretch/flap your arms, repeat x10 (tensing and releasing muscles creates relaxation in the body)
- Wall Push: Push as hard as you can on the wall for 10 seconds then relax x10.
- Calming music
- White noise – ambient noise sound generator
- While sleeping
- Sound Can Be Especially Helpful During Transitions
- Scents can trigger a sense of calm
- Ask them what they like!
- Scented candles
- Smelly markers
- Bath Bubbles
Calming from the Top Down
Research shows that when we put words to our emotional experience it actually helps calm the emotion. This is because we need to activate the top part of our brain (cortex) for language and this in turn helps regulate the lower part of the brain that controls emotion and the stress response. The Zone of Regulation are commonly used in schools and are a helpful place to start in helping children (and even yourself) recognize where they are at emotionally and communicate that to others.
How To Use the Zones of Regulation
Print out a picture of the zones of regulation and put it on your fridge. Use it as a visual aid to teach your children then zones and how to recognize how they feel in their body when they’re in each one. For example when they’re in the yellow zone they might feel butterflies in their stomach, or fidgety. You probably know the signs and can help point them out.
Periodically check-in with your child with where they are at in the zones and help them find the words to label what is going on internally. Encourage them to let you know if they’re starting to feel yellow or blue and then reward them with a soothing activity together! You can even invite them to point out when you are in different zones which they will find fun, and will help you become more aware of your own emotional state.
What has worked for you in helping your child feel calm during COVID? Feel free to leave a question or comment below.