Today’s guest post is from Chynna Laird, author of White Elephants, her memoir published by Eagle Wings Press. You can also find her at White Elephants: A Blog About Bipolar and Mood Disorders, Mental Illness and Survival. As part of her virtual book tour with WOW – Women on Writing, I’ve asked her to share with you her experiences with helping kids deal with stress and anxiety
Teaching young people how to cope with stress
Stress is an ugly thing. We all know it can literally eat you alive if you let it. Adult have access to a plethora of resources to help manage stress ranging from natural to medicinal, but what about our young people? What’s available to them?
When I was younger, I not only had to deal with a parent who had tremendous mental health issues, but she wasn’t getting treatment for it. She chose more maladaptive ways of coping with her bipolar (drinking and prescription and over-the-counter drugs). Life in our house was often scary and always unpredictable. Even on “good” days I wasn’t sure if I would come home to a happy mom, an out-of-control mom, or if she’d even be there. I also had a younger brother I felt I had to protect and take care of. And on top of all of that, I had regular kid stuff to worry about at school. I was a ball of anxiety and very unhealthy.
The worst part in our situation was that we had people who had an idea what was going on but that wouldn’t take us completely out of the situation. I guess others felt that, somehow, my brother and I would give our mother the strength to ‘snap out of it’. Obviously that didn’t happen.
When a child grows up in a chaotic, unpredictable environment like that, it incredibly stressful and unhealthy. Oftentimes these kids aren’t sleeping properly, unable to concentrate, most likely have digestive and other health issues and anxious. The probably have tremendous trust issues and aren’t able to communicate effectively. The most important fact people should understand is that despite anything these kids are going through, there is an unspoken loyalty, or fear of ‘ratting someone out’ that often interferes with them talking to adults even if they have the words.
If things are bad enough, children should really be removed from such an environment into the arms of another loving family member or nurturing person(s) until things are better, if possible. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen soon enough, if at all as in my case. Regardless, we need to help these children learn effective coping mechanisms so they can be brought back to a healthy place. A child who never learns to cope with his stress properly will grow into a very anxious adult.
As someone who deals with anxiety on a daily basis, and who has two children with sensory issues that cause severe anxiety, I have learned a lot about helping kids with anxiety and stress. Here are a few things you can try:
Use your words. This is a tough one to teach but so important. Often kids act out their anxiety or stress, usually on someone closest to them. Children must learn they need to use words, not actions, to communicate their stressor (what’s causing the stress) so that they can figure out what they need to reduce or eliminate the stress.
Name that feeling. No matter how old a child is she needs to learn to attach a label to a feeling. Oftentimes, it’s how the feelings/emotions make their bodies feel that causes the stress or anxiety, not the stressor alone. So if you teach the child to name that feeling (eg: “I feel angry.” “I feel disappointed.” “I feel jealous,” etc.), it won’t get as big and neither will the reaction.
Recognize how the feeling/stressor affects the body. Once the words are there and the feeling is labeled, the child can learn to understand how those feelings affect their bodies. “When I feel mad, my stomach hurts.” What’s happening is the child is learning to become tuned into how their bodies react to stress. Once that recognition is there, they’re more receptive to what they need to do to calm down.
Match the coping strategy to the reaction. This step can take a bit of trial and error but, eventually, the child will learn to figure out what to reach for in a given situation. Bear in mind that each child is different and so the tools/strategies used will also be different. My oldest daughter, for example, needs a tremendous amount of weight to feel calm while my son needs to hide away for a bit. Whether the need to be wrapped in a big, heavy blanket or rocked and sung to or go out an punch a boxing bag, teach them to learn: “When I feel ________ and that makes me __________, I need to ____________ to feel better.” Once a child can get to that point, they’re on their way.
I’m not saying the process is going to be an easy one, especially for children who have lived in extraordinary circumstances. For children who have been abused, neglected or who have had to deal with other trauma, there will be a trust factor that will need to be established as well. But having a genuinely loving, caring adult around who keeps trying will eventually break down the tough exterior these kids build up. Trust me, I’ve been there.
The other things I can add to what I’ve suggested above are educating yourself on what the child is going through. Understand his or her situation in general as well as their specific experiences, because it will be different in each case. And remember they are a child first who just happens to be going through a rough time.
The end result will be that you’re helping these kids define their own path rather than being defined by their situation or traumatic experience. And that’s one of the best gifts you can give them.