Helping Kids Cope: Guiding Children Through Trauma and AnxietyAug 31, 2023 ● By Carrie Jackson
Children today are facing ever-increasing amounts of stress and anxiety. In addition to academic pressure, bullying and family dynamics, kids are worried about navigating social media, climate change and school shootings. While a certain amount of stress is normal and healthy, too much can cause debilitating physical, emotional and cognitive effects.
A 2010 study published by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, at Harvard University, reports that persistent fear and chronic anxiety can have lifelong consequences by disrupting the developing architecture of the brain. Parents can help anxious kids by modeling stress-management and problem-solving techniques, and inviting their children to talk about their feelings.
Acknowledging and Coping With Fear
While each child’s anxiety is unique, the themes are often universal. “Children fear not being liked, being made fun of, failing when they try new things, getting hurt, losing a loved one, being left out and not fitting in. If this list seems familiar, it’s because they are all the same fears adults have too,” says Michelle Nelson-Schmidt, an author and illustrator of 32 children’s books, including What If I Know My Feelings? and The Whatif Monster series. “It is debilitating when we don’t talk about our fears and anxieties. Children often don’t have the vocabulary to verbalize their fears, so they bottle it up, letting fears get bigger and scarier. The earlier they learn that it’s okay to be scared, to talk about their fears and to ask for help, the less power fear and anxiety will have over their brains.”
According to Dr. Carol Penn, author of Meditation in a Time of Madness: A Guidebook for Talented Tweens, Teens, Their Parents & Guardians Who Need to Thrive, “Fear is a natural phenomenon. It’s how we’re hardwired to survive as a species. However, when fear turns into anxiety and the body enters a chronic state of hyper-arousal with raised cortisone levels, it can be debilitating. This shortens attention spans and disrupts the hypothalamic loop, which deals with creating short-term memory, causing kids to lose the ability to engrain long-term learning.”
Penn notes that kids can pick up on their parents’ anxiety, so it is imperative to model self-care and create a soothing home environment. “Children are unsettled when their parents are unsettled. By observing body language and energy, kids can intuitively gauge when something is wrong, and they often make up stories about why,” she explains. “Teaching kids to take regular breaks throughout the day for relaxed awareness encourages them to notice a mind-body connection. Take two minutes before getting out of the car or starting a new activity to pay attention to your breath and observe and label pain or tension in the body. If you are hunching your shoulders or clenching your jaw, make mindful adjustments to reset and settle the body and nervous system.”
Overcoming Anxiety After a Traumatic Event
Last year, Highland Park, Illinois, experienced the improbable yet possible event of a mass shooting during their Fourth of July parade. “While the community worked to rediscover a sense of safety, our school focused on the necessary structures and initiatives to help students heal and rebuild,” says Holly Fleischer, the assistant principal of diversity, equity and inclusion at Highland Park High School. "As we started the school year, we recommitted to a focus on social-emotional learning by teaching strategies to manage emotions, sustain healthy relationships, develop an awareness of self and make healthy decisions. By practicing coping skills with everyday stressors, our students are learning to develop feelings of control, safety and resiliency as they navigate a traumatic experience or event.”
According to Fleischer, “While there is little control of one’s outside world and circumstances, kids can find calm in a storm through strategies like deep breathing, recognizing your five senses, listening to music, reaching out to loved ones, using ice packs for sensory intervention and giving oneself a strong bear hug. Students will get to know which ones work for them. It is also essential to disrupt maladaptive coping mechanisms like avoidance, which do not allow for the practice of these healthier ways of self-management.”
Building Resilience for the Future
“Thoughts are the language of the mind, and feelings are the language of the body,” Penn counsels. “When stress develops, have kids draw three pictures identifying what it looks like for them. The first is a picture of themselves right now; the second is the challenge they’re facing; and the third is how they will feel when the challenge is resolved. This gives children control over their feelings, allowing them to self-soothe and creatively work through challenging situations. When children learn to be adaptable, flexible and imaginative critical thinkers, they can respond to even the darkest days and move forward with grace and hope.”
Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.