By Allison Clanton, LCSW
As parents, most of us have the instinct to protect our children from harm, hurt, disappointment, and rejection. We often go to great lengths to guard their hearts, minds, and bodies from things that hurt. However, we are all aware that dangers do not go away, and some degree of pain in life is inevitable. So as much as we desire to ward off every hurt, we should also prepare our kids for the hurt that lies ahead. We can give our kids tools to weather the storms of life well, so they are strengthened by their experiences—even the hard ones.
To best support our kids in learning to cope with fear and danger, it is important to understand a little about how our brains process fear and stress. Our brains develop in-utero from the back to the front. The back part of the brain, or the brain stem, regulates all of our automatic bodily processes (i.e. digestion, breathing, heart rate, and muscular response). The midbrain, or limbic brain, is where our emotions are processed and memories are stored. Our abilities to organize, problem-solve, and communicate all generate from the frontal lobe of the brain. When one of our five senses (in the brain stem) alert us to a potential threat, the midbrain can get flooded with stress hormones and neurotransmitters that quickly cause us to feel fearful or overwhelmed, triggering our fight, flight, or freeze response. Since the brain develops from the back to the front, the midbrain will signal back to the brain stem to cause us to breathe rapidly, tense up, and increase our heartrate. The frontal lobe is completely left out of this sequence of chemical exchanges. Yet, as adults, when we see our children experience fear or stress, many of us try to help by talking to our children. This is often unhelpful or takes longer to help because the child’s frontal lobe is not able to be engaged. When children have experienced a previous trauma, they especially struggle to use the thinking part of the brain (the frontal lobe) when the emotional part of the brain (the midbrain) is getting all of the energy. Thus, our best efforts to help our kids when they are fearful or stressed lie in our ability to soothe them—calming the emotional part of the brain through soothing sensory experience.
As adults, we often soothe our senses periodically throughout each day without even realizing we’re doing it! Actions like sipping coffee each morning, adjusting our music to what mood we’re in, and stealing away to a quiet spot to read are all sensory soothing activities. Children have not yet developed the ability to self-soothe on a regular basis, nor are they able to access the logical, reasoning parts of their brains when they are scared or stressed. To help our children when they are on high alert, we need to be intentional in reading emotional cues that their fear or stress is rising. Here are some activities that you can engage in with your child to help soothe their senses and help them cope in the midst of difficult feelings:
- 7-4-7 Breath: Help your child inhale for 7 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds, and breathe out for 7 seconds. Young children learn this skill well if you hold up a bubble wand as they exhale. If they are able to exhale slowly and steadily, they will be able to produce more bubbles—and more fun makes the activity more desirable and memorable!
- Controlled Breaths: Help your child inhale as deeply as they can, then pause for a second or two. Inhale just a bit more and pause again. Then exhale halfway and pause again. Then exhale completely. This breathing exercise can give your child a sense of control while helping regulate their breathing. More regulation generally equals a greater sense of calm.
- Grounding exercises: Sit with your child with both feet on the floor. Be still and quiet for about 30 seconds. Both of you focus one or two of your 5 senses and notice every detail you can about what those senses are taking in. Tuning out thoughts and focusing on the senses in this way can increase your child’s sense of calm and safety in the present moment.
- Sensory Shift: Helping your child have a dramatically different sensory experience can wake up the thinking part of their brains and help regulate their emotions. Walk them to the freezer, open the door, and let them breathe in the colder air. Have them hold an ice cube for one minute. Take a sip of ice cold water or simply wash their hands in cold water with nice smelling soap.
- Strong and Relaxed: Help your child tense up their feet (curling their toes under the foot tightly) and hold for 10 seconds. Then do the same with their fists and their faces. As they relax each body part after tensing, help them notice the sensation of being more and more relaxed. After practicing a few times, or for older children, you can engage more of the body, working up from the feet toward the face.
Although we cannot protect our child from every potential hurt, we can be proactive in preparing our child for hurt. It’s important to talk about potential hurts—everything from “stranger danger” and germs, to fire safety and tornado preparedness. Here are some considerations for what you can do ahead of time to help your child feel strong and prepared for the storms of life:
- Have a plan: Let your child know the what, when, where, and how you will handle dangers as a family. Help them rehearse actions or language to use in the situation ahead of time.
- Use calming strategies: Proactively rehearse coping skills so that they become familiar to your child and so that your child stays more calm and relaxed navigating everyday life.
- Tell developmentally appropriate truth: When we try to ignore and distract from fears, kids come up with their own explanations and beliefs, which are often inaccurate and promote more fear. Use language they can understand and relate to, and revisit the conversation as your child grows and is able to understand more about the world.
- Use distraction, not avoidance: Acknowledge your child’s feelings and the situation, and then help them turn their attention elsewhere. Ignoring stormy skies until there is a loud clap of thunder makes children more anxious and can trigger distrust of the parent.
It can often be difficult to know what amount of information or what details about a situation are appropriate to share with your child. Remember hard conversations are best had when your child is calm. Sharing developmentally appropriate truth is best done after helping an anxious child with sensory soothing, or proactively before the child has become upset. When it comes to scary or potentially dangerous situations, here are some prompts you can use to help you talk with your child in way that offers reassurance and promotes trust:
- Scary things can happen sometimes, but you will help them
- Give examples of scary things that worked out fine
- People get sick and people work hard to help
- Elementary Age
- Explain the likelihood of tornadoes and the safety plan
- Rehearse and emphasize health protocol
- Express gratitude for the blessings amidst tragedy
- Middle and High School Age
- Help them find reliable news sources to understand what’s happening
- Emphasize the importance of following health and safety protocol
- Acknowledge potential threats realistically, while encouraging trust in God
Sometimes, despite our best efforts as parents and through lots of prayer, our children continue to struggle with anxiety. Especially when children have experienced trauma—a potentially life-threatening event or significant loss or change—they often experience disruptions in their normal functioning. How do you know when your child might need professional therapeutic help? Here are some signs that you need to call your pediatrician or a Child and Family Therapist:
- If your child is:
- Not sleeping through the night or eating consistent meals for 2 or more weeks.
- Having panic attacks
- Behaving in dangerous ways to herself or others
- Expressing thoughts of ending his life
- Unable to enjoy activities
- Unable to focus on learning tasks for 2 or more weeks
- Feeling or acting worse over time
You, as a parent, have tremendous power to help your child cope and heal emotionally through the security of your relationship. It is normal to feel anxious at times and to intentionally turn your attention from the trigger of anxiety. Modeling this for your child and engaging your child in coping together are the most significant ways your child can weather the storms of life. In fact, secure connection with your child and coping support are predictors of future safe behaviors, which is what you wanted for your child in the first place—to be protected.
To inquire about a counseling appointment for your child, click here.