I have to admit I’ve heard some interesting coping strategies from adults over the past week like the liquid Harvey Wallbanger diet, excelling on the Harvey diet plan (stress eating junk food), and totally giving up email for ten days. Adults may eat more, increase alcohol consumption, workout, sleep more, or take medication to help with the stress but sometimes these activities are not available or appropriate for kids – so how do they cope?
First, you might consider what stress reactions look like for children. Emotions may be expressed with whining, demands, and avoidance. Younger kids can regress to behaviors such as bed-wetting, sleeping with parents, and thumb sucking. Self-care can decline, along with disinterest in previously enjoyable activities. Another common symptom for both adults and kids is ‘fuzzy brain’ – as in it’s hard to pay attention, recall information, and make decisions.
The following is a quick list of suggestions to help:
1. Children may feel out of control so institute some predictable routines like standard bed times, self-care expectations, and eating times.
2. Reestablish safety. Discuss what you will have control over in the coming hours like what you wear, eat, and will do.
3. If they repeat questions you have already answered then ask them to answer their own questions. This gives them the message that they actually do have answers.
4. Reduce exposure to the trauma. Turn off the news and avoid talking about your adult concerns in front of them. Do not use any angry statements about God, the government, or other groups that may impose further fear.
5. For younger children, allow play. Research demonstrates that kids twelve and under can process their thoughts and feelings through creative play. They may reenact the flood, loss of a home, or other frightening images through play.
6. If a child talks about the storm, follow his or her lead. Answer questions that you are asked by the child and answer on the level of the child. Avoid providing extraneous information beyond the question that was asked.
7. Use coping tools that impact the senses. Fuzzy blankets and pets (touch), mashed potatoes (taste – well maybe this is my preference!), lavender rub or soap (smell), listening to calming music (hear), and looking at images like feel good movies (see) can be valuable tools to help.
8. Laugh as much as possible and allow for crying. Research shows that both laughing and crying help us release stress.
9. Adolescents may benefit from taking reparative action. Give them the opportunity to help in your cleanup or that of a stranger. Doing something about it is way more empowering than wallowing in dark thoughts.
You might consider the difference between stress and anxiety. Stress is short term and it’s relieved after the temporary stressor is over. Anxiety lasts over time and if left untreated can manifest into maladaptive coping mechanisms like avoidance, repetitive negative thoughts, helplessness, and addictive behaviors. If you notice ongoing symptoms like nervousness, aggression, nightmares, a change in personality, and/or social problems then it may be time to reach out for counseling to help alleviate the distress and fend off the possibility of a chronic problem.
Humans are resilient. Sometimes we just need to use positive coping skills to help us through rough times. Go play! It’s the doctor’s order.