Supporting Kids Through Stressful Times: 5 Ways to Help

A frustrated young woman with smartphone by the damaged car after a car accident, making a phone call. Copy space.

Emergencies can be especially stressful for children, who may not fully understand the situation or know how to cope with the sudden changes and threats to their safety. As guardians, it’s crucial to know how to alleviate their anxiety and ensure their well-being during such times.

1. Recognizing Stress in Children

In order to help children manage stress, it’s first important to recognize the signs. Children may not always verbalize their anxiety, but it can manifest in various ways, such as changes in behavior, sleep disturbances, regression to earlier developmental stages, or even physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. Staying attuned to these changes is the first step in providing proper support.

Sometimes, stress in children can be overlooked because it may be expressed indirectly. Look for signs like irritability, withdrawal, clinginess, or difficulty concentrating. These behaviors may indicate that a child is struggling with stress and needs attention and care to help them cope with the emergency situation.

2. Establishing a Calm Environment

Creating a sense of safety and calm amidst an emergency is vital for easing a child’s stress. This can mean finding a quiet space away from the chaos, using calming techniques such as deep breathing or visualization, and ensuring that the child feels physically safe. The stability of a tranquil environment can provide a much-needed sense of normalcy.

In addition to physical calmness, maintaining a positive and composed demeanor as an adult can greatly influence a child’s perception of the situation. Children often look to adults for cues on how to react; therefore, displaying a calm and controlled attitude can help minimize their stress.

3. Effective Communication Techniques

Open, honest communication is key when dealing with children in emergencies. Explain the situation in a way that is appropriate for their age and understanding, and reassure them that their feelings are normal and that you are there to protect them. Avoiding overly complex explanations or unnecessary details that could increase anxiety is important.

Encourage children to ask questions and express their concerns. Listen attentively and validate their feelings without dismissing or minimizing their fears. This establishes a trusting relationship where children feel heard and supported, which can alleviate their stress significantly.

4. Maintaining Routines Amid Chaos

Emergencies often disrupt daily life, but maintaining routines as much as possible can provide comfort and a sense of stability for children. Try to keep regular mealtimes, bedtimes, and other daily rituals. This predictability can be a soothing anchor for children in the midst of uncertainty.

If the usual routine is impossible to follow, create a new temporary one. This can help children adjust to the changes and feel more secure. The structure helps them know what to expect next, which can reduce feelings of anxiety and helplessness.

5. The Power of Play and Distractibility

Play is a child’s natural way of processing the world around them, and it can be an effective tool in managing stress. Encourage playtime, even in an emergency, as it can serve as a distraction from the crisis and allow children to express their emotions in a safe and controlled environment.

Creative activities such as drawing, storytelling, or role-playing can also help children work through their feelings and fears. These activities not only provide a mental break from the stress but also give children a way to express and understand their emotions related to the emergency.

6. Encouraging Expression of Feelings

It’s important for children to feel that they can talk about their emotions without judgment. Create opportunities for them to express what they’re feeling, whether it’s through conversation, drawing, or other forms of expression. Acknowledging and naming emotions can help children understand and manage them more effectively.

Encourage children to use ‘I feel’ statements to articulate their emotions. This helps them take ownership of their feelings and communicate them clearly. It also helps adults understand the child’s perspective and provide the appropriate support and reassurance.

7. Fostering a Sense of Control

In emergency situations, children often feel powerless. To counter this, involve them in decision-making processes where appropriate. This could be as simple as letting them choose their own clothing or deciding on a meal. Small choices can make a big difference in how in control they feel.

Another way to foster a sense of control is by giving children age-appropriate responsibilities. This could involve helping to pack an emergency bag or taking care of a pet. Such tasks can help them feel like they are contributing and have an active role in managing the situation.

8. The Role of Physical Comfort

Never underestimate the power of a hug or a comforting touch. Physical comfort can be incredibly reassuring to a child during stressful times. It can provide a sense of security that words alone may not convey.

In addition to hugs, consider other forms of physical comfort like a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, or even a comforting activity like a warm bath. These familiar tactile experiences can help soothe a child’s nerves and offer them a haven of comfort in the midst of chaos.

9. Nurturing Resilience in Youngsters

Building resilience in children is a long-term process that helps them navigate emergencies and stressful situations more effectively. Encourage problem-solving skills, foster independence, and praise their efforts and successes. This helps them develop a sense of competence and confidence that they can handle challenges.

Share stories of resilience, whether from your own life, their peers, or even characters in books and movies. These narratives can inspire children and give them role models for coping with adversity. Help them see that overcoming obstacles is possible and that they have the inner strength to do so.

10. Seeking Professional Support When Needed

Sometimes, a child’s stress may be too much for them to handle on their own, and professional support may be necessary. Be vigilant for signs that a child is not coping well over time, such as persistent anxiety, depression, or behavioral issues. Seeking help from a mental health professional can be crucial for their recovery.

Professionals such as child psychologists, counselors, or therapists are trained to help children navigate their emotions during and after emergencies. They can provide strategies and interventions tailored to the child’s needs and help them build resilience for the future. Don’t hesitate to reach out for this support if needed.

In the face of emergencies, our priority is to safeguard not only the physical but also the emotional well-being of children. By recognizing their stress and employing these strategies, we can provide the support and care necessary to help kids navigate through crises with resilience and strength.

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.