How to Keep Children’s Stress From Turning Into Trauma

Children may be processing the disruptions in their lives right now in ways the adults around them do not expect: acting out, regressing, retreating or even seeming surprisingly content. Parents need to know that all of this is normal, experts say, and there are some things we can do to help.

But in some cases, exposure to stressful events — which right now might include the absence of routines, a parent’s job loss and economic hardship, or the serious illness or death of someone a child cares about — can leave children feeling traumatized.

Dr. Burke Harris said the Covid-19 pandemic is a “perfect storm” for this stress to negatively impact children’s mental and physical health and behavior. But at a time when there are so many unknowns, tools are available to help mitigate the harms that children experience. Instead of fearing stress, she said, we need to tune in to our kids, assess their needs and help them turn stressful situations into opportunities for growth.

Here are some ways that parents can help kids work through stress without it becoming toxic to their emotional and physical well-being.

For some children, temper tantrums and bed-wetting — stages they had seemed to outgrow months or years ago — might be the only sign that they are facing an internal struggle.

If you are not sure whether the stress response you’re seeing is normal, you may want to seek counseling for your child. Often, your child’s regular health care provider can point you toward mental health resources that may be accessed through telemedicine while you are under stay-at-home orders.

While many kids are experiencing a stressful situation right now, those who have been exposed to other adverse events in childhood are at an increased risk of struggling during and after this crisis.

“An ACE score is not the be-all and end-all,” Dr. Burke Harris said. Instead, she compares it to a thermometer. You can be sick and not have a fever. But if you have a fever, it is an indicator to everyone that you are sick, and that we need to pay close attention.

Yo Jackson, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University, who also serves as the associate director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, stressed that it would be overly simplistic to say that children from homes with greater risk factors are suffering more right now. “Dose matters,” she said, “but it is much more nuanced than that. We can’t just ‘check the boxes’ to decide how Covid-19 will affect a particular child.”

Dr. Burke Harris agreed. “The same stressor won’t elicit the same response in everyone,” she said. Kids who were not at risk before Covid-19 may face new risks because the safety nets parents relied on in the past have disappeared, and those who relied on support networks in the past may be overwhelmed with the lack of resources currently available.

Adults must recognize that for some kids, the newfound solitude brought on by Covid-19 feels like a gift. While we may be struggling with schools being closed, kids could be rejoicing in it. We might assume our kids miss their friends, but they may appreciate having more time with us. And some who were dealing with bullying or social challenges at school may be relieved not to have to see other kids.

When we think of adversity in childhood, the key, Dr. Burke Harris said, is to think about what kids can do, and what we are able to offer, in the face of that stress.

Dr. Burke Harris also encourages parents to keep kids connected with friends and family, which can be done through video chats, phone calls and letter writing. Lastly, she recommends families create and stick to a routine that gives kids structure, making time for play, hygiene and when able to be done safely, physical activity.

Some children will struggle more than others during the pandemic, and these kids may need even greater support in the months to come.

“As difficult as it is to see children in distress, we want to interact with them from a place of support,” Ms. Edwards said. These moments are opportunities for connection, and we can help kids grow by helping them learn how to process their strong feelings and reminding them that they are not alone.

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