PANHANDLE PERSPECTIVES: Stress and young children

Jackie Guzman, Extension Educator Scotts Bluff County

How are your children doing?

In recent months our state has experienced several natural disasters with flooding, storms causing hail damage to property and crops, and most recently the collapse of a tunnel in the irrigation canal serving Wyoming and Nebraska farmers impacting thousands of acres of farm land. Anyone who was not directly impacted by a disaster this year probably knows someone who has, teaching us that we are not immune to such events.

These events can cause heightened anxiety and stress in adults. So what are the implications for children?

Whether adults were directly impacted or not, it is most likely that their children may have heard a conversation among adults, other children or have seen news reports. Just because children seem okay doesn’t always mean that they are okay. They may be experiencing stress and anxiety that adults are not aware of. Fear and anxiety can lead to behaviors in children that adults don’t understand and they can’t always verbalize.

Trauma and chronic stress can impact the health and well-being of even youngest family members.

Heightened emotions can manifest in many different types of behaviors, depending upon the child’s age; even infants can sense their mother’s anxiety.

When fears arise, behaviors that can be observed include difficulty sleeping or eating, headaches, stomach aches, and children may even express that they are worried, sad, scared or even express anger.

Yes, these behaviors can be typical for children at any time. However, if the behavior is persistent or increases, take a closer look at what may be causing it.

During difficult times children need extra hugs and reassurance that they are safe and that all the adults that care for them are there to keep them safe and love them. You might even want to point out to them all the ways you and others keep them safe. For very young children the conversation may begin with talking about feelings, giving them a name, and how to appropriately express emotions.

It is important to maintain normal routines. Children thrive on routines because they know what to expect. If your family is directly impacted by a disaster, this will give your child a break away from the event that may be causing them stress. 

As everyone is getting back to school routines, this may be a good time to check-in with children.  This could be a discussion starter during family meals or family time together. (One side note: If your child is not aware or you prefer they don’t know about these events, don’t feel like this is the time to inform them.)

Letting children know they can talk with you is the best way to help them address fears. If they initiate the conversation this can be a “teachable” moment. If they hear something that scares them, find out what they know and what it is that they find frightening. Sometimes what they envision is very different from the reality.

Be prepared with the facts; use age-appropriate language; and be mindful of how much information the child really needs. Some children just need reassurance that they are safe, while others may want to know how and what you are doing to keep them safe or what they can do to be safe.

During a discussion about fears may be an appropriate time to talk about what the family can do to lessen fears. Activities that help reduce stress can benefit the entire family, especially when the entire family participates in them. Taking 10 to 15 minutes every day to play and interact with your child gives everyone an opportunity to destress, spend quality time together, and have quality conversations.

 Most importantly, in an age of overstressed adults, you are modeling for your child how to reduce stress and you are engaging in an activity together that benefits the entire family.

One way to help children feel safe is to develop safety plans or revisit them if they are already in place, so that all members of the family know what to do in the event of an emergency before it happens.  Some families emergency safety plans for fire, weather, or other emergencies. There are a variety of templates that parents can access online.

Take the time to point out the good things that happen.  Even at the worst moments there is always some good that happens. Mister Rogers suggested that we help children “Look for the helpers.” This is a good time to point out all the helpers that help the community stay safe, like police officers, doctors, firefighters, volunteers, extended family, and neighbors.

Consider asking how your family can help other families experiencing a disaster or crisis. Seek an opportunity to give. There are a number of ways: saving or collecting coins as a family to donate during times of crisis; helping elders; donating food or clothes; making a meal for another family experiencing difficult times; or donating time and talent as a family in times of need.

Children are resilient; they can get back to feeling good about a bad event with the help of kind and caring adults to guide them. They learn about life, and that sometimes things can get really bad and sometimes some good can come out of a trauma or disaster; that together as a family and community we can learn from and overcome these difficult life events.

Here are some books to read with your child:

  •       Janice Dean, a meteorologist, has written several books about the weather for children.
  •       “On Monday When It Rained” by Cherryl Kachenmeister
  •       “Glad Monster, Sad Monster,” a book about feelings by Ed Emberley and Anne Miranda
  •       “Wimberly Worried” by Kevin Henkes

Also, check out the Nebraska Extension Learning Child website, which specifically addressing natural disasters, flooding, and family stress resources: