Members in the Media
From: The New York Times

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.

“Our natural response to scary things is biologically to release stress hormones,” said Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and surgeon general of the state of California, and the author of “The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity.” The release of stress hormones activates our fight or flight response. Our bodies, in responding with the release of stress hormones, are doing exactly what they should be doing.

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.

When we see a child acting in a manner that we think is inappropriate, we need to consider that the child is outside her window of tolerance for stress, explained Corinne Edwards, a therapist in private practice with over 15 years of experience working with children with histories of trauma. “Children’s brains are wired for survival, and given this, it’s important to look at their behaviors from the lens of considering what need the behavior is attempting to meet during this difficult time.”

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.

“Reactions that seem unwarranted for a given circumstance, or different than a child’s typical demeanor, can be cues of underlying distress,” said Joy Gabrielli, a psychologist and assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Clinical and Health Psychology.

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.

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.

“While dose matters, buffering matters, too,” she said. Buffers help us deal with stress and allow us to process it in healthier ways. Along with positive relationships, Dr. Burke Harris explained that sleep, exercise and nutrition also can help kids keep stress under control.

Dr. Burke Harris recommends that parents help kids avoid the harmful effects of stress by first talking with them about the pandemic. She advises parents to help kids understand that there are things they can do to help others — like staying home whenever possible and wearing a mask when they go out. Kids feel good when they know they are helping solve a problem.

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.

Read the whole story: The New York Times

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