Challenges with sleep, eating habits, mood fluctuations and more can leave parents feeling worried and confused during the best of times, but throw in a pandemic, and it’s enough to make any parent want to pull their hair out.
If you are a parent experiencing an increase in one or more of these behaviors with your children, here is one very important thing to know: all of these behaviors are normal responses to stress.
The Brain’s Stress Response
Understanding the brain and its response to stress can help parents better understand and connect to their children during these unprecedented times.
Stress influences the developing brain in many ways, particularly in those areas involved in regulating emotions and learning. When we perceive a person, or an event as threatening, our brainstem is activated and we release stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. Our response is to fight, flight, or freeze. When this happens, it becomes difficult to activate the higher-level parts of the brain that regulate emotions, thoughts, responsive actions, and learning.
As the coronavirus disrupts routines and family flow, many children are feeling the stress. And because children thrive off of predictability and routine, the sudden change in rituals can leave them feeling an array of emotions like mad, sad, or scared.
“Children are seeking predictability and control in a world that feels increasingly uncertain, and they're taking that out on their parents, which is, of course, understandable, but also can be quite difficult,” said Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a psychologist and parenting coach at Little House Calls.
One of the most common responses to stress is regression, especially in the areas of sleep and toileting. “Children who are stressed almost always regress,” said Dr. Laura Markham of AhaParenting. “Regression means that the child is not able to cope in as mature a manner as they have recently mastered, because they feel too overwhelmed.”
Some parents from the Generation MIndful community shared their experiences with us regarding their children’s regression:
“My 4-year-old has been waking up each night to crawl in bed with me. At first, he said it was a bad dream. Then, it was a loud noise. And my personal favorite, that a fly bit him.”
“My child started acting like a baby. She started carrying around her favorite blankey that she hadn’t used in forever and started sucking her thumb again … using baby talk, too. And then she told me she wanted to crawl back into my belly.”
“My six-year-old has recently regressed in potty training. We are now having daily accidents, both pee and poop. And she has gotten into the habit of lying to me about it. She will stay in her dirty underwear until I notice it and change her. I try to encourage her, but it almost always turns into a power struggle.”
“I noticed that my child started hitting and biting again, which he hasn’t done in months.”
Adults can regress when feeling stressed, too. Much like our children, eating and sleeping habits can change, causing us to eat/drink/sleep in abundance or lack. And, just as our children, we tend to have mood fluctuations that can cause us to react, cry, or withdraw.
Luckily, we can work on ways to understand and reduce stress in our homes so that our children can feel comfort and support.
Tools For Parents
1. Validate feelings. Research shows the number one thing parents can do to help their child’s nervous system is to connect with them. The goal is not to deny, dismiss, or suppress emotions, but to be a safe vessel for your child to express how they are feeling. For younger children, help them name their feelings. For older children, notice feelings and lean in.
2. Meet them where they are. Accept the regression as a natural response to stress and meet your child at the developmental level they are displaying. If your child is extra needy, give them extra attention and snuggles. Recognize the regression as a sign of stress and increase your support.
3. Keep a routine. Tovah P. Klein, author of “How Toddlers Thrive,” says, “young children thrive on continuity and routines, doing the same thing daily, or reading the same book over and over again. Creating a new normal will reset a child’s rhythm.” She further suggests telling your children a narrative about what is going on and reminding them that they are safe.
4. Offer peer interactions. Schedule time for children to connect with friends via Zoom or Facetime to keep social connections open. This virtual playdate can help children feel a sense of normalcy. Also, for older children, they may feel more comfortable talking to their peers about what they are feeling, which gives them an opportunity to express themselves.
5. Get moving. Physical exercise helps to boost mood and decrease stress hormones. Try going on a nature walk, do a family workout, play a game of tag, or do a sensory chalk walk. Apps such as GOZEN also create opportunities for children to move their bodies and de-stress.
6. Get outside. Nature helps stabilize human emotions. Get outside daily and engage in exploratory play. Research says just 20 minutes a day outdoors greatly reduces stress hormones in the body.
7. Model positive coping skills. Children often absorb their parents’ emotions, tone, worry, and/or anxiety. Be aware of your stress level with self-compassion. By modeling positive coping skills and self-care, parents move out of their own fight, flight and freeze responses and can be more present, and responsive to their children. Try a self-compassion meditation or meditations to focus on stress, anxiety, and sleep, wake up early for a quiet cup of coffee or end your night in a hot bath after the kids go to sleep.
Parents and adults alike are navigating the new normal of staying home and socially distancing. Understanding the brain’s normal responses to stress may help parents be with the behaviors they are seeing from their children (and maybe from themselves, too). When it feels like our children are giving us a hard time, it is important to remember that they are having a hard time. With tools, connection, and a whole lotta heart, we can transform even stressful times into something that pulls us closer.
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