It is hard to believe that as I sit down to write this, we are coming up on a year of when the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality for us here in Arizona. I think of how, last spring break, our family naively loaded the van to drive to California for a snowboarding trip. Somewhere along the desert landscape of the I-10 freeway, a ticketing agent from the mountain we were headed to called to tell me that they were closing the slopes. In shock, we continued our drive, thinking it would be temporary and we would be on the ski lift within a day or two; we had no idea how the world would feel more uncertain by the hour in the days to come.
At the beginning of the pandemic, shock would be the best way to describe the emotions we felt as a family. Masks, toilet paper shortages, stocking up on antibacterial soap, etc., were all very surprising. As a parent, I tried to make light of most of it, but I noticed as the days wore on that my kids were acting a little stressed. Stress can look very different in kids, yet in some ways, it can look very much the same as it does in adults. Often, you may notice new “bad” habits forming: overreacting to common issues, sluggishness, or changes in appetite. There are several ways children may be communicating they are stressed out, and generally, they will never actually use those words. As parents, it is our job to try to identify the messages our kids are sending us, and it is very often not an easy task.
In the middle of the pandemic, I struggled with not being able to give my children solid answers to their questions:
I realized right away that one of the best things I could give them was honesty and hope, without over-promising. So even though I wanted to tell them that everything would be back to normal very soon, I was very careful to be an honest source for them to rely on, and very often, the honest answer to many of their questions was “I do not know.” However, I could also follow that up with, “What I do know is…” This level of honesty builds trust with our children, and trust in a relationship diminishes stress. Well-meaning adults may initially try to distract kids from the truth of a stressful situation. That may work temporarily, but in reality, kids do not need to know all of the answers as much as they need to know that the adults in their life are doing their best to protect them.
Another distinct way to help children manage stress is to give them practical tools they can use on their own. In our home, we use communication tools:
Kids don’t want to just be given tools; they want to observe them in action. Therefore, let them see you in prayer. Let them see you take time to reflect through journaling. Lastly, talk to them! When you communicate with your kids, make sure you take time to listen. Sometimes, the best way to help children with their stress is to let them feel heard.
Christina Lang is the author of ExtraOrdinary and a counselor at Gilbert Christian High School in Gilbert, Arizona. She is also a mom of six and has been attending MISSION for almost 10 years.