How Can We Help Our Kids in Times of Crisis?
Schools closing, staple items missing from the grocery store, schedules upended, plans canceled, trips postponed, group restrictions, church online, family working at home, and information changing rapidly makes this all feel like we’re living in a movie. And it’s easy to get pulled into thinking this is a passing scene in a story rather than a new normal for the long haul.
I tend to be a shover of feelings - meaning I don’t deal with all my emotions in full right away. (Is shover even a word? Probably not, but we’ll go with it anyway). I try to focus on the here and now, and maybe eventually I’ll sit down and rummage through all the thoughts and feelings that were tucked away. It could be a way of just trying to take care of everyone else and then dealing with myself, or it could be a refusal to want to work through the emotions for fear of shutting down completely. Or maybe it’s a little of both. Perhaps you’re seeing this turmoil and processing it differently, because everyone has their own way of handling change and stress and crisis. And, whether I want to fully process it now or not, we are in a time of crisis. And, we are all trying to do the best we can for our families with the information at hand.
So, how do we help our families, specifically our kids, in times of crisis? Good question. I won’t pretend to have all the answers or act like our family has it all together, but I’ve had some great opportunities for learning and training over the years and access to resources that I just want to share.
First, let’s acknowledge that as much as we are striving to keep our kids’ lives feeling normal right now that they are very aware of the shift in society and in our homes. They know there is a strange new virus interrupting daily life and plans, and they know it’s weighing on our hearts. They feel the sense of loss of it too, just as much as we do. Our littles pick up on our body language and changes in our voices. They feel the tension between parents or sense the frustration over groceries. Our elementary and middle schoolers see and understand more of what’s going on in the world and are working it out with their friends through texting, gaming, and social media. And, our high schoolers had dreams and plans that are crashing around them. School plays, concerts, competitions, and senior years full of making memories are all of a sudden completely wiped away. That’s loss. And with loss comes grief. As adults, we might have the life experience to know that life goes on and that somehow we will all get through to a new season of hope, but some of our older kids might be feeling pretty hopeless right now. And some of our younger kids might be struggling with anxiety in the face of so much change.
Kids handle crisis differently than adults do. It can get expressed through emotions, yes, but also through behavior and the body. These expressions can be a warning light that our kids are affected by something difficult and may need help processing it. It all varies on age and development, but here are a few examples of each:
· Emotions - fear, anger, aggression, rebellion, isolating, guilty, defensiveness, loss of interest, shut down, sad
· Behavior - acting out, outbursts, self-harm, withdraw, regression, lying, regression, irritable, crying, difficulty concentrating, risk-taking
· Body - stomach aches, nightmares, illness, stopped talking, headaches, bed wetting
Not all of our children may be dealing with change and loss to the degree that we see some of these symptoms exhibited, however, regardless of if they are or not, here are a few ways we can help them:
1. Establish or re-establish routines - Routines are amazing. The animals here at Bright Side thrive on a routine. Knowing when they are going to get cared for and what to expect each day brings a sense of peace and calm for the herd. It does the same for kids, too. Routines create order, give boundaries, offer stability, and can bring a sense of worth and value. We don’t have our school learning packets yet, so we have reverted to our summer schedule where self-care, chores, reading, creativity, and time outside has to happen before time on electronics. Because it’s a format we’ve used for the last two summers, our kids have settled right into being at home.
2. Make time for play - Playing is how kids order and engage and interact with the world around them. It’s a stress reliever and creativity developer that brings healthy brain development and emotional and physical strength. And play can look so different throughout the different ages of child growth and development. Let them express themselves and work through their world through words, imaginative play, and art. This can be directed and non-directed. If you are in need of some directed options, I am more than happy to share, however, non-directive can be so powerful for our kids. Let the littles do their drawings and paintings, have the older ones journal their thoughts and feelings, and send all of them outside in the yard to get fresh air and be creative.
3. Listen to your child - Our kids know more about what’s going on around them than we often realize. Or, if you have older kids, you know they are watching the news with you, but they are also receiving all sorts of wild information from their peers. They can also tend to fill in mission information in whatever way makes sense to them. We need to give them a chance to talk about the difficult things happening around them. Some of my favorite questions are:
- What happened? (this is getting basic information)
- How do you feel? (reaching into the emotions)
- What is/was the hardest part? (this one helps us get to the pain)
When asking these, listen well and be patient. And be patient some more with both their story and their behavior. Trauma fragments and disintegrates, so telling our story helps reorder and integrate. It helps put facts and feelings back together. It literally helps the brain heal and develop new pathways for processing.
In the midst of listening to our children, we also need to tell the truth about what’s happening. Do so in a way that is appropriate for their age, but knowing the real dangers is better than imagining all sorts of dangers that are not true.
4. Make a plan - This is somewhat connected to routines, but having a plan for meals and snacks, school work, and anything else that might happen and discussing it openly with the family will continue to help create stability. We can also make plans to help other people in our community, as helping others often brings healing and hope to those who serve. For us, because grocery stores are picked clean right now, we’ve made a plan for exactly what foods will be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, our kids don’t feel stressed when they see the pictures and videos of empty shelves.
5. Teenager specific - Teenagers feel this abrupt change and canceling of plans very deeply. When they are struggling, it’s important to remember that teens have a need for their own private space. So, as challenging as it is for us as parents, we need to allow them some measure of privacy. They also want to discuss things with their friends, and it’s okay to encourage that interaction. Teenagers also need to feel useful, so give them some chores and an opportunity to help the family, which will give them a greater sense of worth, value, and responsibility.
6. Have faith conversations and pray together - In troubling times and when our foundations feel shaky, we need to turn to the Lord for strength, wisdom, and peace. And, we can do that together as a family. It is such a wonderful example for our kids to see us seeking out God’s word and asking Him for guidance, yet it so powerful to do that together as a family. When we can teach them verses that have given us encouragement, share with them passages of scripture that give us strength, and pray together for God’s peace that passes understanding, there is such an opportunity to draw closer together as we lean on the Lord. We all need to know that God is still present and that He loves us.
These are all parts of the training I’ve received in Biblical Trauma Healing and pieces of the curriculum we use at Bright Side Youth Ranch. We’ve found this knowledge to be so helpful in dealing with past traumas in children and families, and we have no doubt it is useful in the crisis of today. If you are finding that your child or teen is struggling and needing some additional help, sessions here at the ranch are an option as well as some counselors we can share with you.
A beautiful piece to all of this chaos is an opportunity to lean into our families and soak in precious time together. Hug your kids, have a routine, let them play and be creative, ask good questions and listen well, have a plan, allow some private space with the teens, and talk with God and about Him together.