Children can have big feelings too & it's important to accept them, look out for them and provide them the support they need to make sense of and cope with their feelings.
Supporting children through rough times can understandably tug at all of the heartstrings and flood the minds of parents and caregivers with worries such as ‘Am I doing enough’ or ‘Am I failing my child’. Though parents and caregivers often wish they could, they can’t wave a magic wand and make the child’s worries and distress disappear, but since that’s not possible, they can do the next best thing - help them in understanding their feelings and coping with them. This piece will share some tips which can help parents and caregivers when it comes to helping children cope with their feelings in times of distress.
Know the signs so you can keep a lookout for them
If you notice your child becoming more withdrawn, there being a change in their moods, eating habits or sleeping patterns, if they seem to lack confidence or express feelings of hopelessness or despair, don't hesitate to reach out to them. Often children may not have the vocabulary to express their feelings or understand what they are going through, but these can be signs that they are struggling and might need help.
Talk to your child
If you spot signs that suggests that your child might be struggling, it's important to talk to them. Keep talking and trying to communicate in anyway you can and what the child is comfortable with - it can be hugging, listening, engaging in activities or texting them. Talking can help them express themselves better and know that you're a reliable, safe and trustworthy person to approach should they need it in future too. Another element for understanding when it comes to expressing feelings is that it doesn't have to be face to face. Having conversations around these feelings can help children to identify and put words to their feelings and current emotional state.
Be a good and active listener
Listening is such an important part of supporting children who might be expressing distress. It is important to know that there is a difference between listening and hearing and children can often quickly pick up on cues to determine if you’re not listening properly and this can often make them lose interest. It is also important to be mindful that when children do open up and speak, you need to try and be careful not to force things out of them or push them too far. They will speak about things when they’re ready to. It’s important to be empathetic, supportive, non-judgemental and help create that safe-space for them. While being patient can be really, really hard sometimes, especially when you’re really worried about them, it is important to not rush them as at that time it is more important that the child feels safe as opposed to pressured to speak.
Incorporating creativity to help them express themselves
Creativity and expressive arts can help provide an outlet to express our feelings and cope when times are tough. Children have a tendency to often naturally gravitate towards creative things, be it colouring, drawing, making up a play, writing a poem or creating a story which can often give a better understanding on what might be happening in their mind. If you notice that they’re anxious or distressed and want to talk to them about it, then asking permission to join their play, draw with them or engage in the activity with them can help us to talk through their feelings with them in an accessible way and in an environment where they are comfortable and familiar with. Some children might find it easier to write their feelings down. You can encourage them to have a journal or make a "feeling box" where they then talk about their good, sad or difficult feelings at the end of the day. There is also the option of worry boxes or worry monsters which can be helpful to children. The idea behind the worry boxes is that they write down their worry down and then pop it in the box. Worry monsters are similar in that they eat their worries. The essence of doing this is that it embodies the notion of taking the worries out of their head so they stop ruminating on it.
Self-care is essential to promote wellbeing and to take care of Mental Health. For children, a helpful technique involves helping them make a "self-care box" which they can turn to during times they find hard to cope during. This is often also called a coping box, happy box, or a distress tolerance’ box. These is a box which contains things that can help them to cope with distress and worry and can include things like stress balls, sand timers, colouring pencils, a playlist, photos, a small stuff toys, fidget toys, affirmation cards, soothing scent pouches amongst other things. Although as adults, you can support children to create the box, it’s important that they have complete ownership of it.
Create a structure and routine for them
Try introducing a loose timetable that includes fun things you're doing through the week. This can help create a sense of stability which can help them better cope with the uncertainty and anxieties they may be feeling. Use fun and creative ways to help them learn alongside continued access the educational resources and opportunities to support their development. When it comes to learning, remember that it can also help to limit their screen time. Given that a lot of activities and socialization have moved online, it is imperative to have conversations around how increased use of screen time can have an impact on everyone's mental health and wellbeing.
Give them a sense of control through information
Look online with your child to help them find information and resources which might help them feel better informed. This can help reduce their fears and worries while also giving them a feeling of being in control. This is a technique which has proven to be particularly helpful
Empower them to find what works for them
It is important to encourage children to find what works for them as this not only gives them a chance to feel empowered but can also give them agency and a feeling of being in control. When a child is struggling, as a parent or caregiver, it can be extremely tempting to swoop in and try to offer them a ‘fix’ or solution to their problem given that we are coming from a place of having more experience and knowledge as compared to them. However, children will have times when they feel anxious throughout their life, and if instead of jumping in with solutions, you choose to support them find what works for them when they’re in a safe, supportive environment, then later in life, when similar situations may come up, they would be in a better potion to handle that and cope with the situation. It is always better to do things alongside them as opposed to doing it for them.
Take care of yourself too
Last but not the least, it is important to take care of yourself as well - as they rightly say, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Know that whatever your child is going through is not a reflection or a failure of you as a parent or caregiver. It can be hard to see your child going through a tough time and while you want to do whatever you can to shield them from it, we can’t always do that. Through the process of looking after your child and trying to be the adult that they need during crisis, it is important to practice self-care yourself too. This helps your Mental Health and can also make you a good role model for your child. As a parent, while having a child struggling can make us feel increasingly isolated, know that you are not alone and things won’t always be like this.
A child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health, particularly when it comes to dealing with stress, managing their mental health and promoting wellbeing. As a parent or caregiver, these tips can come handy in helping them cope. Know that early intervention can be key to treating problems as effectively as possible.
Written by: Vedica Podar