When I worked as a counsellor at a school, people often asked me, “What could a child possibly be stressed about?” The question seems to be based on the assumption that a child’s world is uncomplicated; made up of fun, cuddles and ice-cream. I’d like to ask you to take a moment to remember yourself as a child. Do you remember how nasty some other children could be, or how overwhelming it could feel when your parents would argue? Stress is a real thing for children, just as it is for adults. It’s true that their stress is not related to debt, political situations, and traffic. But their stress is real. They experience it physically, emotionally and cognitively.
Most children are not aware of when they experience stress. They feel it, but they do not have a name for it. They do not know how to express that they feel this way. If the stress is not seen and is a recurring issue, it can build and become bundled up inside the body. When this happens, kids can begin to develop challenging behaviour or symptoms that act as warning signals that the child is having difficulty processing their reality.
Kids were sent to my office with all sorts of presenting behaviours or symptoms: this child throws things at other children, that child gets anxiety attacks, this child won’t eat. Some got tummy aches every time they came to school, some developed twitches, others couldn’t make friends, some kept wetting themselves. The symptoms were so varied and particular to each child.
How to help children when they are struggling
1. Acknowledge that you have not failed if your child is struggling.
It can be difficult to accept when your child is struggling with life in a big way. It can feel as though we have failed with the people we love the most. To top it off, there’s always enough judgement going around to increase our sense of shame.
As adults, it is not our responsibility to make sure children never struggle. Struggle is a natural and potentially growthful part of life. Our responsibility as children’s guides is to teach them how to cope when stress and struggle rear their ugly heads.
2. Guide, don’t prescribe.
To guide children does not mean that we need to tell them what to do: like a prescription for difficult situations. Whenever we tell others what they should do, we actually disempower them from coming up with their own solutions. Prescribing advice can also make the other feel unseen and misunderstood and this can actually feed their frustration further.
Try your best to resist the urge to tell children what to do in their situation. To be able to guide anyone, we need to, first, explore the situation from their point of view. To do this, we need to tune in. We need to put all other things on hold and silence our own thoughts and anxieties for a little while, and just be with our kid.
Parents with children who do not speak yet, might ask how they’re supposed to understand a child who doesn’t talk. In this situation, you can observe them. The way a child behaves in different environments and with different people gives you information. Sit back, quietly. Do not direct your child. Instead watch them. Watch the way they approach things and people, and the way they withdraw from others. Watch when their energy rises and when it drops.
3. Take it slow.
Being human, we love to solve things fast, so here’s another urge to resist: do not give meaning to your child’s behaviour too quickly. Though our intention is to help our children, when we try to solve the problem too fast, we do not allow the symptom enough time to be understood. Rushing could lead us to misunderstand the situation and actually waste time treating the wrong issue.
Allowing their symptom/challenging behaviour to be, lets your child know that they don’t need to suppress it for your comfort. It gives the symptom space to be seen and understood, and this actually gives the symptom less power.
4. You do not have to be around all the time to tune in.
Let’s be real here, life is crazy busy. We can’t be putting everything aside to observe our kids 24/7. That’s actually a good thing, because kids need a degree of freedom to develop.
Tuning into kids is about dedicating an amount of time – whatever feels right for you and your child – to be present with them. When we show kids that we make time for them, and that they are not always a distraction from other tasks, they feel supported and this allows the struggle to unfold more easily.