Pandemics, natural disasters, trauma…these can all turn family life upside-down. Learn more on how to parent during times of stress with this whole series from Dr. Kate Green: Introduction, Infants and Toddlers, Ages 3-5, Ages 6-12, and Ages 13+.
Children during this age may feel helpless and uncertain about what the danger is or if they are going to personally experience it. They may not have the language skills to know what to ask or describe how they are feeling. Helplessness and anxiety can lead to a shutting down in development and often a regression back to earlier stages of development. Children at this age are learning so much and usually embrace it with exuberance and joy but when seeing parents anxious and stressed, they may bottle learning up and then exhibit negative behaviors which fuels adult stress and the ability to parent calmly. It becomes a negative cycle in which we are stressed, our child feels this and acts out, we are confused and upset by the negative behavior and so parent poorly, and our child feels this and continues or increases the negative behaviors! We are the adult and so must be the one to break this cycle and change the pattern of negativity. This requires we take a hard look at our behaviors and practices such as social media, television, engagement in play, schedule, and our own stress level. Healing ourselves is a huge first step in helping to keep our children on track emotionally and physically.
Behaviors we may see–
- Difficulties with focus on play or learning activities.
- Regression back to physical behaviors already learnt such as having toileting accidents, wanting help with feeding (or to nurse more if breastfeeding) or getting dressed. Stepping back to being “a baby.”
- Loss of speech or regression back to lower level of speech.
- Bed wetting.
- Acting out with more drama, aggression, or whining.
- Fighting with siblings or friends or withdrawing from engaging with them.
- Exhibiting more stomach or headaches.
- Bad dreams or nightmares and not wanting to be alone during the night when previously OK with this.
- Changes in appetite.
- Competing to get parental attention.
What we can do—
- Avoid media when they are around as news or videos on our phone can be disturbing and confusing for littles. Have a plan for when you will watch without them. You may find this helps lower your stress significantly too.
- Play WITH them. Research shows that play for people of all ages lowers stress. We often call it Flow as adults but losing an hour of our day when engaged in playing dolls or building block cities is a great way to lower our stress and take the place of social media.
- Routines are important for young children. Not so restrictive that you won’t change to meet the family needs but enough that children know breakfast is shortly after they wake and usually includes X or Y. Dinner is in the evening and usually at X place in the house. Then comes bath and books etc. Having a flow to the day helps children self-regulate and feel secure and calmer. We all appreciate this!
- Bedtime calming routines such as a lavender essential oil in the bath and/or massage can help. Reading is always calming.
- Cosleeping or a mattress/pad on parent’s bedroom floor still helps children feel secure if they want that. For the bulk of families in cultures around the world this is the norm.
- Let littles help with household chores and start to gain a sense of responsibility. They can’t cook the entire dinner but they can help you bake a cake or make pancakes. They can also help fold laundry. Asking them to work with you is also a time to chat about any fears or concerns they are having. Or it’s a time to just have fun.
- Art and creative expression are great ways to see what is going on with your child. Sit and draw or roll clay WITH them. You do yours and let them do theirs but you can prompt by perhaps drawing the family and talking about everyone. Have them do likewise and listen to what they are saying.
- Physical activity is obviously hugely important at this age. Pull up videos of silly dancing or fun activities. Use masking tape on the floor and mark out obstacle courses. Get hula hoops and use them or put them on the floor to jump in and out with. Small bean bags to juggle with and make games out of are wonderful. Even just announcing “brain break” and starting to do jumping jacks will make your littles laugh and join in plus give YOU the activity too!
- Gentle boundaries are not to be afraid of. Talk to your child about what is acceptable and what isn’t in your family. Do this when everyone is calm and maybe even find ways to draw it and then put this up on the wall to remind everyone.
- Use video conferencing for engagement with extended family and friends. Let them chat with grandparents or their friends and use the silly faces and hats available in some programs. You can even snap photos of this at the time for them to print out and remember later.