New Skills for Handling Childhood Distress

So much of what we learn from our parents or caregivers is passed down to future generations. It’s not uncommon to react to your child based on how your parents responded to you when you were growing up. Have you ever reflected on how your parents treated you in distressing situations? Can you think of a time when you felt scared or hurt because of a specific circumstance? How did your parents deal with your emotions? Did they have emotional reactions, and your emotions were not properly addressed? Were you given the opportunity to explore your feelings and find a sense of comfort through understanding the situation better? The first step to this process is to become aware of your default responses and how they may impact your own child when resolving conflict. This will help you provide better support.

We are thinking and feeling individuals. So, where are your feelings?

If you have been shamed for expressing your feelings, or they have been invalidated because they were
not heard, you’re not alone. However, as a parent, you get to rewrite the story; you can explore a better path to a well-adapted, emotionally intact child who is ready to face the future with confidence. We are expressive beings who are meant to feel and emote. We hope that with love and nurturing our default expressions can be love, peace, joy, enthusiasm, awe, and inspiration; in these states of being we reach our highest potential. And there are naturally going to be bumps in the road on the path to maturity. Therefore, we must address fear, sadness, anger, pain, and disappointment with true listening and compassion. Learning how to emote with thoughtfulness is the hallmark of maturity, and to get there, we must support each other right where we are. Helping your children handle stressful situations with confidence will serve you throughout your lives and help others too!

Common reactions by parents when their child cries or is upset

While it may be a natural inclination to quiet a child in distress, by saying things like “Shhh, you’re ok…”, or, “Shhh, you don’t need to cry…” this type of response prevents the child from learning how to cope with new, unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations.

Without giving your child a chance to work through their emotions during difficult situations, they may end up withdrawing from anything that can be perceived as stressful and avoid new and unfamiliar situations altogether. Avoiding new people, taking a test, or learning something new are common issues that create stress. Kids can be mean to each other too; helping your child understand their feelings and how to work through them will prepare them for both new challenges and rejection.

Another common response to kids who are crying (and you have probably heard this from a stressed parent in a grocery store), “Stop crying, you’re just being a baby…” Not only does this type of response dismiss the child’s emotions, but it’s also a form of shame for feeling and communicating those feelings. Therefore, the message that is subconsciously sent to the child is – your feelings don’t matter.

In time, if the child discovers his feelings are not important, he will stop sharing them. This is essentially the equivalent of emotional indifference. This means being out of touch with emotions and expressing little response to emotional stimulation. Does that sound like a positive state of being? Not so much. It’s a state of retraction and withdrawal. We are tribal in nature, which means being a valuable part of the community. If we are continually rejected for our feelings and feel a sense of shame, we will subconsciously conclude – we simply don’t matter, our value is little, and we’re just not worth it.

Without learning how to properly cope with feelings and stressful situations, children can feel overwhelmed, and the default internal message will lead to this: uncertainty equals pain. And who wants pain? Yet, as the Buddhists say, “Life is suffering, what are you going to do about it?” While we believe the best and hope for the best, life has a funny way of presenting us with never-ending twists and turns in life that surprise even the most prepared.

Life is the gift that keeps on giving us opportunities, day after day, to grow beyond our limitations and live fulfilling lives.

Helping your children embrace their feelings, work through them, and develop rational thinking will help prepare them for life and all its challenges.

15 Steps to dealing with stress, pain, and uncertainty

A general agreement in professional psychology is that roughly 80% of all communication is non-verbal. That means body language and facial expressions play a huge role in communication between people. Here are some observations to notice, and questions you can ask yourself, your child and, any who are involved in the pain event or conflict:

  1. Notice your child’s body language. Are they in pain?
  2. Notice your reaction to your child’s pain. What are you emoting to your child?
  3. Acknowledge and accept how your child is feeling. Their feelings always matter.
  4. Acknowledge and accept how you feel about your child’s feelings. Your feelings are valuable too. Just notice, and don’t react. You may be sensitive, and this can affect you too.
  5. Take a deep breath, continue to breathe, and relax. What is distressing your child may also be distressing to you. Children pick up on adults’ feelings, energy, body language, and facial expressions. Make sure your child feels safe and comfortable talking with you. You are the guardian of your child’s heart and wellbeing.
  6. If your child is having difficulty breathing through tears, invite him/her to take some deep breaths, and breathe with you, so you can both find calm and collect your thoughts.
  7. If the child needs comfort, provide it. It might be a hug, sitting on your lap, snuggling next to you, holding them close, or taking a walk. Whatever it is, make sure they can receive comfort and you notice they are visibly soothed and calmed by your actions.
  8. Make sure you give good eye contact and get on their level while listening. That will help them to feel heard and loved.
  9. Ask questions about what happened. Ask more questions if the answers are not clear.
  10. Ask if there was anyone else involved that saw what happened or was a part of the incident.
  11. If the story is a bit muddy, ask your child for a minute to think about things before you respond. Sometimes what they are saying isn’t going to make sense. That is OK too. They will do the best they can. If they have trouble, keep asking questions that will help you understand the situation and their feelings.
  12. Ask your child, “What do you think will help this situation?” Sometimes kids ask for things that don’t truly comfort but make them feel good, like food or TV. While you want your child to feel good, using tools that don’t bring total resolve, but instead soothe feelings by external means is not solving the problem at all. Food addictions begin by soothing with sugar or candy. Stick to finding the solution based on the problem, such as you were pushed, someone called you a name, or you were excluded from a game, for example.
  13. If someone else is involved in the situation, inviting them to tell their side of the story is important too, as are their feelings. Try to find ways to get kids talking so they can find a better outcome for all involved. Like, “Did you mean to hurt Greg’s feelings? I didn’t think so. Do you have anything to say to Greg? Greg, do you have anything you want to say to Jenny?” Encourage talking through the situation and finding a positive resolve.
  14. Offer suggestions when they can’t come up with a good answer or solution. Try and find a solution the child can use again and again, such as “Greg that made me feel bad when you pushed me. Please don’t do that again.” Empower your child to communicate what is uncomfortable and help them place a reasonable boundary on the other person’s behavior if it’s causing them harm. If you discover your child was in the wrong, don’t shame them. Ask them to think about what they could have done differently, ask them “How do you think that made Greg feel?”
  15. In the event of an unpleasant situation that cannot be resolved, provide reassurance and instruction so the child can be and feel protected from this situation if it happens in the future.

Be in touch with us and let us know if this information was helpful. Have some tips to share with us? We are listening.