Supporting kids emotionally at this critical time in their childhoods

What to be on the lookout for, and asking good questions.

I woke up at 4am this morning and couldn’t go back to sleep.  I was thinking about my nieces and nephew.  They’re six and seven.  The other day one of my nieces was uncharacteristically nervous.  She was coughing and the fear that was evoked in her was a little unsettling for me.  It saddened me that she was so scared of getting sick and I found myself thinking, “Man, I hope this doesn’t become the way she and other kids react now anytime they don’t feel good.”  I was also thinking about my 7-year old nephew.  He told his parents the other day that he doesn’t want to talk about the coronavirus anymore.  When they asked him why he said, “Because I’m afraid grandpa is going to get it and die.”

So heart wrenching! It’s even hard for me to share it with you.  But it really got me thinking about how this is impacting our vulnerable and impressionable young people. It got me thinking about how the brain deals with scary or traumatic things that happen to us.  There’s a part of the brain where unprocessed emotion is stored.  It’s called the limbic brain.  It’s like a library.  It’s where traumatic or life-altering memories are stored if we don’t confront them.  Tucking them away is the brain’s way of saying, “Okay, we’ll deal with that later.”  And so we forget, at least for the time being.  Which can be helpful at the time… until it’s not.  There is always going to be a circumstance later in life that feels familiar to the original trauma or triggers emotions that feel reminiscent, and then seemingly out of nowhere we’re affected.  Our emotional health is compromised.  That could look like anger, depression, withdrawal, anxiety, or any number of emotional states that don’t allow us to function as our best selves.

This is what happens with ACEs- Adverse Childhood Experiences- which I go into in great deal in my book, Built For Greatness.  The ACEs research study, conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997, showed that when kids live through traumatic experiences and they can’t adequately process their emotions at that time, it can have life-long negative impacts on their health – physical, mental and emotional health.  Some of the adverse, or traumatic, experiences the study looked at were:

  • War/terrorism
  • Divorce or separation of parental figures
  • Tragic death of a loved one
  • Abuse and neglect
  • Exposure to violence
  • Incarceration of a parent
  • Alcoholism or drug addiction of someone in the home

These are things that our rational brain can’t make sense of at that age and that our emotional self can’t accept.  This all leaves me to wonder about what is occurring right now… a pandemic.  I’m 47 years old and I have the emotional awareness and vocabulary to process what’s happening.  I can analyze and weigh out the facts, and discuss it with people I care about.  I can make a plan, both for my strategy to stay healthy, but also for how to fill my days and plan ahead in an attempt to create some sense of normalcy.  This is reassuring to me.  It gives me a sense of control.  But if I was young, younger than 18 or 19 for example, it would be harder to do so. If I was younger than say 13 or 14, it would be very hard.  At that age you just don’t have the self-awareness or the emotional vocabulary to articulate what you’re experiencing.  You don’t have enough life experience to draw from.

This is where parents and loved ones can make all the difference.  It’s super important to talk to your kids, your grandkids, your nieces and nephews about how confusing and upsetting everything is for them right now. I’d encourage you to ask questions that are a bit more substantial, or more provocative, than the standard “how are you?” or “how ya doin’?”  Because most kids will give you the basic one-word answer: “fine” or “good.”  You can start with those questions, but then go deeper.  Try asking them how their body feels.  Stress can affect our physical bodies in so many ways.  As adults we know this, but kids often don’t.  So while you want to be careful not to suggest any ailments, what you’re looking for are physical manifestations they can describe feeling: stomachaches, headaches, feeling tired, or maybe withdrawn (which depending on their age they may label as “sad” or “depressed”).  Or possibly the opposite – feeling wired, unable to settle down, highly distractible or restless.  The kids might label it as feeling “hyper.”  With young kids, ask them to point to where they feel their feelings. They may point to their chests, their foreheads, their eyes or their stomachs. If they hold their stress and tension in their jaw they may say their face or neck hurts. Some may talk about their hearts hurting. Say to them, “tell me more about that.” You can also ask them to draw a picture of their feelings or act it out with their stuffed animals. Additionally, you can ask them to tell you how they think their friends are feeling right now. Sometimes kids have an easier time talking about feelings when it doesn’t seem so personal. It’s less scary that way. Older kids have more robust vocabularies and can better describe what they feel, but they don’t always use words in the same way that we do, thus making it important to ask them what they mean when they use emotionally loaded terms like “I’m depressed” or “I can’t cope.” Force them to elaborate. Make sure you and they have a common understanding of what their words mean. These activities I’ve outlined here will help the kids in your life process how they’re feeling and help them cope. Also be on the lookout for your kids’ need for extra affection and bonding.  This could be them seeking reassurance that they are going to be okay, that they’re safe… or that YOU, their parent – their provider and the one who takes care of them – are going to be okay. 

If this pandemic turns out to be the defining event of our youths’ generation – their 9-11 – and if COVID-19 becomes an ACE event for countless numbers of them (an adverse childhood experience in the way the study categorizes them), then we adults are at a critical junction right now.  We need to decide how we want to support them – what behaviors we want to model that they will surely mirror.  Do we want to model resilience, and courage, and positivity?  Reason?  Compassion?  Personal responsibility? Do we want to show them that it’s okay to talk about our feelings?  Do we want to demonstrate healthy choices and how to make a plan to stay well and active?  I sure hope so. Kids deserve the best of us, especially right now.

If there is any way I can help, please let me know.  I’d be happy to set up a FaceTime call or a Zoom call with you.  I’d also be happy to help your kids right now if they need someone to talk to.  If any of them would like to set up a group video chat with their friends and me, we can do that, too.  I’m sure that sense of community with their peers would be very therapeutic.  Email me at carriebershee@gmail.com.

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