It can be hard as adults to understand the world through the eyes of kids. Things that seem small to us can really impact kids, and things that might seem big even to us can appear devastating to children in our ministries. So how can we bridge the gap and help instill in our children the resilience needed to function and live into the joy of Christ we have in this life? Below you’ll find a brief exploration of how kids think, and how we can help give them the tools
Children have immature sensory systems, which makes it harder for them to process what’s going on around them. The parts of their brain needed for self-control and regulation are still growing, which makes them developmentally incapable of calming themselves down like adults can. Kids need an active partnership with a loving, caring adult to help them learn to process their anxiety in a healthy way.
In adults and children, stress creates a cascade of hormones to help a person react to danger. It is the body’s way of helping you hide, run, or fight if needed, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. These hormones can cause either feelings of jitteriness, irritability, and explosiveness or feelings of depression, apathy, or detachment. In children, these behaviors may look different. Instead, it may show up as trouble sleeping, trouble focusing, or trouble self-regulating. Kids may be more irritable or more defiant. They may cry more or avoid things that are uncomfortable.
As adults, there are immediate and long-term ways to help kids develop resilience in the midst of adverse or oppressive situations. The first step to help kids process anxiety is to manage your own stress. Children need to see models of self-care and self-control. Next, acknowledge the feelings or experiences without blame. Be careful not to lecture or minimize a child’s experience. Instead, listen and help kids understand why they feel this way. Help them see their feelings as God’s design to help protect them from harm. The feeling of uncertainty and lack of control is what makes the situation feel so dangerous. Take steps to help kids focus on the things they can control, like their own reaction to the situation.
Self-regulation does not appear the same for every person. Some kids need to calm down, but some kids need to calm up. Some immediate things you can do to help kids process their anxiety are:
- practice breathing techniques
- take a walk
- talk to a friend
- draw or color
- give themselves or a stuffed animal a hug
- ride a bike
- think of a happy memory or peaceful place
- squeeze then relax all their muscles
- journal or write a letter
- build something
To help children process anxiety over the long term, the most important thing is for them to have connected relationships. When we are around people we care about, our bodies produce a hormone that calms the nervous system. Create a safe place, a place with structure and routine. Allow kids to have a voice and to make their own choices whenever possible. Help kids change their negative self-talk (ie. I am brave, I am worthy, I’m unique, etc.). Teach them words for the emotions they feel and encourage them to care for others.
We cannot always shield children from the stressful, anxiety-inducing world around us. But we can help kids learn to calm themselves and connect to others. There may be times when we as lay volunteers need help with this as well. Don’t hesitate to seek help from your church leadership and trained healthcare workers when a child is experiencing significant adverse experiences. With just a little bit of patience and creativity, we can help wire our kids for resilience, not panic.