Bouncing Back after a Stressful Situation
You are taking your family out to eat at a restaurant and as you sit down you notice a young lady sitting on the chair behind you looking very pale and not herself. Her friend has called an ambulance and the staff look unsure about how to help her and deal with the situation.
Your children see the scene, look the paramedics and start to get scared. You feel nervous as well, not sure whether to leave the place with the food still waiting to be eaten or to wait. No one feels like eating so you decide to wait outside. Your kids are fidgeting around clinging on you and observing the scene and asking you tons of questions. Why did the ambulance come? Why is she sick? Does she need to go to the hospital? And more and more. You as a parent weren’t really prepared for such a situation and feel yourself a bit lost for answers and as much as you try to calm them down they can see that you are anxious as well.
Fortunately, scenarios like this don’t happen to us every day but they do happen occasionally and can create stress and fear, especially for children. They might think or dream about the scenes they witnessed or get scared that they or their parents will get sick. These experiences where children feel helpless and scared can be very stressful on the child’s emotional system especially when his or her caretaker wasn’t physically or emotionally there for him at the time of the stressful experience. You are not always with your child to protect him from seeing or hearing scary things and sometimes you as a parent get overwhelmed or scared yourself, which leaves little space to hold the child when he needs it.
How can you help your child to bounce back after a stressful situation?
There are 3 things you can do to help:
- Take care of yourself first
It’s like in the airplane; before you put the oxygen mask on your child, you must make sure that you can breathe and be of help. So, do whatever is necessary to calm down. Talk the experience through with someone you feel comfortable with such as your spouse, family member or friend. If you need more expression than talking, you can consider writing it on paper or drawing a picture or any other art that you resonate with. Some people find sports or relaxation exercises helpful to get back on track. Whatever it might be that helps you, make sure that you yourself calmed down from that experience.
- Allow expression
Once you are calm, allow your children to express their thoughts and emotions about that particular experience. For example, you can bring it up and ask what they remember from that scenario and how they felt. If having all the kids discuss it simultaneously is too difficult then find time during the day to bring it up with each child and maybe another time bring it up as a shared experience. (This is important because a shared stressful experience has less of an impact than if it is re-experienced alone).
The important point is to just listen and validate whatever thoughts and emotions come up for the child without judging them. Just observe and reflect for the child what you hear him say. For example, you can say: “You are telling me that you were really scared when all the paramedics showed up and didn’t know whether we should stay there or leave. It was sort of confusing for you especially because it was so unexpected …”
There is no need to force your child to talk about it, just the fact that you brought it up and he knows that whenever he wants to he can talk to you about it is tremendously helpful to him.
Some children will have difficulty expressing their experience (or some of it) in words and for these children fantasy (pretend) play can be a safe way to help them process and express it. To do so you can offer to play a matching playmobile game, for example, ambulance or hospital or pretend that he is a paramedic and you the patient (without telling him necessarily why you do that).
- Be nurturing and patient
Finally, realize that vulnerabilities are higher than usual and that you can balance out the difficult emotions and experiences with positive and safe ones. This is a time where you as a parent need to be more nurturing and patient with you child and yourself. Spent some more quality and connecting time and give yourself time to get back on track.