Helping children address emotions critical during times of upheaval, change

Children experience stress just like adults. Whether we are talking about a child who has had to move, a child who is dealing with stress in his or her home or even a child who is grieving, all children will struggle with some major stress or transition in their lives. When this happens, the first step to helping children manage stress is to understand how their brains work.

When their brain perceives something as a threat or when a stressful event occurs, children are going to get stuck in their “emotional brain” and not be able to think or act rationally. Many times, when they are stuck in “emotional brain,” we as parents or caregivers tend to try to talk logic and reason with them. This is what is referred to as talking “thinking brain to emotional brain.”

Instead, children need us to talk “emotional brain to emotional brain.” This looks like showing sympathy and empathy by saying something like, “I’m so sorry you are upset right now with all that is going on; I know it so hard right now.”

This is the only kind of communication they will hear.

‘Thinking brain’

When a threat or hurts are perceived, fear is induced. The Fight, Flight, Freeze response kicks in and can set in for long periods of time. When that happens, the children get stuck in the “emotional brain” causing them to act irrationally and to be unable to use their “thinking brain.” This is why during conflict, as adults we tend to be very reactive, and we say or do things that don’t line up with our morals and values. Children are no different.

Healthy coping skills

When children are struggling with transitions and stress, we can also help them by teaching healthy coping skills such as deep breathing, engaging in mindfulness techniques or even helping them to focus on something they can do in the situation. Even offering children an opportunity to play with friends, to run around on a playground or color can lead to lowering their stress levels.

Healthy eating, sleep/rest and exercise are also essential coping skills to help children learn to regulate their stress.

As parents or caregivers, we also must do these things so we can model well for children.

Other important needs for children during stressful situations are consistency and connection from loving caring adults.

The more you can help children keep their routine, rules or boundaries in place, the more secure and safe they will feel. This can be something as simple as sticking with bedtimes or making sure they have favorite stuffed animals.

This will help them not be stuck in their “emotional brain” where no logic can take place and instead get back to their “thinking brain” where they can feel safe and secure again.

As you read through many of Paul’s writings in the New Testament, you can see they are full of psychology and teachings on how to manage our brains. Colossians 3:2 says, “Set your mind on things above and not earthly things.” Second Corinthians 10:5 says, “… take every thought captive.” Philippians 4:6–7 informs us of the importance of being in control of our brains.

Behave obediently

When one is struggling with stress, it is important to fight against the anxiety that results.

We must work to get ourselves (or help others get) unstuck from “emotional brain,” and get our “thinking brain” engaged so we can think and behave rationally and in obedience to God.

Distracting our thinking is one of the best ways to switch how our brain is operating. When we think on something else other than what is driving the fear and anxiety, those emotions tend to go away in about 90 seconds.

One of the best ways to distract our minds from the anxiety is by meditating on God’s truth given in Scripture (again, Col. 3:2).

When we understand how the brain works, we then have a much better possibility of managing stress and transitions.

Understanding how to get unstuck from “emotional brain” and engage “thinking brain” helps us feel better and handle stress more effectively.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Faith & Family is a bimonthly look at important spiritual, cultural and relational issues facing today’s families. For more articles on contemporary topics like these, go to PathwaysProfessional.org/blog

Rhett McKenzie is a nationally certified licensed professional counselor serving in the Birmingham area with Pathways Professional Counseling, a sister ministry of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries.