'Kids need to feel heard and understood,' school wellness expert says

As you talk to your kids, try not to jump in too quickly to fix their problems. Focus on listening and letting them shar
As you talk to your kids, try not to jump in too quickly to fix their problems. Focus on listening and letting them share their feelings without distractions. (Adobe Stock)

For advice for parents and families dealing with the mental toll of 2020, we turned to Stephanie Neff, supervisor of wellness and community partnerships with the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

Q: 2020 has been a difficult year for both kids and adults. Are there differences in the way kids handle stress compared to adults?

A: Children, depending on their age, developmental level, and personality, will respond and process stress in different ways.

Some children may act out in anger or frustration with the situation, others may be tearful and overwhelmed, and, similar to adults, there are those who shut down and can become very quiet and isolated.

It’s important that all children and teens have the chance to talk with a trusted adult about how the current events are affecting them. That can be a parent or guardian, but in many cases, parents are trying to take on multiple roles for their child, so helping connect a child to another trusted adult is important.

This may mean asking a teen about talking to a therapist or joining an online support group — many services are being offered at no cost through organizations such as Tanager Place.

Q: What are the main ways that parents and other adults in a child’s life can help kids handle the ongoing stress of this year?

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A: The most important way to support kids is to listen without distractions and respond without judgment or trying to “fix” their problems.

Kids are experiencing this pandemic differently from adults, so giving them space to share what is bothering them most and then helping come up with a solution together is extremely important.

We are role models for teaching kids how to deal with difficult situations — they don’t expect us to make it go away, but they do need us to meet them where they are in terms of how they are managing their own stress. Respecting that they are struggling, too, is very important.

Q: Any specific tips to share that can help individual families not only get through but thrive this school year?

A: Like adults, kids need to feel heard and understood, and it’s easy for adults to get distracted with everything we are trying to manage right now. Just knowing that you care about them and you want them to be successful goes a long way.

When they’re struggling, they need to be connected with people and resources that are relevant to what they are experiencing.

Be intentional about taking time to listen and then confirming that you heard it correctly. We often make assumptions about what others are saying, which leads to communication breakdown, especially in times of high stress.

Good nutrition and physical activity in any form will help your body build immunity and decrease stress. If you do nothing else, make sure these two things are happening every day.

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Also, this is a time to start new traditions for the holidays — we are not going to be able to celebrate the way we have in the past, so involving the whole family in finding things to do will help everyone feel like they have something to look forward to.

Q: How can you tell when your child might need additional help? Where should parents turn?

A: You know the children close to you the best, so if you think something is off, you are probably right. Try asking a question like “I’ve noticed you’ve been more (quiet, sad, angry, irritated, tired) lately. Tell me how you’ve been feeling.”

Use open questions that start with “what,” “how” or “tell me” to avoid getting short, one word, yes or no answers.

If you’re thinking your child may need additional help, don’t wait to reach out. There are many organizations in the community offering support for children and adults. Everyone is experiencing this stress differently, so what you may think of as a crisis may not fit what you’re seeing or feeling and that’s OK. The Foundation 2 crisis line is for anyone who needs to talk — sometimes just having a different perspective can help you regain control over what seems unmanageable.

Q: Other advice on how we each can end 2020 on a better note?

A: 2020 has definitely been a challenge, but it won’t end when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31.

Be intentional about reaching out and checking in with each other — not to fix, just to listen.

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Acknowledging everything we have lost in 2020 is important, and then we can focus our attention on things we have gained and how we will use our new skills to support our well-being as we move into the future.

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