"I feel tired"
"I feel anxious"
"My stomach has butterflies"
"I just want to stay home"
"I have a lot on my plate right now"
Have you ever found yourself saying one of these things? I know I have (maybe more now than usual). These are just a few of the way we, as individuals who can share our thoughts with words, express that we are feeling stressed.
But... what about those who can't speak with their voice/words easily?????
Many people can fall into this category: stroke survivors, those with neurodegenerative diseases, children.... But for today, let's focus on the latter: children.
How does someone who can't speak or easily communicate their thoughts and feelings with words share that they are stressed? How does a child who may not quite understand what 'stress' is yet, share how she is feeling?
Children may express their anxieties a little differently than we do. It COULD look like:
poor sleeping, restless
cries more often, moodier than normal
needs more cuddles than usual
shows behaviors that are not typical (i.e., hitting, screaming, throwing things)
shows behaviors that are typical but does them more often, aggressively, and/or excessively (ie. excessive hitting, yelling, throwing things)
The list can go on and on. We must remember: Our children who are nonverbal (unable to speak using voice) still speak to us. We just have to be detectives sometimes to pick up on the message they are sending. They communicate with us with their actions and behaviors.
So, you notice your son is crying more, needs more cuddles, and is having new outbursts of hitting. How do we go about handling this situation in a way that promotes successful communication?
1. Talk to him. Whether he is verbal or nonverbal, let him know you see he is trying to tell you something. This can be a simple, "John, you're crying a lot today, are you feeling scared/tired/sad?"(sometimes we have to provide options if they are too young to label their emotions on their own). For children who are nonverbal the same thing applies. For example: "You look sad/scared/tired"(it's OK to label the emotion you see so they learn the word that goes with the emotion they are showing).
2. Be supportive. It's easy to lose our own patience especially when we are
also stressed. But it's important to take the time to give that extra cuddle, say
an extra 'I love you', or spend a few extra minutes lying next to them while they
fall asleep for nap or the evening. These are formative years and stability is key.
3. Take care of yourself. Our own stresses may be altering our moods, how we engage with our children, or how much of our attention we are giving to our children. This can make them confused- especially young children who don't know about sickness, jobs, and money woes. For older kids, when they see us stressed, they can become stressed even if they don't fully understand the situation. Find a balance between the time you need to reduce your own anxieties ( see: Covid-19, You don't scare me! (Part 1: Adults)) and creating a calm, stable environment for the child. Feel like yelling? Quietly walk away. Feel like crying? Take a private moment to regroup. All these feelings are completely normal! Be mindful: how we handle our emotions in front of our kids will be how our children handle their emotions. So, if they see us yelling and flipping our lids, they will express those same behaviors.
For children who don't speak using their voices, it's important to use the communication system they are learning to use (assistive technology device, iPad with a communication app, PECS, or picture icons). Modeling is the key for language development, for all children, no matter how a child is learning language. If a child looks sad, show them the 'sad' icon on their device or in their communication book. Say the word 'sad '. Expand on that and add words like ' feel sad ', 'I sad ', ' or 'look sad '. MODEL. MODEL. MODEL.
Final Thought: We are in scary times. There is a lot of stress, unknowns, and fears circulating. It's easy to get caught up in all the worries. But keep in mind, worrying doesn't change the situation. It doesn't make it better in any way, shape, or form. It steals our joy, time, and sanity. Let's make the deliberate choice to stay hopeful and share a kind deed/word with someone else who may be struggling.
"Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up."
(For more verses about worrying click here)