Heartaches to Bellyaches. Recognizing and Calming Pandemic Stress in Our Kids (and Us)
Our children’s radar is relational. These days, we are all on edge living in isolation, fear, grief with no safety net. Except one. Here’s what can help our kids cope as we navigate the unknown.
Lu Hanessian, MSc
One day, when my now teenage son was six years-old, a bird flew into our window and died. He cried hard for the sweet creature. That night, under his covers, he whispered to me, “My whole body hurts, Mom. I can feel it.”
We’re all feeling it, now. Living and loving in isolation, blanketed by uncertainty, disoriented, frightened, flooded with fear. This crisis which has forced us into social avoidance has also pushed us to face deep discomforts brewing in us and our families. Stories of heartache and hardship are all around us, in our news, in our feeds, in our own homes.
We’re anxious. Confused. Making calculations for a future we can’t measure. Trying to keep things moving and ‘normal’ for our kids, even as we intuitively know that the old norms have collapsed and some of the old rules, in many ways, caused and held our pain.
We’re trying hard to see through our fog of anguish during these long days. Days blur. Breathing becomes shallow. Patience runs thin. Tempers flare. Tears flow. Conflicts arise and simmer without resolution. Old habits seem like the only familiar variable in a world of unknowns.
Maybe we are longing for old routines, and realizing, now, that part of our grief is the mourning of all that we tolerated while silently aching, of all we didn’t know about other people’s suffering, of all we overlooked, rationalized, put on a shelf — of all that we didn’t confront in our own restless hearts.
Our rhythms are off. We don’t have to say any of this for our children to notice and know that the rhythms are different. Off kilter. Routines are upended. Our kids are meaning-making beings, pattern recognizers, predictive analysts.
Red, red, green, red, red, green, red, red ______ blue?
Our body is always scanning and sensing our outer and inner environment. Scanning for the sudden blue that surprises our nervous systems and defies expectations. And our children, always connected and oriented toward us, pick up these signals through our relational radar.
Our children are deeply feeling and thoughtful. They imagine and sense danger, carry trauma, and harbor worries and fears. Those fears can show up in ways we may misread as rigidity, chaotic behavior, moodiness, lack of affection or fear of separation that we think come out of nowhere. We know better now. We know it from the inside out.
Our bodies know we’re hurting. Heartaches can show up as belly aches, back aches, headaches...
“My body hurts,” says Emmy, the five year-old daughter of a parent I talked with last week. “I’m scared.”
Fear seizes the body in powerful ways. It’s just doing its job. It wants our attention. In our heightened vigilance now, we wonder if sensations are symptoms. Our hearts in our throats, we check and double-check. Is everything OK? We aren’t sure. We want to be sure. Being sure is what we worked so hard on before.
Before the pandemic.
Before the cramped quarters with no deadline.
Before the threat of public places.
Before the heart aches and body aches.
Emmy isn’t scared that her body hurts. Her body hurts because she’s scared.
So are we.
Fear signals our shared human need for safety. Right now, safety hovers on a few parallel levels:
- Am I (we) safe right here, right now, with you?
- Am I (we) safe in the world, outside our home, with others?
- Will I (we) be safe in the future? Will we ever feel safe again?
Our child’s fears and worries about being unsafe don’t often show up in these words. Our kids unwittingly show us where it hurts through their actions and reactions. Instead of seeing these as ‘behavior’, we must see these as stress responses.
Maybe your child is lashing out, erupting in anger, escalating conflicts— the sympathetic nervous system’s fight response.
Maybe your child is retreating, avoiding, pulling back, suppressing emotion — the flight response.
In prolonged extreme stress, the nervous system can slip us into the lethargy, disconnection, and immobilization of the freeze response.
We can be sympathetic to our child’s nervous system. Knowing our child’s stressors (and our own) can help us to mobilize inner resources, and our relationship becomes the vehicle to co-regulate and calm.
Breathing together, hugging, walking, singing, reading, dancing, moving, baking, playing all soothe us, boost our vagal tone, bolster our immune system, and activate our parasympathetic rest and digest system — also called ‘tend and befriend’.
Tending to our child in this scary place with curiosity and compassion for both of us allows room for creativity and connection. We can animate emotions through an awareness of how feelings are embodied. Befriend painful emotions by embracing the loving wisdom of the body.
“Is there sadness in your tummy?”
“Are your jelly legs feeling scared?”
“Do you feel mad in your feet?”
We can become aware of how fear and grief show up and meet them with grace and understanding.
A mother writes to me that her seven year-old is “all over me, all over the dog, all over his brother”… “he can’t stop hugging everyone”. His stress response is not to fight or hide or freeze: it’s to flock. He needs physical contact, and probably senses others do, too. Every child feels, reacts and processes stress in his or her own way. Same goes for us. Stress is pervasive now. And fear tends to fills in the blanks.
“Your tummy feels sad? Mine too. Can we tell our tummies that it’s ok to feel sad and that we are safe together in our home and also a little sad right now?”
Empathy has deep mileage for all of us in these dark days when feeling alone is a collective placeholder for our pain.
Our children don’t always act the way they feel. They don’t always tell us what they’re feeling, not just because they can’t articulate it or pinpoint its origin. Sometimes, our kids don’t want to worry us. Some kids work to gain approval. Some don’t want our scrutiny or judgment. One child may want to portray a certain image; another may take on family stress like a calm paramedic while suffering in private.
A sad child may show up raging.
A terrified child may appear indifferent or aloof.
A lonely child may look busy and independent in our eyes.
When we practice being present — not just physically there, but there with all our senses — our body and nervous system can sense energy, tension, threat and be with it, be mindful of it, decipher it, see it through to more ease.
Cultivating a mindful state, in the moment, means we notice, observe, and bear witness with reflection, curiosity, and compassion. Our brains and bodies slowly loosen the grip of defense within us and between us. We feel and become more open to exploring what hurts and what heals.
We orient toward nature.
We cultivate creativity.
We harness imagination through play, expressive arts, making music.
We notice, locate, give a name to feelings. Normalize emotions in an abnormal time.
We love without judgment — especially of ourselves.
We become more intuitive of and receptive to our children’s subtle cues, non-verbal signals, and needs. We recognize that their overt messages are often delivered in a variety of emotional packages. And, as we practice this noticing, our kids become more receptive to their own feelings, less reactive, more adaptive, more attuned to their inner world. Because we are.
Fear is a compass. Feelings are energetic snapshots in time. The body takes inventory. We can take notice — and take heart. As we all continue to navigate these uncharted and difficult times, we are teaching our children that we and they can feel safety in relationship, even in the face of fear, and trust in the way forward.
Lu Hanessian, MSc is a stress, trauma and resilience researcher and educator, certified parent educator, author, former NBC network anchor and Discovery Health Channel host, and founder of “Raising the Future Now”.