What our children are holding on to

Written by Lauren Fazio

As the beginning of a new school year rapidly approaches, our kids’ backpack loads are a bit heavier this year. We’re readying ourselves to send our children to their computers or campuses, but they are coming into this school year different than before the world stopped because of COVID-19.

Their little nervous systems have been shaped by trauma—children are entering school campuses or logging into their virtual classrooms with nervous systems that are activated and have been for quite some time as this pandemic persists. When our brains sense danger, and let’s face it, the world is dangerous right now, our stress response system is activated.

We, parents and caregivers, are telling our children something like this: There’s a virus that could make us and others we love really sick or die, so we have to wear masks, keep our distance, and wash our hands frequently to stay healthy.

This information is important for kids to know, but we also have to consider the unexpected by-product of keeping them safe: Their brains and bodies are becoming activated, especially when they are leaving their homes. Cortisol and adrenaline, hormones associated with the activation of the nervous system, increase. Hypervigilance increases—scanning the environment for danger, our body stops reparative and digestive systems in the body to allow more blood flow to muscles (fight or flight response). And logical decision making goes offline, so we operate off our more primitive lower brain.

What that looks like long-term is adrenal fatigue, which can show up in students as less motivated, fatigue in their bodies, brain fog, digestive issues, somatic issues (headaches, body aches with no known medical cause), and less access to critical thinking.

Nervous systems strive for and crave predictability and stability. The core nature of a pandemic is that it is unstable, variable, and inconsistent. In July of this year, we felt like we were about to turn a corner, and now we are back to where we were last summer with cases all over the country surging with the Delta variant. Talk about emotional whiplash.

A year and half in and we are still experiencing the trauma of a global pandemic, yet its impact is not equal—many of us face fears related to risk factors around race, access to vaccines, health vulnerabilities, caring for vulnerable people in our households whom cannot be vaccinated yet, unemployment, worries about gaining employment vs. risk of exposure, financial hardships, housing insecurity, fatigue of parents balancing at-home work and childcare, and the list goes on.

Even if you are not directly experiencing these, you could be worrying about loved ones who are. Additionally, many, many families and children across our country are entering this new school year with their families forever changed by loss. Our kids carry these worries, exhaustion, and stress with them, too.

If someone hasn’t reassured you yet, let me: It’s ok to not know what to do. We are still in a collective process of grieving, and we’re tired. So, so tired.

Talk about what you’re feeling

It’s ok to show children our emotions. This is a normative part of the human experience; we grieve, we become frustrated or angry, we worry. If we deny to our children that we are experiencing emotions other than happiness, we create shame and discomfort in being an authentic human.

Talk to your children in developmentally appropriate ways about what’s happening in your thoughts and bodies as well as how you plan on caring for yourself through this emotional experience.

For example: “I know you noticed that I started crying when I talked to Grandma on the phone. I’m feeling sad and worried that she is sick. It’s ok to feel sad and worried when someone we love isn’t well. When I feel sad, sometimes I cry or sometimes my tummy feels like it’s in knots. Does that ever happen to you? Grandma is in really good hands with the doctor and they are taking such good care of her. I’m going to take a walk to get some fresh air and focus on my breathing because that helps my body feel calm. Do you want to come with me?”

When we name what we’re feeling and offer ways that we care for ourselves, we teach our kids this process—they’re little sponges waiting to absorb new information, and if you’re a parent or caregiver, you know they are always watching you!

Practice grounding strategies

Grounding strategies to model and teach our kids include:

  • Deep breathing exercises (with little kids, you may call them “belly breaths” or just blowing bubbles together increases deep breathing)
  • 5-senses exercise (name five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, one thing you taste within the room you’re in—this brings attention back to the present and away from your worries)
  • Take a walk
  • Mindful activities (focus your attention solely on the activity at hand—eating, walking, brushing your hair for several minutes)
  • Guided meditation (there are many apps, online videos, and even Netflix has a show, Headspace)
  • Kids yoga (many online video options)
  • Mindfully using sensory activities such as playdough, sand, paint, coloring, and stress balls to bring your focus to the present.

Our worries take us away from the present and out of our bodies. It can also activate our stress response system. Grounding is a way to bring us back online—back to our logical-thinking, calm state. It’s not a fix-all, but it can provide that little bit of relief that will help us to slow our breathing, which tells our bodies that we are safe.

A few closing thoughts

Kids thrive with consistency and predictability, and this pandemic has stolen our ability to give them this. Talk to your kids about how parenting decisions could feel inconsistent (they’ll probably say “unfair”), that right now each decision you make as a parent about their safety could change.

For example, today an activity in our community may feel safe, and next week, it could not. Honor the dissonance and confusion that will stir within ourselves and our children when this occurs. This month you may feel comfortable sending your child to on-campus learning, but should mask mandates change the following month, virtual learning may be the safest option for your family

Recognize and validate the frustration and grief that may show up in your child. If your child is participating in yet another year of virtual learning, talk with them about how they’re feeling about starting school in this way again.

What worked really well last year? What didn’t? Giving space for our children to feel what they feel, talk about it, and not have to have an immediate solution (because there may just not be one) will model healthy processing, emotional expression, and seeking out connection to supports we trust. This process can show our kids that we can hold the emotions they have, no matter how big, and that we will sit with them in that tough, hard place for as long as it’s needed.

They won’t be alone, and we’re here to guide them through those big feelings. Those moments of connection, of feeling seen and heard, are moments that this pandemic can’t steal from us.


The author, Lauren Fazio, LMSW, is a Child and Family Therapist at The SAFE Alliance.