Debra Kessler, R.N., M.N., Psy.D
For a sapling to emerge as a stable and sturdy tree, it establishes a deep root system and a thick trunk. From there, growth takes time and support. It must withstand environmental stressors, competition for water, nutrients, winds and other adversities. In the forest, a canopy provided by the more mature trees shelter the small and more young fragile ones. These taller trees protect and insulate the young tree from fierce winds and filter light that permit just enough light and keep the soil from becoming parched. This protection permits the root structure to take hold and girth to expand. In an orchard, a sapling is staked to provide support to the younger fruit trees. This support to provides the stability, keeping it upright and anchored until it can stand on its own with a strong trunk and grounded root system.
This metaphor comes to mind when I meet with another young person who has trouble going to sleep at night or is tormented by worries. As the stories unfold, I hear about witnessing gang violence or fear of gun violence in her school. Kidnappings, rape and gun violence have been part of our society for a long time. The increased frequency and intensity of anxiety I am seeing in our children has led me to wonder about why they are so anxious, struggling to feel grounded and secure.
Unwelcome events interject themselves into our lives and those of our children in insidious and unexpected ways. The world is complicated and with the speed of communication, it is harder for parents to offer the insulation to give their children the time to build the sturdy trunk to manage when things get intense. We use to be able to shelter our children from tragedies that dodn’t directly impact them. The insulation and ability to protect our children from information or experiences is no longer under our control. It is inevitable that our kids will get information or misinformation through many streams whether it be TV news, social networking, magazines, newspapers, classroom teachers and talk on the playground.
The threshold for tolerance of novelty or threat varies widely with our children. Some kids love going to horror movies. These are the hardy types who may not show or express distress. In some ways they are like dandelions that manage in spite of harsh conditions. They are generally more daring and undisturbed by what comes their way. Others take longer to grow the roots and resilience to manage in the world. Like roses, they may be more challenging to get rooted. These children may hide their eyes when Dori’s mother dies in a Finding Nemo. For those who are more tender, their distress is obvious and require more of us to minimize their exposure to overwhelm. What is most challenging is when a rose is mistaken for a dandelion. The emergence of their distress may be hidden, buried deeper within the structure impeding further growth. Some plants grow with a twist or bend, evidence of an early exposure to stress.
Sometimes we think our kids who are verbal and bright, can handle more information than they are emotionally ready. They show themselves as capable in so many ways, managing themselves and their school work. We enjoy and delight in their cleverness and competence to talk about ideas. We may be deceived by the capacity of these children to handle more than they actually can. This verbal competence is not the same as emotional maturity or having the root structure to withstand the intensity of life’s challenges. I fact, the awareness of these kids’ of the world around them may make them more prone to suppressing or hiding their worries either because they believe it is expected or they seek to not worry those they love. Their underdeveloped coping efforts maybe covert thereby escaping our awareness. It may bubble up in sleep issues, eating issues, over-investment in distraction – reading, playing on the internet. Some dissociate, check out. Others when overwhelmed will resort to substances or under the radar self-harm behaviors (hair pulling, scratching, nail picking). While these strategies may not initially prompt concern, discussion of emotions is essential to building the resilience.
As parents, this leaves us to figure out how to best support a solid root structure and allow our children to be grow the stability that will support them when the unexpected winds whip through their lives. Here are some specific suggestions to support you in this role:
1) Check in with your children about information they are hearing or seeing (magazines, newspapers, social media, TV, etc.)
2) Be curious, explore with they what they understand.
3) Share honestly what you know (facts) and what you are doing that is supporting their
4) Assure your children that you are watching out for them, it is your responsibility to take
care of them and you are a team in this process
5) Listen carefully and patiently to their expression of worries. Don’t correct or jump in to
reassure. Rather, let them know that their emotions are understandable and take the
time to teach adaptive coping strategies:
a. Check the likelihood that the fears will be realized
b. Identify what is in our control (our own behavior) and act accordingly (social
distancing, handwashing, sleeping enough, eat food, take vitamins)
c. Increase virtual social engagement
d. Practice mindful breathing
e. Exercise – create obstacle courses at home or other physical challenge games
f. Throw yourself into an activity, game that is in the present moment.
g. Help them process the situation through creativity – drawing, painting, writing,
dancing, making up song or stories. Consider daily news casts with peers.
As you consider the above strategies, consider you are tending to the young sapling in your midst. In times of stress you can step up and add what is needed to support their resilience by adding the right amount of care and attention.