My 7-year-old’s energy level appropriately reflects his favorite superhero—the Flash. At lightning pace, Max runs circles around our yard, our living room, and me. His emotional range tends to flow at the same speed—negative emotions can’t keep up and rarely linger. So when a friend shared about her stressed kids a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t think much about my son’s anxiety level.
At least until bedtime that night.
“I miss my friends,” my youngest confessed with a sniffle.
“Me, too, Honey,” I told him. “Is there a way I can help? Maybe we can make cards to send them in the mail? Or FaceTime them?”
“No,” he sighed. “There’s nothing we can do. I want to go back to school. I hate the coronavirus.”
Stressed kids need calm adults
School closings, changes to home and learning routines, and anxious parents. Even the most resilient kids are likely to experience the negative effects of such a dramatic shift.
My oldest is 13. Although she can talk and text with her friends, she misses sleepovers and hanging out with her youth group in person. She’s always been open when it comes to sharing her feelings with me, but I’ve noticed even she’s shut down at times to process everything going on around her.
I ache for my kids and what they’ve lost this year: middle-school endings, award assemblies, field trips, friends’ birthday celebrations, an entire baseball season. And yes, all these things are minor compared to other, more permanent losses.
But to our kids? These losses are tangible and often overwhelming.
Stressed kids need calm adults they can lean on right now. My kids need me to listen and help them sort out stress, even when there’s little I can do to fix it. But I can’t do that if I don’t know what they’re feeling.
And I’ll admit, with my own stress swirling around me, I often forget to ask.
So I’m making a note of four questions to ask my kids to gauge what’s going on in their hearts and minds.
1. How are you feeling today?
Stressed kids might not feel the same way from day to day. When my son missed his friends, he felt sad. When he wasn’t happy school was scheduled for the kitchen table instead of his first-grade classroom, it was expressed in frustration (and a little bit of anger toward the new, less-fun teacher—Mom).
Knowing what’s behind his emotions, helps me be more patient and offer solutions to ease his stress. Like moving “class” outside for the afternoon. Or even skipping math for the day and catching up tomorrow (OK, that one was for me).
Tip: Kids (let’s face it, sometimes adults, too) need help labeling their feelings. For example, fear can mask itself with anger. You may need to ask a few more questions to dig a little deeper.
How are you feeling about not getting to the park with Grandma for now? [After child answers,] Can we talk about why that makes you mad? In a situation like this, it could be fear over a grandparent getting sick.
2. What’s one good thing?
Every kid I know loves to share with adults about their day—from the breakfast they ate to the heart-shaped rock they found in the backyard. Big or small, they love to share.
I don’t have to ask this question, because my son yells “One good thing!” every time we sit down to dinner. His enthusiasm hasn’t waned since being stuck at home (neither has my body’s response to his sudden outburst beside me—ugh).
But this question offers more than just recalling of the day’s events. It gives me a peek inside the day-to-day things I miss. Especially with my teen—funny convos with her friends, a new book she’s reading in school, even fun moments with her little brother (not gonna lie, that one isn’t shared often).
And it also gives us all (especially the grownups) a moment to realize, no matter the amount of stress and anxiety, our days weren’t all bad.
Tip: Consider writing these “good things” on bits of colored paper and placing in a jar. Weekly or monthly, pull them out to review and hold onto when it’s hard to remember the good: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 77:11).
3. What’s one struggle?
After we share our good things, we each get to share one thing that bothered us that day (my friend calls this game “high and low”). It can be minor—Math was hard today (again, me). Or big—a fight with a friend or low grade on that paper they just knew they aced.
If the person is OK with discussion, the rest of the family can weigh in. But they can also choose to stop it there and move on.
Tip: At the end of the day, take time to check back in with those struggles. I know you didn’t want to talk about that fight with your friend earlier, want to talk now? There might be something underneath that argument—like genuine stress from missing out on face-to-face friendship, canceled life events, and more.
4. How can I pray for you?
One night a couple weeks ago, prayer time with Max consisted mainly of praying for a small, blue-tailed skink he caught in our garage. “Skinky” was deeply loved for the entire 24 hours he (I guess it was a he) belonged to my son. But like the frogs, salamanders, and caterpillars that came for him, we convinced Max to let him go so he could live a long life.
I didn’t need to feel the same way about that lizard (trust me, I didn’t) to know it was important to my son. We prayed for other things and people too, but when he asked to pray for that lizard I did.
Because in that moment, that was his hard thing. His heart was broken over a reptile. And he asked his mama to reach out in prayer for him to find comfort, strength, and help in the One bigger than our earthly struggles. And I hope he knows I always will.
Sometimes I know how to pray for my kids. But I admit I also struggle to know exactly how to approach God on their behalf. Especially as they grow older. Our daughter has dealt with a series of health issues over the past year. My prayers for her healing felt so routine that I confessed, “God, I don’t know how to pray for our girl right now.”
I’ve been holding on to Romans 8:26 a lot lately—”Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Tip: Don’t let prayer become a stress point. Allow God’s Spirit to step in on your behalf with God, even as you keep praying. And pray with your kids. Teach them to take their concerns, worries, frustrations, and fears to God. Remind them the God who created them cares about the big and little things in their lives.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
More than anything, your stressed kids need you
I’m a task-oriented person. I thrive on the feeling and organization of crossing things off my to-do list. When life is stressful, I cling to that even more. And while this can be a good thing, especially to keep productive while working full time at home with kids, it can also decrease my flexibility.
And that’s something I’m still learning amid all these life changes: It’s OK if there are less lines on that list. Especially if my “productivity” for the day is noticing a rambunctious little boy carrying a larger load than his little shoulders can bear.
Because more than anything, my stressed kids need me (outside of God, of course). They need me to shut the laptop a little more, play a little more, talk a little more. Or sometimes talk a little less.
I’m thankful kids are mostly resilient. I don’t know what they’ll remember about this year in the future, what they’ll tell their own children. But I do know that I hope they can share a lot of good things about this extra time at home with mom and dad.
And the struggles? They’ll be faded memories.
Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Lisa Lakey is a writer and editor for FamilyLife. Before joining the ministry in 2017, she was a freelance writer covering parenting and Southern culture. She and her husband, Josh, have been married since 2004. Lisa and Josh live in Benton, Arkansas, with their two children, Ella and Max.