Dr. Linda, since the separation with my husband my baby has been refusing to eat and is really fussy. Could her behavior be because of the separation? isn’t she too young to understand or feel stress?
Unfortunately, the answer is , no, she is not too young! But the good news is that there is a lot you can do to help her through this difficult time!
General guidance for helping children of all ages cope with stress and anxiety
We’ll start very general : Children of different ages tend to have different responses to stress. It is important you recognize these responses as stress or anxiety so you can manage them in confident, heathy and proactive ways.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you (as an aware, conscious parent) need to do whatever you can to lower the amount of stress your child feels which means that you must take care of yourself also!
The way you manage the stress and anxiety of the situation sets the tone for how your children will cope.
To help your child cope well with stressful situations at any age, here are a few general pointers.
Take care of yourself and manage your own emotions in healthy ways. Children pick up on your stress and may react to it in addition to reacting to whatever they themselves are feeling. When you use healthy coping skills, not only do you feel calmer and more in control , you are teaching your children by your example productive ways to cope with challenges.
If your child is above 2-3 years old, let your child know what is happening depending on their age and level of understanding
Teach your children age-appropriate, healthy ways to manage strong emotions and stress.
Signs of ‘stress or anxiety’ in children less than 2 years old
In a traumatic situation, your child may pick up on your stress and the stress other family members are feeling.
They may start showing stress behaviors in the form of :
Fussiness and excessive crying.
Withdrawal from interacting with you or others
Refusing to play with their toys.
How to help your young baby manage stress and anxiety
If you notice any of the above signs after a traumatic event following are a few ways you can help your baby feel calmer, more , relaxed and secure:
Stay as calm as you can when you are around them. Practice stress relief strategies as often as you can. Remember the calmer you are, the calmer and more secure your baby will feel.
Focus your full attention on your child when you are with them to let them know how important they are to you ( turn off your cell phones, social media, etc.) .
Give your child as much physical cuddling and holding as you can.
Reassure your baby often (in words) that you will take good care of them , even if you don’t think they’ll understand the words . Tell them often how much you love them.
Keep your daily routines in place. Routines are very calming and relaxing for babies and young children. Knowing what is going to happen and when, gives them a sense of continuity, of safety and of security in situations that may feel ‘out of control’ to them
Remember, the calmer and more present you are the safer your baby will feel and the less chance there is of their having long terms effects from the traumatic event.
Talking to your children
To help your older toddler and child cope during and after a traumatic situation here is what you need to share with them:
What is happening. (In age-appropriate language and detail.)
How it will affect them
What you are doing to keep them safe or protect them.
What others are doing to keep them safe and protect them.
How they can help themselves, and, if they are older, how they can help support themselves, your family and their friends.
Whenever you are going to talk to your child take the time to calm yourself first.
Take three deep breaths in through your nose and out through your nose (or mouth). This is a quick, easy way to activate your relaxation response and to calm down yourself.
The calmer and more present you are, the better you will be able to reassure them and the safer they will feel.
How to support your stressed child
The best way to support your child depends on their age and their development. It is very important that you recognize the signs of stress at different ages so you can intervene and help your child in age-appropriate ways.
Generally, children under the age of 2 don’t have the verbal skills to understand the details of what is happening but they do feel stress and act on it.
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