What Happened to My World? – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 36

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“What happened to my world?” “Am I going to be okay — will everyone be okay?” When stress and trauma disrupt your child’s life, what can you say and do to help them feel safe and secure? Early childhood experts Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss say the four pillars of security — people, places, routines, and rituals — can guide your child through difficult times. On this episode, learn how to bring these pillars to life and find out how you can use them to offer reassurance and reduce the effects of toxic stress.

You can also listen to this podcast episode on SpotifyAppleStitcher, YouTube, and Libsyn.


Resources: What Happened to My World?

  • Take a look at this on-demand webinar for more guidance from our early childhood experts, on stress, trauma, and how to help your child feel safe.
  • Learn more about the four pillars of security that create stability during difficult times and situations.
  • Here’s our complete, downloadable guide, “What Happened to MY World?” to help families through trauma and stress.

Read the full transcript

Claire: Hi Rachel. We are here today to talk about kind of a heavy topic. We’re here to talk about kids and stress and trauma.

Rachel: Yes. This is a topic that all of us wish we didn’t have to discuss in relation to children. I know that both of us wish we didn’t have to do that, and I know parents, family members wish that we could keep really difficult kinds of stress and trauma away from children. But we can’t, in a lot of situations. Extraordinary events like school violence, terrorist attacks, maybe natural disasters – those things are happening each day around the world. And whether it's happening directly to us, we're in the community we're hearing about it, kids can be affected by all of those things, not to forget the stress and trauma of those families directly impacted by illness and death caused by the last year and a half of the pandemic and COVID-19.

Claire: Yeah. I absolutely wish that I could just wave a magic wand around my kids and all the kids in my community and make it so that no one ever had to face anything like that. But it's happening every day, every week to kids and families in our community and our state and our country. And so kids just have to deal with the darker side of life sometimes. It's just a fact.

Rachel: Yeah. And I want to just pause here before we keep going and talk about the different kinds of stress. There is just normal, everyday stress. And that's okay and actually something we don't want to avoid all the time. We don't want a life full of stress. But stress is just a natural reaction to change or something different or when we have to adapt. A lot of good things cause stress. And when we have natural, everyday types of stress, this is when we learn those lessons in life that are so important. Children develop a lot of important skills like resilience and how to persevere and how to change their approach or make a mistake and learn from it. So, we don't want to... This isn't about that kind of stress. This is about the kind of stress that we would call toxic stress. And that means it can have a real impact developmentally on a child. And that's why we're worried about it, certainly, as well as why we have some resources around it to help children get through that. But as much as we worry about it, there are some things that families can do in these situations, as hard as they are.

Claire: Yeah. I'm really glad you made that distinction because, certainly, like you said, good things cause stress and good things can come from good stress, but that's not the kind of stress we're talking about today.

Rachel: Like I said earlier, disasters, something really violent or a natural disaster or something that really disrupts your family life or your child's life. And when kids are in that situation, they are thinking a couple of things. And this is no matter how old they are. I mean, frankly, adults are thinking these things too. "Am I going to be okay? Will you be okay? Will everyone I love be okay? And will the world I know be okay?" And this is that bottom rung of the Maslow's hierarchy is just, you're thinking like, "Are the things that matter to me, the people that matter to me, what is familiar to me, is that gone? Is it coming back?" And this lack of control and lack of clarity about what's going on can cause additional stress. So, kids are looking in this moment for security, for safety, predictability, and something they can manage. And again, that's what adults want in these stressful... That's what I've wanted this last couple years. That's what people want. And that's what starts to mitigate some of the stress and the effects of stress. We have a resource called "What Happened to My World?" that was developed after 9/11 and we have new iterations of it. And continually we add ideas and resources on how to handle different kinds of catastrophes, but consistently, in that resource, we talk about four pillars of security that help face life's struggles. And those are people, places, routines, and rituals. And we're going to talk about each of those.

Claire: So, each of those four things that Rachel just listed are the things that make children feel really safe and secure when stress and trauma is unfolding. So, I'm gonna start by talking about people. So, this may be kind of an obvious one as people are always the most important thing in a child's life, even when things are wonderful, people are the number one source of security, so, obviously, even more important when things are unstable. The most insecure feeling of all in the world for any of us is that feeling of being alone. Having someone familiar and trusted around, someone who loves you, knows you, understands you, that is what provides that level of security that children need when things are stressful. So, it's important to note here. I work with a lot of families and parents. We all know it's really easy to support and respect children when they're at their emotional and behavioral best.

Rachel: Right. Good point.

Claire: It's much harder when circumstances beyond their control may have driven them to their worst. So, we've all been in those situations of good stress and mild stress, mild bad stress where your children are not behaving the way you would expect. And during catastrophe and disaster, extreme illness, loss of a parent, all of these situations that are really, really stressful for children, our expectations of them have to change, right? And it's our job as the adults in the situation to continue to show up and be that stable, secure caregiver that they need. So, bring understanding, compassion, thoughtfulness. All those things are required by the adults who care for these children. And that includes teachers and parents. It is so difficult. I don't want to make it sound like this is an easy thing to do. When you are under stress and your child is under stress, it is difficult sometimes to dig down and find that compassion, but it really is so important that you present to your child as a stable force.

Rachel: Yeah. I think that we could underline that about 10 times as the most important thing you can do. So, if you, as the adult, are feeling a level of stress that you aren't going to do that for your child, that's when you need to make your village, call your village, call for help, ask for help from other adults that can help you even if it's just for a half hour, because that's the biggest gift you can give your child in that moment. And we're not... We've both been through things like this ourselves and know that our own feelings are really hard to manage, let alone a five-year-old who doesn't know how to manage their feelings or have a lot of options. Even if a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, 10-year-old is feeling like they'd like to try to help or they'd like to calm themselves, they don't even developmentally have that many options. So, of course, they're gonna have challenging behavior. We, as adults, have more options, but we're stressed too. So, again, if there's anything that you get out of this, it's make sure you have a backup plan, make sure you have some help because you being there and compassionate is the most important thing you can do.

Claire: That's absolutely right. And it's not that we're saying that you need to hide any negative feelings you're having. You're allowed to use your feelings vocabulary that we're always talking about and say, "I'm feeling sad too." It's okay to label feelings, but then you're still presenting that you're gonna keep showing up with your understanding and your thoughtfulness even in the face of these difficult feelings.

Rachel: You can even model saying, "I need a little bit of a break," just like you need a break, "Well, let's take turns having a break," or, "I'm gonna lay down and read my book for a while and then you do that." Whatever you need to do, sharing your feelings and sharing how you're managing your feelings and modeling how to handle stress is as valuable as anything else you can do in these moments.

Claire: Absolutely. That's what creates that security. I'm in a safe place and it's a safe place to feel sad, it's a safe place to feel happy.

Rachel: Right.

Claire: Okay. Let's move on to the next pillar of security that's places. So, if you think of a time in your life that you felt secure and safe and happy and your stress level was low, it probably had something to do with the people you were with, it probably also had something to do with the environment you were in, the place where you were. A familiar place can be really relaxing and comfortable. You can think about throwing open the door to your house at the end of the day, the sounds, the smells, the sights are all familiar. For a child, that's really important. Their guard goes down. They can feel like they can be themselves. They can relax. And it's the same thing in a classroom setting where a child is comfortable. They walk in and there's the sights and the smells and the sounds that they're used to there.

So, places can really provide a lot of comfort. We have the freedom to create a sanctuary. Safe places can also give us that space to pause like you were just mentioning and take a break from tricky moments. It's important also to note that depending on the kind of stress catastrophe or disaster your family might be going through, your secure place might be threatened or gone. If your family has had to relocate due to a disaster, the best you can do to recreate a secure place is to perhaps have an item or something that reminds your child of a safe place. So, whether that's a blankie, or a toy, a stuffed animal. If all those things are gone too, you can sing a song, you can maybe find a food that would remind them of a secure place. So, they're just having some kind of familiarity. And of course, you also will double as a place. I think sometimes a parent's or a caregiver's lap can also be a secure place for children.

Rachel: Yeah. I actually have a sign in my house that says, "Home is where your mom is." It depends on... It doesn't have to be or at least I'm telling myself, it doesn't have to be the exact place. But I think that that's exactly right. In anything that they can control, if they can decorate, if they can make it their own, even if it's choosing out a pillowcase, as small as that is, if they have some sense of control and some sense of familiarity, it really helps a lot.

Claire: Yep.

Rachel: Okay. I'll talk about routines and rituals. And these are somewhat similar, but they play different roles. So, routines are just our patterns throughout the day. We all have a routine. We all get into routine. Sometimes we might have a different routine on a day off or a weekend or a weekday or days we are going into the office or not. But we all have a general sense of routine getting up around the same time, doing the same order of things. And that gives us more security than most adults realize. It also helps us feel secure and safe. We know what to expect from ourselves. We know how to succeed or we have at least a sense of how to succeed throughout the day. And it gives us a structure about what to expect next.

And this is so important for children because they don't have the capability to understand the calendar or the clock or understand how to predict what's next. And you know, most children are along for the ride. They're not calling the shots on how the day is scheduled. So, their comfort doesn't come from having control over the day and planning their day. Their comfort comes from knowing what to expect next. "If I do this, then we do this, and then we do this." And that provides a lot of safety and, again, a feeling of control, "I know how to succeed here. I know what's expected of me." And so even though it's really hard, your routine gets really disrupted in times of crisis. Find how to bring a routine back, start a new routine, write the schedule out, talk about it together, maybe take pictures of the routine together so you know, "Okay. We're gonna make our beds, and then after that, we're gonna go to breakfast, and then this is what we're gonna do next." Whatever it might be. And you can move that around a little bit. It doesn't have to be a rigid routine, but that sense of next, "What's coming? What am I going to do? What's going to be expected of me?" is really important.

Claire: Yeah. You see that in classrooms a lot, right? If you've ever been to a preschool classroom, you'll walk in and often an educator will have kind of a graphic, an icon calendar on the wall. It shows, like, this is when we're gonna go to the bathroom, this is when we're gonna go outside and play, then we're gonna come in and do storytime. And there's a reason for that, it's because we know as educators that visually showing the routine what's next makes kids feel safe.

Rachel: And some of what you were saying before too, is you don't have to look for things. When you have a routine, you know what's going to happen next, so you don't have to be thinking about it. When you have to think about things or be really aware of your surroundings or every decision you make has to be a decision versus, "Oh, this just happens because life is set up for that." That becomes more stressful and it's harder for us to reduce the impact of that toxic stress if we're constantly in that cycle of change.

So, rituals is especially, meaningful when you're having a lot of stress or trauma. So, having them in place is important before that all the time, but then you need them and will rely on them because if the routine and the place is disrupted, the rituals don't have to be disrupted. So, rituals are those little things that have a lot of meaning, maybe they're every day, maybe they're a couple of times a day or a week or a month, or whatever they are. Maybe it's the first cup of coffee and you always have it at the same time, you sit in the same chair, and you have it in the same cup. Or you read three stories before bedtime every night, and then two kisses on the cheek, and then off to bed. Those kinds of things just seem like silly little things that we do with our kids or with ourselves, but kids rely on those things, they look forward to them. It's how you're building your relationship. They're very special. We can all think about those things in our past. And you can do those no matter where you are to make sure those things are still happening. And that feels very comforting and reassuring. "I have my people. Things are still happening in my life."

Do you have a ritual you can think of that you did with your kids? I can think of one. My oldest at bedtime came up with a ritual of big kiss little kiss. So, one cheek got a giant kiss and one cheek got a tiny little peck on the cheek. And that signaled that was it, that was last call. There was no encore after that. The big kiss, little kiss, lights out, mum's leaving, or dad's leaving. Didn't matter who was putting you to bed. There was a lot of negotiating before that. Do you have to go to the bathroom? Do you need socks or not? Yes, I have the stuffed animal but once big kiss little has happened. And then we go on vacation, any kind of stressful thing comes along, big kiss little kiss stayed. Always part of the ritual. She's a teenager now. Do I sometimes still try to do big kiss little kiss? Yes, I do.

Claire: Yeah. And in her mind, she's still appreciating even though she might not express that.

Rachel: Yeah.

Claire: I traveled a lot when my kids were younger. And I would always go to the library before I left and they'd each get to pick out a book, and then we'd always pick a book that had at least two copies. And I would get the second book and I would take it with me and we would read over the phone at night.

Rachel: Oh, I like that.

Claire: And so we're not still doing that, but they have talked about that that was really helpful to them as a ritual that we kept in place even when I was traveling, even when they couldn't see me. I'm so jealous of Zoom calls that you can do now because I would have loved those then. But that was really helpful to us. Got us to the library on a regular basis, which was also a great ritual in our family.

Rachel: So, when you are a family and you have a crisis, like we mentioned, all these awful dark things that can happen in a human life and you're trying to figure out what you can do to support your child through the stress or you have a friend or a neighbor or a loved one going through stress and they have a child in their life, these are the four pillars we really recommend that you focus on, the people, places, routines, and rituals. Those are the things that you can keep stable when things become shaky and it feels like everything's crashing down around you, things feel strange, you feel out of place, you can really focus on those four things, and it helps children a lot.

Claire: Yeah, it sure does. It helps more than you would think it helps. And then, of course, if there are additional concerns or you need intervention or support from someone externally, don't hesitate to ask for that. This is exactly when your kids need you to say, "I need more help. These things aren't working or I can't do them, or I need some help with them." But start here. They will provide a lot of support and compassion for children and help reduce the effect of toxic stress. So, let me just summarize a couple of takeaways, and then I also want to remind you and we'll share how you can get access to this. This resource, "What Happened to My World?" does provide ideas resources, how to answer tough questions about some of the specific crises we talked about, about natural disasters, about a shooting, about death in the family. So, we encourage you to use that for specific topics.

So, to take away from today, we encourage consistency, everyday routines and favorite rituals, making the environment feel safe for talking about feelings and thoughts with the people in the space and the space itself. Listen. Kids don't need so much advice, especially in these moments. They need to know that they're hurt. They need to know that there's an adult listening and loving them. Help them live right. Don't forget about your own or their eating, healthy eating, rest, sleep and ask yourself, "Do I need additional support for myself?" Be honest about that and don't hesitate to get it when you need it.

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About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
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