By: Rachel Gilgoff, MD, FAAP & Devika Bhushan, MD, FAAP
Going through something stressful—losing a loved one, being bullied or even the wear and tear of constant small stressors—can affect a child for years in sometimes unexpected ways. The good news is that your child can heal and grow through these stressful experiences without long-term effects on health. And in the process of helping them do this, you may build a closer relationship with them.
Starting the healing process
After an extremely stressful experience, children may feel that they are "broken." They may feel that something is wrong with them, or that they are just "bad."' It can be helpful to remind your child:
They did nothing to deserve what happened to them.
They are having normal reactions to an abnormal experience.
The experience may have hurt them, but healing is possible.
Healing tools & strategies for you and your child
Safe, supportive, nurturing relationships can make all the difference for a child who is struggling through something stressful. Try these relationship-building activities with your child:
Worries may keep us awake, cause nightmares or restless sleep, and younger kids may start
wetting the bed again. When children are stressed, they may need more flexible bedtime routines and more help falling asleep, such as:
Comforting items and relaxing routines
For children experiencing separation anxiety at night (common after stressful or traumatic events), consider providing reassurance that you are still present and give concrete reminders such as:
Love notes stuck around the bedside
Pieces of clothing that smell like you
For some children, consider staying in their room while they fall asleep or even letting them sleep with you for a short period of time as they process the stressful experience.
Use light to your advantage
During the day, especially early on, get direct exposure to natural sunlight. This helps regulate sleep, mood and immune function, among other systems. At night, reduce exposure to screens and artificial lights by dimming them. You can even consider blue light-blocking glasses to limit exposure to the blue wavelengths of light that especially wake the brain up.
Balanced, anti-inflammatory nutrition
Stress can increase inflammation in the body. Stress can also lead us to over- or under-eat or crave foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar. Knowing this can help us be kind to ourselves and our kids when they reach for the brownie and the potato chips—and how we might help.
Make it easier to eat healthy foods like nuts, avocados, cheese and fruits.
Increase the availability of vegetables (fresh or frozen!) at snacks and meals.
Skip the juice and soda and
drink water instead.
Reduce foods that increase inflammation such as processed food and white (simple) carbohydrates.
Exercise can be a powerful way of releasing extra stress energy and counteracting the stress response. Consider:
Getting outside and enjoying nature
Time in the outdoors can be calming, build resilience and be a source of exercise.
Mindfulness practices can help calm the stress response, improve self-regulation skills and increase self-compassion and empathy:
Soothing, rhythmic sensory activities can help reset the way stress is stored in our nervous system and body. Consider:
Movement (dancing, walking, jumping, swinging, rocking, swimming)
Occupational or physical therapy
Self-regulation and other coping skills
Your child will be better able to deal with stress as they learn to manage their feelings and behavior.
Build in extra structure and routines. This may include developing transition plans for going from one activity to the next, for example.
Talk about and model how to
name and manage strong emotions, and when to seek help or take time away from a situation.
Finding purpose and meaning
This can help when we wonder "Why did this happen?" "Why me?" "Why did I survive and my friend or relative didn't?" Even young children can benefit from these activities.
A spiritual practice or connecting to a religious community
Helping others through service or volunteer work
Finding a calling or purpose, including helping fix systemic injustices
Becoming a peer supporter
Cognitive and emotional support
Trauma and stress can impact how we think and relate to others. Some children may need extra support through:
Working on your own stress responses & modeling healing strategies
We know that a stressful time for your child is a stressful time for you, too. It is okay for you to not be okay and all these strategies
and additional resources can help you, too!
Reaching out to your child's doctor for additional support
Your pediatrician can provide more resources. For some children, medications can be an important, possibly temporary treatment for addressing certain stress-related symptoms, in combination with the above steps.
About Dr. Gilgoff
Rachel Gilgoff, MD, FAAP is an integrative medicine specialist, child abuse pediatrician, researcher, science writer, and mother of two amazing kiddos. She is dedicated to improving care for stress-related health issues and promoting lifelong health and wellness.
About Dr. Bhushan
Devika Bhushan, MD, FAAP is an equity- and resilience-focused pediatrician, public health leader, parent, and Indian-American immigrant who served as California’s Acting Surgeon General in 2022. She leads a community focused on resilience and well-being at