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Child Life Series: How to Help Your Kids Cope with Stress

December 27th, 2023  | Child Life Resources  | News  | Resources


At Hope for HIE, we recognize that navigating the complexities of HIE can go beyond medical care. That’s why we’ve assembled a dedicated team to offer comprehensive support to all family members, including our kiddos with medical complexities and their siblings.

Annie Gunning, our certified child life specialist, recently engaged in a Q&A session aimed at equipping parents with valuable tools, strategies, and resources that will help kids across all ages and developmental levels cope with stress.

Read on for access to Annie’s expertise and toolbox of resources!

What is the role of a Child Life Specialist?

In her role as the Child Life Specialist at Hope for HIE, Annie’s main objective is to help children and families navigate medicalized life. She focuses on empowering and supporting both children and their caregivers, fostering the ability to advocate for their needs while simultaneously reducing stress, pain, and anxiety. This often looks like support for patients and their families facing surgeries, tests, procedures, diagnoses, and hospitalizations by offering preparation, creating personalized coping plans, providing education, fostering creative expression, and incorporating medical play.

What are some common signs that a child may be experiencing stress or anxiety?

As a parent, legal guardian, or caregiver, you are an expert when it comes to knowing and understanding your child. With that said, there are general signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety that you can look out for to help you navigate and address these feelings when they arise:

  • Disruption of sleeping patterns or change in sleeping habits
  • Increased irritability or physical aggression, liking hitting or kicking
  • Increased separation anxiety or regressive behavior
  • Acting angry, uncooperative, anxious, or confused

Every child has their own baseline behavior, and any big changes from their usual behavior may be a cause for concern. It’s important to remember that acting out or challenging behaviors are often a child’s way of communicating their needs. Consider them as potential signals that your child may be experiencing anxiety or stress.

How can parents differentiate between normal stress responses and signs that their child may need professional help or counseling?

While occasional stress is a part of life, persistent stress responses that linger for an extended period are more of a red flag. If your child continues to exhibit signs of stress, anxiety, or mood changes for weeks on end, it may be time to consider additional support. Really, it comes down to your gut: you know your child, and if their behavior seems different, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

What are age-or-developmentally appropriate strategies that parents can use to help their child with a medical complexity cope with stress?

From encouraging creative expression to fostering personalized comfort, these techniques are versatile: apply them at face value or modify and adapt them to suit the unique needs of your child.

  • Allow for and validate their emotions:
    Encourage your child to express their emotions openly, and validate their feelings to create a supportive environment.
  • Identify strengths:
    Having your child recognize and focus on their strengths fosters a sense of empowerment and resilience.
  • Allow time for free play and/or creative expression:
    Some materials, like clay, sand, or paint, are quite cathartic in nature.
  • Get in their world:
    Actively participate in your child’s play for 15 to 20 minutes, whether it’s basketball, pretend play, or video games.
  • Use a timer to help with transitions:
    Providing a visual cue for upcoming changes is a proven strategy for reducing anxiety.
  • Allow space for de-escalation:
    This could look like providing a calm and quiet space or practicing deep breathing or stretching to promote relaxation.
  • Make a gratitude journal or jar:
    Whether it’s something big or small, this can shift your child’s mindset to one that is more positive.
  • Interact with animals:
    Encourage therapeutic play with your furry friends at home or livestream animals at Explore.org.
  • Special Time Cards:
    Use these cards from Mighty and Bright to have focused, one-on-one time with your child without any distractions.
  • Set mini goals:
    Chunking larger tasks or accomplishing small goals has the power to alleviate stress.

When your child is experiencing stress or anxiety regarding an upcoming medical event, having clear conversations about what to expect can mitigate these feelings. Of course, the way in which you approach this differs with your child’s age and development. For more guidance, take a look at our previous Child Life Q&A with Annie, in which she explores more strategies for helping your child (and their sibling) prepare for an upcoming test, procedure, or hospitalization.

What are some tools or strategies for siblings to help them manage their stress?

While the above ideas can and do apply to siblings, Annie provides additional options that can specifically address their unique needs, situations, and stress levels!

  • Maintain Routine:
    Ensuring stability in daily routines (to the best of your ability, of course) helps manage stress by creating predictability.
  • Identify other family members or friends who can help:
    Help your child come up with a list of people in their lives that they feel comfortable talking to or letting them help.
  • Recharge with healthy habits:
    Eating well and getting enough sleep are two simple but effective ways to reduce stress.
  • Take a shower or bath:
    Hot water and steam can help with emotional regulation, plus it gives them time to calm down, relax, and think.
  • Identify comforts:
    What do they find comforting? A book? Some music? Their favorite food or meal? Find the space or time to perform some of these comforts.
  • Prepare for changes in advance:
    Setting a plan, like who will make dinner or drive them to and from school, will help them adjust and respond to the new situation.
  • Be non-judgemental and know you don’t have to “fix” it:
    You don’t have to provide an immediate solution. Just let them know you’re there to listen and help if that’s what they want.
  • Encourage movement:
    Exercise, stretch, or take a hike with a loved one with the help of the All Trails app.
  • Perform the grounding exercise:
    Help them find their center by focusing on five things they can see, and counting down with the other remaining senses.
  • Create a relaxation repertoire:
    Playing with playdough, practicing deep breathing, journaling, listening to music, or just being outside are quick and easy strategies to keep on hand.

What tools or resources do you recommend for parents or family members who want to further educate themselves on this topic?

  • Mighty and Bright: Through engaging tools, such as visual calendars and Special Time Cards, Mighty and Bright aims to empower parents and children with practical strategies for coping and maintaining a sense of normalcy during challenging times.
  • Sesame Workshop: With a focus on early childhood education, the site offers educational games, videos, and interactive activities designed to foster children’s learning and development and emotional identification and regulation.
  • Child Life on Call: And, of course, take advantage of Hope for HIE’s partnership with Child Life on Call: with this, you have direct access to our Child Life Specialist, Annie, who can provide you with individualized services and and access to group programs, as well as free access to the Child Life on Call app, which provides you with a range of child life specialist resources in your pocket! Simply download the app, select Hope for HIE, and enter code 048325.
  • Hope for HIE’s Comprehensive Support Network: If you want to request services or just learn more about what Child Life services can do to support you and your family, head to HIE.Support to fill out the intake form and get started!
  • Recommended Books: Annie has curated a thoughtful list of books aimed at aiding children with medical complexities and their siblings in understanding and navigating a range of emotions, including stress and anxiety. Take a look to see if any may work for your child and family!

Watch the full recording, along with our other Child Life Q&As, on Hope for HIE’s YouTube channel under the Child Life Series playlist, or download our Key Takeaway resource for an at-a-glance look at how to help your kids cope with stress!



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