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9 practical tips to help loved ones deal with very stressful situations

The world is a complicated place. Sometimes worryingly so.

In hard times it’s easy to fall into that pit in our stomachs where worries seem to churn and reproduce. Challenging circumstances are difficult for adults and often leave us feeling anxious or stressed.  And children are also particularly sensitive to when the grown-ups they depend on are worried.

Fortunately, there are some simple ways to help our friends and family members build resilience and reduce stress, even during difficult times. Read on for a few practical techniques you can put to use to support your loved ones (of all ages).

1. Create space for sharing

When you notice that a loved one is worrying, find a comfortable time and space to talk with them. Be proactive and persistent about asking them how they’re feeling—if at first, they don’t want to share, wait a while, and then try, try again. And if you’re talking to little ones, be sure to use open, not yes or no questions.

This way, you can first see what kids already know, first, and go from there. Children often have more information than we think they do and draw their own (sometimes imprecise and unpleasant) conclusions.

Especially with kids, pay extra attention to body language at the end of the conversation to gauge whether or not the discussion helped them relax. Let them know they can come to you anytime if they want to talk more or have any further questions and be sure to follow-up in a few days.

2. Give your full attention

Listen first. Try not to interrupt. Because it may turn out that what’s on someone’s mind isn’t what you expect.  And answer any questions that come up honestly. Sincerity is especially essential for kids. When answering their questions, use age-appropriate language to be as honest and accurate as you can, providing relevant facts while safeguarding them from unnecessary distress. 

If you can’t answer a question, don’t guess, look for a reliable source to answer it, instead.

Children are very perceptive and they sense when we’re not being truthful. If our behaviour clues them in to our worries, but we deny them, kids may (falsely) think things are worse than they actually are.

Tanaphong Toochinda via Unsplash

3. Be empathetic

Be careful not to dismiss or minimize feelings or concerns too quickly in your rush to provide comfort. Listen. Validate feelings. Don’t just tell them that  "everything’s going to be fine".

Adults and kids alike need to know it’s okay (and very normal) to feel down or worried when things get tough. 

You can also share your feelings if you think it’s appropriate. Clearly communicate that you’re here for them, to talk about whatever frightens or worries them, and help them get what they need to feel better.

4. Make allowances (for instincts)

Bear in mind that evolution has equipped us all with a strong set of survival instincts—we’re all biologically coded to respond to stressful situations with a fight/flight/freeze response. But we all process that response differently.

While some people prefer burying their heads in the sand, others will want to take action, and still, others may just become irritable. This is a feature (not a flaw) of our bodies, and remembering this can help us be more compassionate and understand these reactions in others even when they’re different from our own.

5. Stay in touch

Even if you can’t connect face-to-face with your loved ones, technology can help you keep in touch from a distance. However, you may have family members or friends who are less comfortable with tech—now is an excellent time to make sure they have access.

Ensure they have a way to stay connected so they don’t feel isolated when it’s not possible to meet in person, whether it’s via phone, messaging, email, or video calls. Help your kids arrange video calls with their friends from school and other activities, too. Make staying in contact and interacting with others (especially anyone you know who’s on their own) a priority.

6. Build a routine and relax

Whenever possible, try to stick to your regular routine (as much as you can). If no semblance of your normal day-to-day is an option, build a new routine that works for your household. Either way, work time to relax into your timetable. Garden, knit, do yoga, or whatever it is you enjoy. If you have kids, give them plenty of time to play, color and move.

On a special note, be aware that children naturally include the things that go on around them in their games. 

So they may play at coronavirus or related themes much in the same way as they would at superheroes or film characters. Try not to let it worry you. And if you or another adult are stressed by the current situation, limit exposure to the news to specifically scheduled "allowed" times.

7. Focus on the good

Even in the worst situations, you can always find someone out there doing good. Highlighting the hope, and the people who are out there working to make things better is a great way to move your crew’s focus to a more positive place.

For kids, you can even make a game out of identifying the people that help and how they do it (scientists, doctors, nurses, government, journalists, parents, neighbors). Another way to zero in on the positive is by thinking about steps we can take to improve our sense of control (which typically reduces our stress). For example, teach children about washing their hands. Make it fun by turning it into a game, or putting on a special song when they do it.

8. Lead by example

Finally, remember that what you do is far more critical than what you say. This doesn’t mean hiding your feelings or your stress but rather doing your best to be open about what’s going on and dealing with it all in proactive, positive ways.

Children, in particular, see what you do, and model their own behavior on your actions. 

Explaining the situation at hand and showing them healthy ways to deal with worry is very important, but kids also need to see you practicing what you preach. Do as you say, and hopefully, they will, too.

9. Take care of yourself, first

Think about the last time you flew. One of the first safety instructions the flight attendants deliver is put on your own oxygen mask first, and then assist others (including children).  The very logical rationale behind this is that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to help others.

This is also true on an emotional level. So make time to relax and do things you enjoy so you can continue to be a source of support for your loved ones.

How do you help loved ones deal with stress in difficult times? Share your best tips with us at foundations@koahealth.com​.