SANTIAGO – In times of social crisis, children can also experience stress and intense emotions, especially if they cannot grasp the political and social contexts around them. Nightmares, mood swings, and eating disorders can be early signs of trouble. Child psychologist Francisca Cantos provides advice for navigating the social movement with children.
We like to think that social and political crises are not a child’s burden to bear, but such events can profoundly affect them, and in many of the same ways that they affect adults.
Children, especially those under age 10, develop stability through feelings of safety and control and experiencing a predictable world. As child psychologist Francisca Cantos explains, “Stress in children happens when circumstances force them to suddenly change — when things get out of their control.”
During times of social unrest, overexposure to information is a primary cause of this sense of change and upheaval. Violent images on television or the internet, anxious conversations among adults, demonstrations in the streets, and the alteration of everyday routines because of damaged or blocked infrastructure — it all can cause children to feel their world is off track, making them feel vulnerable, hyperalert, and extremely stressed.
How to Identify Stress in Children
According to Cantos, children can very easily somatize stress. For example, a stressed child can experience eating disorders. The child might suddenly be ravenous or without appetite. Or sleeping more than usual or waking up frequently in the middle of the night. The child might also suddenly be experiencing nightmares.
Stress can also cause them physical pain. A stressed child might start having migraines or frequent stomach aches or other digestive issues, like inexplicable diarrhea or constipation. Episodes of bruxism are also common, resulting in muscular rigidity and pain in the jaw.
Emotional signs of stress are identifiable, as well, says Cantos, and include crying, irritability, and an irrational fear of being alone. “A child might start having deep fear of things that didn’t scare them at all before,” she says, especially related to current events.
Other big signs of stress are regressive behaviors, which happen when a stressed child “unlearns” things and goes back to past developmental stages. For example, if a child long out of diapers suddenly starts wetting the bed, “that is a red flag,” explains Cantos.
Helping Children Through a Social Crisis
The child psychologist is emphatic: “Listen to the children … Let them tell you they don’t understand and explain what happened in simple terms.” Their social circles (school, their friends, etc.) might also be full of unfiltered information — it is important that they have the chance to ask and receive answers to sort out their inner puzzles, and air their fears.
According to Cantos, overexposure is a basic danger during a social crisis, even for adults. She recommends avoiding (or at least taking significant breaks from) the nonstop news cycle, and especially before bedtime. She also recommends avoiding violent images and aggressive points of view. Children, especially, may not grasp the causes and contexts of violence, so it is important to approach things from a positive angle. “Talk to your child about problem-solving, understanding people, and how to listen,” says Cantos.
During the social unrest, civic life suffers sudden changes in its timing and flow with street or road closures or blockages, or transportation and business shutdowns. As families are affected by these things, sudden routine changes can be nerve-wrecking for children. Maintaining basic family routines in other ways, and explaining unavoidable deviations from the routines in advance, can go a long way towards avoiding, or at least easing, a child’s stress in this regard, and helping them feel that their world still has order and predictability.
How Children Can Participate
Children age 5 to 10 may not comprehend the world the way adults do, but they do have their own ways. Cantos recommends children’s books and tales with underlying morals and messages, as well as children’s movies about simplified social conflicts, “like ‘Ants,’ from Pixar,” she says. She also recommends the book “El Monstruo de Colores” (“The Color Monster” in English) by Anna Llenas, which explores emotions like rage and anger, and the role it plays in the display of violence.
Depending on the circumstances, it may or may not make sense to take your child to a demonstration. Even the youngest child, however, can participate in a social movement by just being informed. Adults can make use of child-friendly social action, like citizen lobbies, school events, and artistic demonstrations.
Cantos also recommends that parents engage in active conversations with their children and take time to ask their children what they saw, heard, or thought that day. “We are basically shaping future citizens. [Especially in times of social unrest], our efforts must pursue healthy understanding of emotions, and pacifistic problem-resolution.”
Camila Huecho is a journalism student at Universidad de La Frontera in Temuco, currently interning at Chile Today. As a freelance illustrator and Fellow at the Melton Foundation, she works to bring information and cultures together through communications and art.