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Protecting Your Child's Mental Health During Challenging Times

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People are hurting. Families are living with a global pandemic, distance learning/ transitioning back to school, job loss, financial insecurity, community violence, and polarized politics. Some families are managing these challenges while also coping with the open wounds of systemic racism.

Parents have told us that their child hides under the beds or behind the couch. Older children have started thumb sucking or bed wetting. Teens have created elaborate plans to keep their homes safe. Siblings are fighting more than usual. Kids are complaining of stomachaches and headaches and nobody is sleeping well anymore.

When it feels like the world is spinning out of control, how do we protect our children's mental health?

Common Responses to Trauma

When kids go through very stressful or traumatic situations, it is NORMAL for their emotions and behaviors to change for a little while.

The National Institute of Mental Health provides these descriptions...

Children age five and younger may:

  • Cling to parents or caregivers.

  • Cry and be tearful.

  • Have tantrums and be irritable.

  • Complain of physical problems such as stomachaches or headaches.

  • Suddenly return to behaviors such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking.

  • Show increased fearfulness (for example, of the dark, monsters, or being alone).

  • Incorporate aspects of the traumatic event into imaginary play.

Children age six to 11 may:

  • Have problems in school.

  • Isolate themselves from family and friends.

  • Have nightmares, refuse to go to bed, or experience other sleep problems.

  • Become irritable, angry, or disruptive.

  • Be unable to concentrate.

  • Complain of physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches.

  • Develop unfounded fears.

  • Lose interest in fun activities.

Adolescents age 12 to 17 may:

  • Have nightmares or other sleep problems.

  • Avoid reminders of the event.

  • Use or abuse drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.

  • Be disruptive or disrespectful or behave destructively.

  • Complain of physical problems such as stomachaches and headaches.

  • Become isolated from friends and family.

  • Be angry or resentful.

  • Lose interest in fun activities.

Know the Warning Signs of Distress

Although it's normal for your child to experience a temporary change in emotions and behaviors, it's also very important to recognize the warning signs of distress so you can get help. The National Institute of Mental Health recommends that you contact a health professional if your child is not able to perform usual routines after one month in a safe environment OR if your child exhibits distressing symptoms for more than a few weeks. Examples include:

  • Flashbacks (flashbacks are the mind reliving the event)

  • A racing heart and sweating

  • Being easily startled

  • Being emotionally numb

  • Being very sad or depressed

Some symptoms need an IMMEDIATE response. Always take suicide warning signs seriously. If you are wondering if your child is suicidal, don't be afraid to ask: "Do you want to die? Are you planning to kill yourself?"

Visit these pages for more information on Crisis Resources or Warning Signs.


Children and teens watch how adults respond. When adults are scared or angry, kids might get scared or angry too. Showing your child how you manage hard times can build resilience. Try to model the kind of response you would like your child to have.

Practice Mindful Parenting. Have age- appropriate discussions. Acknowledge fears and reassure. Let children know that you will do your best to keep them safe but don't make empty promises. The most important thing is to ask questions and listen. Try to understand how THEY perceive the stressful or traumatic experience.

“What you’re scared about, as an adult, may not be what they’re scared about … and this is likely to be different for children at different developmental ages.” Coping with Community Crisis

The National Institute of Mental Health provides the following suggestions for parents and caregivers who are caring for children after very stressful or traumatic situations:


  • Allow children to be sad or cry.

  • Let children talk, write, or draw pictures about the event and their feelings.

  • Limit viewing of repetitive news reports about traumatic events. Young children may not understand that news coverage is about one event and not multiple similar events.

  • Give extra attention to children who have trouble sleeping. Let them sleep with a light on or let them sleep in your room (for a short time).

  • Try to keep your usual routines (or create new routines), such as reading bedtime stories, eating dinner together, or playing games.

  • Help children feel in control when possible by letting them make decisions for themselves, such as choosing meals or picking out clothes.


  • Expect children to be brave or tough.

  • Make children discuss the event before they are ready.

  • Get angry if children show strong emotions.

  • Get upset if they begin bed-wetting, acting out, or thumb-sucking.

Use Coping & Calming Strategies

It is more important than ever to use healthy coping and calming strategies for yourself and your children!

  • Visit our Virtual Calm Room

  • Help your children or teens to create safe, calm spaces at home.

If your child or teen is getting very upset...

  • Breathe. Manage your own response. (Relax,Reflect, Respond)

  • Don’t engage with power struggles or attempts to pick a fight.

  • Talk softly and calmly, move slowly, avoid continuous eye contact. Give personal space.

  • Use open-ended questions, express support, offer options and calm down strategies.

  • LISTEN, EMPATHIZE, AGREE wherever possible, and PARTNER in ways that support your child’s need for control and safety (LEAP method)

Find more ideas in our Online Family Care Organizer. Check out the sections on Mental Health, Our Family, and Wellbeing.

Manage Anger

Anger is a natural reaction to trauma. But, adults and children may show anger in different ways. Learn to recognize the signs of increased anger so that you can address it as soon as possible.

The National Association of School Psychologists describes anger signs that might appear after someone experiences extreme strss/trauma. Read their list below. Do any of these anger signs remind you of yourself or your child?

Signs of Anger in Adults

  • Short temper/impatience

  • Sleep and/or eating problems

  • Restlessness and agitation

  • Hitting and slamming objects, pets, or people

  • Desire to inflict harm

  • Verbal outbursts toward family, friends, or fellow workers

  • A sense of losing control over your life

  • Poor concentration or attention span

  • Obsessing about the event

  • Physical health affected; increase in blood pressure, dizzy, headaches, heart rate elevated, clenched jaw, knot in the stomach, and tight muscles, etc.

  • You feel life should be fair, but it is not; and things are not how you want them to be

  • Social media posts expressing intolerance and/or anger

Signs of Anger in Children

  • Behavioral outbursts, many times without an obvious cause

  • Sleep problems

  • Fights at school or home

  • Physical attacks on others or animals

  • Disobedience from otherwise well behaved child(ren)

  • Child states he/she is really sad and does not know why

  • Complaints of stomachaches and headaches; or vague aches and pains

  • Other reactions similar to those of adults

  • Social media posts expressing intolerance and/or anger.

If you recognize anger signs in yourself or your children, the next step is to think about the emotions that may be leading to your anger (for example- fear, grief.) When you have a pretty good idea of the emotions that are involved, then you can take steps to feel better.

The National Association of School Psychologists has tips to help manage and control anger and other strong emotional reactions to traumatic events. One idea is to encourage sports/exercise/physical activity.

Pay Attention to Sleep

Stress from a traumatic event can often lead to sleep problems.

Kids and teens may need a much longer time to unwind after experiencing stressful or traumatic events. Older youth who used to like sleeping in the dark may need to leave a light on now. They may need to have a parent sleep in the room with them or sleep nearby. Taking a bath, listening to music or reading can be soothing before bed. Avoid the news or social media which can be triggering.

Rules, Rituals & Routines

Rules, rituals, and routines can help life feel safe and predictable. But, the key is BALANCE. We need to be careful not to go overboard with rules and punishments. In fact, physical punishment and loud yelling can make things worse. So, offer structure and be consistent... but also be flexible and allow your children to make choices whenever possible. Kids can feel helpless and vulnerable when the world seems out of control. By offering your child some choices, you can increase their resilience and reduce power struggles.

  • Rules should be based on your family’s values. Identify and clearly define the rules that are important for your family. Family rules should be realistic and fit your child’s age. You don’t need a lot of rules- it’s better to have too few than to have too many. Tell your kids why the rule is important. For example: “We don’t hit other people because in our house, it’s important to be loving and caring.” (To be “loving and caring” is a family value.) Remember- it's not fair to change the rules "mid-game." When rules are followed consistently, children will know what to expect. This helps children feel loved, calm, and safe.

  • Rituals are family traditions that have a special meaning. They connect family members together. Rituals are opportunities for families to get close and love each other. They can decrease behavior problems and increase family feelings of love, trust and togetherness. Rituals can help a family get through tough times. Examples of rituals are: family meals every Sunday, a certain bedtime song or prayer, birthday celebrations, family game nights or movie nights, family reunions, a walk around the block every Saturday morning. Rituals are like deposits in a bank account. Over time, small daily deposits add up. If your child seems like he/she is feeling empty, it may help to add some family rituals!

  • Routines are done at the same time in the same way every day (or on any regular schedule). Routines can increase happiness and good behavior. Children need predictability in their lives. It is our responsibility as parents to provide structure and predictability in our home and in our child’s life. Bedtimes, mealtimes and regular schedules provide this predictability to children.

Make Plans and Get Organized

I don't know about you, but I always feel better when I have plans to tackle my problems and my home is organized. Having a crisis plan or family plan can reduce anxiety and help us feel secure. Consider making a Coronavirus CALM Family Plan. Making a family plan for COVID-19 will help you feel prepared and that means you'll worry less!

Try our online Family Care Organizer- there are 124 fillable forms to help you stay on top of paperwork and virtually share information with members of your Care Team. It will be a relief to know that everything is "all in one place!"

Safely Help, Protest or Volunteer

Some children and teens may feel better if they can DO something. Support them to find ways that they can safely help, protest or volunteer. Talk to leaders in your faith or cultural community or look into the following options:

Get Help

Crisis Supports

Mental Health & Wellbeing Services

Basic Needs, Mental Health & Other Local Resources

Support and Resource Connections

  • Text or Call RCCMHC at 1-800-565-2575 to connect with youth mental health and family wellbeing resources in Ramsey County.


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