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Helping Kids and Teens Cope With Stressful Experiences

Children, teens and families sometimes need help coping with stressful experiences. Below are some ways to help children cope, based on their age and understanding of what happened.

We are here to help

Child life specialists help children cope with the feelings they may have about their illness, injury, disability or hospitalization. Child life specialists often help children understand their hospital experiences by using dolls, pictures and medical equipment.

For help from a child life specialist, please call (816) 983-6870 or send a message through the Children’s Mercy patient portal to “Child Life Messages.”

0–2 years old

Infants and toddlers will feel your stress and learn from your reactions to the experience. Your child may seem clingy and more emotional. This is normal. Your child may go backwards in skills they had before, such as potty training.

How to help your infant or toddler cope:

  1. Provide a calm environment with familiar people.
  2. Keep set times for wake-up, meals, nap and bedtime. Infants and toddlers do best with a regular schedule and routine where they know what to expect.
  3. Be aware of your feelings and take care of yourself.
  4. Read with your child. Reading can provide a calm environment and physical closeness with you.

The Feelings Book
by Todd Parr is a helpful book for this age group.

3–6 years old

Preschool and early school-aged children may think they caused the traumatic or stressful event. They may have bad dreams, not want to talk about their experience, act out, or be more emotional.

How to help your 3-6 year old cope:

  1. Remind them:
    • They are safe.
    • What happened is not their fault.
    • They didn’t do anything wrong.
  2. Explain the event in simple words that will help your child understand what happened.
  3. Learn about your child’s feelings through play.
    • Play is how children communicate and express their feelings and thoughts.
    • Children may re-create the event while they play.
    • Let your child lead the play.
    • Provide a safe, calm environment for your child to talk about their feelings.
  4. Keep routines the same so your child knows what to expect each day.
  5. Reassure your child that their experiences at the hospital will help their body get better, even though it may be difficult or scary.
  6. Read with your child. Reading can provide a calm environment and physical closeness with you.

A Terrible Thing Happened
by Margaret Holmes is a helpful book for this age group.

6–11 years old

School-aged children are usually able to understand what happened. They may have fears about it happening again or about death and dying.

How to help your 6-11 year old cope:

  1. Let your child talk about what happened and their feelings.
    • Tell them whatever they are feeling is OK.
    • Talk to your child about your feelings. This can help your child realize their feelings are OK too.
    • Answer your child’s questions.
      • If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, be honest. Say you need to find the answer or you need some time to think about the answer to their question.
      • Make sure to follow up with the answer so your child knows they can trust you.
  2. Play with your child and give them all of your attention.
    • Let your child lead the play and the conversations. This will help them deal with what happened.
  3. Give your child other ways to work through their feelings such as writing, drawing pictures, or talking to a friend.
  4. Read with your child. Reading can provide a calm environment and physical closeness with you.

After the Fall
by Dan Santat and Whimsy’s Heavy Things by Julie Kraulis are helpful books for this age group.

12–18 years old

Teenagers can fully understand what happened and talk about their feelings.

How to help your 12-18 year old cope:

  1. Give teens the time and space they need. Let them talk about what happened when they are ready.
  2. Be honest with them and let them know their feelings are valid and normal.
  3. Be honest with your teenager about your feelings. This can help your teen realize their feelings are OK too.
  4. Encourage your teen to express their feelings when they are ready, such as writing in a journal or talking with their friends.

The Trauma Healing Journal: A Guided Journal for 
Mindful Trauma Recovery is a helpful journal for this age group.