Alyssa Wermers, LCSW

Play Therapy Services * Dacono, CO

The balance of protecting children and helping them process stress

It’s a natural instinct to want to protect children. It makes sense we don’t want our children to feel pain, deal with “adult matters,” or have to grow up to fast.  So maybe we tell white lies, leave out pieces of information, or say “I’m fine,” even when the pain shows behind our eyes. All in the name of protecting them, keeping them innocent, keeping them safe. This protection method can also result in an unfortunate side effect ….it can stunt emotional growth and result in fear based behaviors. Let’s take a closer look…

Did you know that our brains are designed to detect threats in the environment, and will activate our fight/flight/freeze systems when they determine a threat is present? And when I say threat, I do mean physical threats (like life or death)…plus the others. There’s more? Absolutely.  And we respond in the same manner as if our physical safety is threatened because our brain can’t tell the difference. To it, a threat is a threat. Besides physical safety, another threat our brains responds to is incongruence in our environment. Incongruence in the environment is when the brain is being told one thing (mom is telling me she feels fine) but the signals it’s picking up doesn’t match (I see mom crying). The brain understands the information doesn’t add up and it alerts the system to a threat.

Let’s take a closer look at an example of this. In the movie Finding Neverland, young Peter experiences a lot of incongruence in his environment. Just days before his father passed away, his mother was encouraging him to plan a fishing trip that he and his father would take, after he recovered. Peter’s mother was desperately trying to distract Peter, in hopes that when his father died, he would not focus on it as much and heal faster. Unfortunately, her tactic had the opposite effect. By ignoring the reality that his father was going to pass, Peter was not able to prepare or process this tragic event. Peter was constantly told “everything will be alright,” even when it was not. Peter began to isolate himself, not engage in play, and was highly sensitive to any mention of fathers. Peter spent a lot of time in “flight” mode, his body’s response to an unprocessed traumatic event.  This effected Peter’s emotional development as he struggled to recover from “flight” mode.

Later, when Peter’s mother falls ill, we see many of the same patterns. Finally, after a terrible coughing episode which resulted in the doctor being called in, and Peter’s mother assuring him “it’s just a silly chest cold,” Peter snaps. He destroys the stage he had created, rips up his play, and yells loudly. His “fight” mode kicked in as his brain recognized the incongruence as a threat, and he responded in the only way his body knew how. While his mother was only trying to protect him from the ugly truth (she was dying), his brain could tell something was not right, and he acted out in response to this fear.

Children are very perceptive of people and situations they are exposed to. While they may not have “worldly wisdom” yet, their systems are very attuned to the world around them, and can sense when something is not right. Placating them without addressing what is happening only sets their systems on higher alert, such as what happened with Peter.

Am I advocating giving children all the gruesome details? Of course not. However it is vital to remember that children are constantly picking up signals from the world around them. Whether there is conflict at home, family illness, substance abuse, or any other stressor, it’s important not to gloss over it, believe the child doesn’t know about it, or constantly distract them from it. Address what is appropriate for their age, and allow them to process what is happening. If a child is exposed to verbal fighting at home, it may not be appropriate to tell them what it’s about, or repeat what was said. However they do sense the tenseness in the environment, and could benefit from a simple discussion that recognizes adult fights sometimes, identifying how it might feel scary, and ideas for what the child can do if it happens again. This helps lessen the chance of developing fear based behaviors that end up being confusing to you and your child later, and helps children process events and build emotional intelligence.