Managing stress in a Coronavirus (COVID-19) world with vulnerable children

Gregory Nicolau explains the difference between acute and chronic stress and gives practical advice for managing our responses to stress in this current climate, especially when we have children in our care.

As human beings we have a tremendous capacity to manage stress and adverse events. Our ability to manage different levels of stress, to bounce back and continue to thrive, is what we call resilience. We have built resilience over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s in our DNA to survive.

However, you might be feeling your resilience is wearing a bit thin right now. We’ve already had weeks of uncertainty and worry, and it’s only the beginning.

Life as we know it, the routines that we find comfort in, have all but gone. Every nook and cranny of society has been affected. Change is occurring so rapidly that it has become the new norm. What we knew last week or even yesterday is not what we know today. What we did yesterday in terms of societal norms may change today or tomorrow.

The end game is not clear, where, when and if we will return to our pre-pandemic lives is not known. Where is the horizon? When we get there what will we find? Will I make it?

With such levels of uncertainty, change and no sense of an end, our stress responses are on heightened alert. This means our ability to manage our own internal responses, let alone that of children, are more likely to be compromised. This is not an acutely stressful event. It is chronic.

The difference between acute and chronic stress

Acute stress has a beginning, a work through or time of healing, and a completion, when one returns to a state of homeostasis or rest. During stressful events, while our reactions may differ, our way of managing it is similar. Those of us who have the capacity to do so, manage stress through emotional regulation. Our ultimate goal is to reach a place of rest and calm again or homeostasis.

Diagram 1: Process of emotional regulation

However, when the stress becomes chronic or prolonged, our ability to surpass the adverse consequences of the situation become compromised. It can become cyclical – we might think we have got on top of it and then it all begins again. These consequences are not always immediately evident, so we can’t create an intervention because we don’t even know it is required!



 Diagram 2: Chronic stress and process of emotional regulation

Chronic or prolonged stress can have devastating long-term effects both on our physical and mental health. It can also impede our ability to meet the needs of the children in our care. It is likely that children will, at some level, recognise our altered state and they may feel this as a threat to their own safety. This is especially true for vulnerable children, whose adverse childhood experiences make them more susceptible to stressful events and more sensitive to the physical and psychological state of the people around them, particularly adults.

The task for adults is to discover a path to manage our own stress responses and stay present enough to recognise when our child is struggling. No easy task in times of crisis and even more difficult when the crisis has no definite end in sight, but not impossible.

How can we manage stress in these stressful times?

The way we survive and whether we can continue to thrive during these times is in our own hands. The current global health crisis is here to stay for the foreseeable future and it will continue to arouse a mixture of feelings and responses in all of us. We need to accept these are stressful times, that we will have hard days and better days, and learn how to manage our own stress.

What you do to manage your response to stress will have a positive impact on the children in your care.

In practice:

  1. Give time to yourself to slow down, this might mean talking a stroll on your own outside or in the backyard.
  2. Be aware of your current physical responses, heart rate, palpitations, breathing, intrusive thoughts etc.
  3. Regularly check-in with your emotional state, as if you are taking your ‘vital signs’, to see if you are in a heightened state of stress.
  4. Create a routine for yourself and the children in your care and stick to it. Don’t push against it because you have had to change what you normally do, lean into it.
  5. Do not think that you need to loosen your boundaries; your children still need to know that you are the ‘captain of the ship’.
  6. Keep your connections alive, reach out to people to see how they are managing and let them know how you are doing.
  7. Exercise regularly, if your body is fit your mind will stay open and your stress is less likely to overwhelm you.
  8. Look for moments to have fun together, children seeing adults laugh is good medicine.
  9. Be kind to yourself, because if you can do that you are more likely to be kind to others and show compassion.
  10. Lean into it, there is nowhere to hide from the impact of the coronavirus, no corner of the world is unaffected by it, we cannot run from it, so we must face it square on and in this way the leadership you show will be the ultimate positive role model for your children.

Oh, and one other thing in times of crisis we are driven ‘’to do rather than ‘to sit’. Sometimes the franticness of our doing gets in the way of us thinking through the situation. Part of the reason toilet paper ‘flew’ off the shelves in supermarkets.

Stay safe, wash your hands and sing songs and dance together.

Gregory Nicolau

Founder / Consultant Psychologist

Australian Childhood Trauma Group