Crisis Stress: How to Use the 5 Senses to Calm and Ease Kids’ Stress
Published: April 10, 2023
Children today are experiencing unprecedented, prolonged stress since the pandemic began. Counselors and therapists suggest giving children their own tools to destress using the 5 senses. Here’s the scoop.
Crisis Stress: The Faith-Shaker
A definition of “at-risk” children can be difficult to pin down. It’s safe to say that in this fallen world, all children are at risk, especially with the experience of a global pandemic and constantly hearing about various tragedies. Every child will be faced with navigating situations that can build him up — or break him down. Some children suffer distinct disadvantages during their development — issues that impact relationships, vocations, self-identity, and spiritual formation.
Children’s Needs: The Basics
The most important and most basic emotional needs all children have are to feel safe and to feel secure. These two basic human needs are best met by providing for other essential needs — that is, clear structure, unconditional love, consistent affirmation in who they are, a healthy balance of grace and justice, positive modeling of conflict resolution, respite in the arms of a parent or caregiver, healthy touch (hugs and kisses), receiving gifts, empathy from elders, clear expectations and consequences, and social success, to name a few.
Children become at-risk or in crisis when their needs for safety and security aren’t met. When a child’s foundation is shaken, he or she feels alone, angry, confused, misunderstood, unworthy, ugly, and unlovable. How a child navigates these deficits is a watershed moment because kids are establishing behavior patterns and interpretive skills that’ll profoundly impact their adolescence and adulthood.
Children concretely process their thoughts and feelings. They’re typically not self-aware to report on what they feel and experience. So a child in crisis carries burdens which usually manifest through observable interaction with parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and elders. Signs include tantrums, withdrawal, defiance, poor academic performance, seeking negative attention, and poor social skills.
Over time, an at-risk child internalizes what he or she feels and interprets these events in black-and-white terms. For example, Those kids won’t play with me. I’m a bad kid. Or They all laughed at me, and I hate feeling like a loser. I’ll make sure they never laugh at me again, as the child becomes an aggressive bully. As a result, kids enter survival mode as they attempt to gain the support, safety, and security (their basic emotional needs) they need in specific situations.
As with their life experiences, children’s faith experiences are concrete and experiential. A child in crisis interprets and experiences faith in the same survival mode that protects him or her every day. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a struggling child to fully think and believe, God doesn’t love me or God hates me and I’ll validate his hate by acting out because I’m unworthy of love. So while kids typically embrace God as fact, they’ll experientially recall their life experiences when interpreting God’s relevance and significance in their lives.
The Ministry Imperative
This puts you in an exciting place. You can give struggling kids many opportunities to experience God’s love for them in your ministry. Your ministry is an extension of Jesus, displaying patience, grace, justice, and unconditional love that the child may not experience in other settings. And these consistent experiences over time can transform a child’s life, eventually resulting in the concrete, life-impacting understanding: “God loves me as I am, and he is proud of me.”
Trevor Simpson is a youth and family therapist in Wheaton, Illinois. He is a contributing author of Emergency Response Handbook for Children’s Ministry (Group).
5 Senses Calming Techniques to Reduce Stress
When stress threatens to overwhelm, use the following intentional 5 senses calming techniques. Begin by taking four long, deep breaths to calm your body and awaken your senses. Here’s how.
- Breathe in deeply, filling your lungs.
- Hold the breath as long as you can.
- Exhale in a controlled, slow manner until your lungs are empty.
- Repeat three times.
If you have a weighted blanket, this might be a perfect opportunity to use it. You can also find items with distinctive textures, such as smooth wood, cool ice, rough sandpaper, spiky grass, or a soft blanket. Close your eyes and spend one minute touching different items. Describe each item and how it makes you feel to touch it.
Choose two things that taste very differently (salty and sweet, sour and sweet — your choice!). You’ll also need a glass of water. Take a drink, then close your eyes. Taste the first item. Pay attention as you chew. What do you taste? Does your mouth water? Is it crunchy or gooey? Did you like it? How would you describe the flavor? Take another drink of water to cleanse your palate, then taste the second item with your eyes closed. What’s the same or different as the first?
Go on a sniff snoop for two things that smell good to you. When you find those two things, close your eyes and smell them a few times. Describe what each smells like and why it smells good to you.
Look around you for three things that bring a smile to your face. Describe, in detail, those three things. Include things like colors, shadows, height, width, and distance. Tell why seeing those three things makes you happy.
Close your eyes and listen closely for three distinct sounds. Spend a few moments listening to those sounds, then, eyes still closed, describe the sounds in detail. Include things like loudness, cadence, and characteristics (dripping, banging, clicking). Describe how hearing those sounds makes you feel. You can also listen to a favorite song with your eyes closed and describe why you like it.
Here are additional ideas for using the senses to to reduce kids’ stress.
Here is a free coloring page and discussion questions you can use to reduce kids’ stress.
Read about how prolonged stress impacts kids here.
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