By Tracey Dowdy
Nicole Russell is the author of “Everything a Band-aid Can’t Fix” and co-founder and executive director of the Precious Dreams Foundation. The organization supports children in foster care and homeless shelters by providing bedtime comfort items and positive reinforcement, empowering kids to self-comfort when stressed.
Raised by a single dad who often struggled with depression, Russell developed healthy self-care habits like journaling, talking to herself, and creativity to deal with the complex emotions surrounding her parents’ divorce and her struggle with ADHD. Journaling, in particular, helped her unpack and externalize those emotions.
Russell’s struggles aren’t unique. Many of our children are fighting similar battles as they navigate the fears and frustrations resulting from a global pandemic, social distancing, virtual schooling, food insecurity, and increased stress at home. Roy Dowdy, a Family and Marriage therapist in Fairfax, Virginia, has years of experience counseling children and adults who’ve experienced traumatic stress. He says journaling is an invaluable tool in helping children through stressful life events. “Journalling allows children to express their thoughts and process complex emotions in a safe space without fear of judgment or retribution. Kids can write down what they’re not ready to say out loud, and it serves as a tool to initiate the conversation when they are ready to share. It transforms an embittering experience into a memory, externalizing the events. Most importantly, it takes the fear, guilt, or shame off the person and shifts it to the problem.”
If you feel like your child is struggling, be gentle when you approach the topic and don’t push journaling as something they have to do. “Don’t force it,” Dowdy says. “The goal is to create a sense of security, not increase their stress levels.” Instead, include them in choosing how they’d like to record their thoughts and feelings. Not every child wants to write, and some may see this as another dreaded writing task. “Kids who aren’t big on writing for school will see this as another assignment, so instead, let them record their thoughts on their phone or tablet, or even use an online audio journal.”
Dowdy says it’s important to ensure your child that what they write or record is private and you won’t cross that line. To ensure kids feel safe writing their thoughts, Randall created a “Write Here and Tear” journal with perforated pages designed to be ripped and torn apart without making the book fall apart. “I created this journal for people who needed to write during the pandemic but didn’t have the privacy to do so openly,” she says.
If they’re unsure where to start, offer writing prompts like, “What made me happy today/What made me sad today.” Entries don’t have to be long or filled with deep thoughts, especially in the beginning. Five Minute Journal has an inspirational quote for each day and simple writing prompts for the morning expressing gratitude, goals, and a daily affirmation. The evening prompts encourage gratitude and self-reflection. Each section is just three lines so that kids won’t feel overwhelmed by the size of the task.
If you’re looking for additional support for your child’s mental health, Dowdy suggests these online resources:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Parent and Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope with the 2019 Coronavirus Disease
- Stop, Breathe, and Think Kids: Stop, Breathe, and Think app
- NYU Langone’s Stress, Trauma, and Resilience Service
- Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Triangle of Life app
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.