By AHA Parenting Moments – Dr. Laura Markham
Parents have always grappled with harsh realities to protect their children. But our culture poses risks that are difficult to navigate, because they aren’t obviously dangerous. In fact, we take them for granted as we go about our busy lives.
The greatest dangers to our kids may not be the ones we worry most about, the ones that make the evening news, like abduction and child molestation. Random abductions by strangers are relatively rare in the U.S., approximately 200 annually, and molestation is almost always perpetrated by someone the child knows. Most parents can reduce these risks dramatically with attentive parenting.
Stress researchers now believe that the greatest risk for many children is the wear and tear of the way we live, which makes all of us more vulnerable to dangers from depression to obesity to substance abuse.
The American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey has concluded that teens are as stressed as adults in our culture. But they’ve also found that even younger children are often more stressed than we realize.
All of us pay a high price for living in our stressful society. Everything is hyper: hyper-stimulated, hyper-materialistic, hyper-sexed, hyper-competitive, hyper-busy. No wonder we’re all so anxious so much of the time.
Given how stressed we feel as parents, it’s often a surprise to hear that stress can be even worse for our children. Why? Kids suffer from the same hyper-scheduling as adults, but it’s made even more challenging by their immature emotional and intellectual development. Children’s brains are still developing, laying down neural pathways in a daily context of stressful over-activity, upsetting images and hyper-stimulation. Researchers are only beginning to understand the effects of this on children’s neurological development.
Compared to adults, children perceive themselves as powerless, at the mercy of schedules, parents, peers, school. They struggle with pressures that most of us didn’t, from much more homework to over-precocious peer culture to being constantly plugged-in. They have less downtime and less access to the grounding of nature.
But resisting the seductions of our culture altogether is impossible, because virtually all parents participate in it ourselves. How many of us would be willing to move to the country and live slower, more peaceful lives without screens and alarm clocks, in tune with the rhythms of nature?
On the other hand, it is our job as parents to protect our children from things that may endanger their welfare, and we need to face the hard truth that some of what we take for granted in our modern lives is actually destructive to our children. I don’t have all the answers on this. But research studies do give us some guidance on how to protect our kids. For instance:
- Slow down.
Humans are designed to love excitement and novelty, but stress kills. Literally. Stress erodes our patience, our health, and our ability to give our best to our kids. Stress makes us edgy and compromises our emotional control so we’re more likely to become furious. Stress sabotages our immune systems and our energy levels. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can usually see how we make our lives more stressful than they need to be, simply by being unwilling to make the choice to pare back. If you want your kids to behave better, start by slowing down and not rushing so much. Your child will gravitate toward your centered presence and want to follow your lead.
- Resist the impulse to over-schedule.
All kids need downtime, creative time, time to dream and do nothing and even get bored. Kids need to learn to like being with themselves without being entertained. They need quiet to tap into their own still voice. They need to notice that when we’re still, unfinished emotional business often arises, swamps us, and then passes away, resolved, leaving us more free. They need to learn to structure their own time without always looking to us or their screens. They need to understand that life isn’t the activities that fill it, but something much more vast and mysterious.
- Encourage your child’s passions — without pushing.
Encouraging children to be creative agents ultimately gives them more joy in life than modeling the passive consumption of culture created by others. But I’m not just referring to the arts; any talent, skill or hobby that matters to your child will insulate him from peer pressure, drug use, and the extremes of pop culture. Just don’t push your child to perform or to “win” with his passion, or you take a source of joy and transform it to another source of stress.
- Listen, and Laugh.
Like adults, children need a chance just to talk, to offload the worries and tensions of the day. They also need plenty of laughter, which helps them heal the normal anxieties of daily life. If you find you’re too caught up in moving your child through the routine to take time for listening and laughter, build some small connection rituals into your family life, such as snuggling each morning, roughhousing before bath time and everyone sharing their favorite and worst parts of the day at dinner.
- Teach Stress Reduction Skills.
Teach your child that we all need a repertoire of healthy ways to reduce stress, so we aren’t vulnerable to misusing unhealthy ones, like food and alcohol. For instance, physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce the stress hormones circulating in our bodies. Another helpful technique for kids is to listen regularly to an audio specifically designed to help them learn to regulate stress, such as a guided visualization or story that teaches deep breathing.
- Choose a school that minimizes homework.
Almost half of all kids are stressed by school, according to American Psychological Association studies, and homework is a big part of that stress for children who have been sitting in a classroom all day. If you can choose a school that minimizes homework, you’ll be freeing your child to have more of what really matters for learning — play, self-initiated exploration, and pursuing her own passions.
- Choose age-appropriate family activities that connect rather than over-stimulate.
Too often, we as parents forget what really nourishes our child’s soul. For instance, children need desperately to spend more time in nature, which calms their physiology and grounds them. Young children DON’T need movies, virtually all of which are inappropriate for them. If every other second grader is talking about some new movie, you may well agree to take him, but that’s very different than making movies a routine part of life. Parents often take young kids to movies because the parent finds it easier than taking the child on an adventure, whether that be a hike, bike ride, or museum.
- Teach Media Literacy and Limit Screen Time.
Research shows that media messages contribute to our stress levels. Talk with your kids on an ongoing basis about the media messages that they see. Does this ad make them want to buy that product? What else does it make them feel, and think? (Hint: You and your life are inadequate without this product, which will make you beautiful, popular, and talented.) Research shows that even when we don’t think we’re influenced by advertising — and most people say they aren’t — we are very likely to act on the ad’s message. That’s scary, but what’s really scary is that corporations spend billions to target our kids, who are even easier prey than we are.
TV is designed to be addictive. It changes the way the brain develops. And it’s a very eloquent and effective teacher. It teaches our children that the most important things in life are money, appearance and fame. It stifles creativity, lowers self esteem (particularly in girls), and increases violence. Watching TV news increases stress levels, causes nightmares, and makes kids more anxious.
Studies show that adults and children who watch TV news believe the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is. You might still choose to watch the news, but that doesn’t make it appropriate for children. Even when you watch it with them, kids under the age of ten are not ready to see in technicolor all the terrible things that happen in the world. Reading the newspaper together is fine, because it isn’t as visceral, and you can help with the interpretation, unlike the unmediated sensationalism of the news. Even middle schoolers need your help to be savvy media interpreters.
- Keep phones from becoming yet another stress.
Of course, now our children consume smaller screens all day long. Most adults admit that being at the mercy of the incoming texts on their phone increases their stress level. If your child has his or her own phone, be sure that it gets parked in the charging station at the front door for most of the time that your child is home, including meals, homework, and after dinner. Kids need explicit direction that phones are a convenience for THEM, and that texts and calls don’t have to be answered immediately.
- Protect sleep.
Many children are chronically sleep-deprived, which reduces their ability to cope with the normal stresses of life. If you have to wake your child in the morning, she’s not getting enough sleep. Start moving bedtime back by 15 minutes every night until you find the sweet spot where your child wakes up on her own, refreshed and cheerful.
- Check your own attitude.
If you’re running around stressed out all the time, bemoaning how busy you are, what are you modeling for your child? That she’s not good enough unless she’s over-extended? Stress is not inevitable; it’s a choice. Notice also what you’re modeling and discussing with your child about values, choices, and the meaning of life. Is life about working more to buy more things? Competing to be “the best”? Does your child feel like she has to achieve to be worthy of your love, or is she more than enough, exactly as she is?
Finally, notice that your stress has a huge impact on your child. When you get huffy, your child gets stressed. All of us will lose it if we get pushed to the edge. Our responsibility as grownups is to stay away from the edge.
- Stay Connected.
Most of us take for granted that kids would rather be with other kids. But when children are asked, they invariably say they wish their parents wanted to spend more time with them. Think of this as an insurance policy for your child. Your very presence helps him feel secure and melts away the stress. In fact, the most important factor in protecting your child from stress may be the delight you take in him, and the closeness of your connection. If you’re too stressed to feel that delight, why not get yourself whatever support you need, to rediscover it?