What’s the deal?

What’s going on with kids and stress?  Today, children are reporting more anxiety, depression, and worry than ever before.   If you Google “stressed out kids” you will find advice to rearrange your child’s schedule, improve diet and increase exercise.  While this is valid, it’s not enough for me.  I like to understand the big picture and have tools I can use anytime, anywhere, especially when I see my own kids showing signs of stress.

My experience coaching stressed adults, leads me to agree with Psychology Today‘s description of two “Waking states of awareness, Conceptual and Embodied.”  When our brains are in a “conceptual” state, they are busy thinking, evaluating, judging, questioning and worrying.  When we shift to a body focused awareness, our thinking takes a vacation.  Sensing movements and emotions engages the brain so fully that one cannot be aware of their five senses and worry at the same time.   Have you ever noticed that you cannot think yourself out of worry?  But when you engage in a “sense drenching” experience like rock climbing, dancing to music, or cooking, the worrying takes a break without effort?

Our brains cannot be in Conceptual and Embodied states at the same time.  This is why child development experts cringe with the “academic” focus pre-schools and Kindergartens take today.  Since I entered education 17 years ago, I rarely see puppets, felt boards, or  similar tools that help children engage their senses.  Singing, music, storytelling (with props rather than pages), time in nature, art and free play have all but disappeared from primary classrooms.  During the same time, anxiety and stress in children is increasing year after year, surpassing the complaints of stressed out adults.

Our schools praise these “left brain” thinkers and work to re-focus our “right brained” spacey, doodling kids.  I was proud of my “left brain” son who was so bright, so “conceptual”, that he learned quickly, memorized facts, asked a zillion questions and was always aware of what was happening around him. My husband and I considered putting him in a Waldorf, Sufi, or Montessori School (whole brain focused) but it so went against his nature that we chose a traditional school where his natural abilities would be rewarded.  Seven years later, we question that decision, as we are now homeschooling him to due to a stress related illness called Adrenal Fatigue.

The remedy for all types of stress is to re-engage the “right brain” or “Embodied Self-Awareness”.  Martha Beck has some great exercises in her new book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World.  (Join me for discussions about this book in an over-the-phone book club starting in March.) For now, just try this “sense-drenching” exercise:  Remember the last time you had a moment of bliss where you allowed yourself to be completely present.  What sights did you see?  Recreate the scene (write it down or tell your child about it).  What smells were present?  What tastes do you remember? Sounds?  Remember what textures you felt against your skin?  Immerse yourself in this sensory experience and you will shift your brain state to the part of your brain capable of joy, peace, calm, and relaxation.  Read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor to see how blissful life can be when you lose function of your left hemisphere.

We are naturally programmed to use both halves of our brains.  Providing our children opportunities to lose track of time and immerse themselves in art, music, imagination, nature and storytelling is the best way to reduce stress.  Throw out the reading log and let your child snuggle in to you while you tell them a story.  Throw out the clocks and schedules and dedicate a day to mindlessly wandering in nature.   Throw out the TV & video screens (which increase the stress response and help disassociate us from our bodies) and celebrate boredom.  Exercise reduces stress because it releases cortisol and can shift us to an embodied brain state.   If the exercise is listening to directions, running to point A, throwing to point B, and moving your body like this to point C, it can aggravate kids’ attempts to shift by continually being brought back to their thinking brain.   Keep exercise playful and unstructured when possible.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I just have to say it:  GO PLAY.  YES, I’M TALKING TO YOU. Kids learn by imitation.  So get up from your computer and do something that feels like play to you.   Put on music and dance, sign up for that creative writing class you’ve been wanting to take, take your dog to the park, or play a round of golf…….it’s for the children!  What’s your favorite way to shift into your right brain, embodied self awareness?  Share it below.

Need more convincing?  Listen to the fabulous Christine Carter‘s persuasive argument that when adults have sex, it increases their children’s capacity for happiness!

Is Your Child Stressed?

I don’t know about you but when I’m stressed, it is OBVIOUS to everyone around me!  But what about our kids?  Children don’t always have the vocabulary or self-awareness to be able to articulate their emotions in a way that we can hear them.   In fact, their emotions are so strong that just labeling them with a word (“you feel sad, angry, over-stimulated, overwhelmed”, etc.) makes the feeling seem more manageable and immediately helps them calm down.  American kids are more stressed out than every before, how can we know if our kid is one of them?

Misbehavior – When you are seeing recurring patterns of misbehavior, try to figure out your child’s motivation for acting out:  power, revenge, attention, excitement.   If there isn’t one, it might be stress.  See if you can find an underlying cause:  overbooked schedule, stressful environment, lack of predictability or just misalignment with the child’s authentic self (too much coping required).

Forgetfulness – “I forgot my Math book and I have a test tomorrow!” can be a normal problem but if it’s happening regularly, the child may be either stressed or self-sabotaging.

Illness – Some kids have magic bodies that won’t let them detour too far off track.  Notice if your child easily gets headaches, stomachaches, excema, colds, flus, etc.  I know whenever I’ve had a job that wasn’t good for me, I was constantly dealing with one illness after another.

Checking Out – Some kids do a marvelous job at taking care of themselves when stressed.  If you notice your child daydreaming, mentally zoning out or shifting into a trance-like state, congratulate yourself on having such a self-reliant child, but note that they are probably stressed.

Clouded decision making – I remember seeing a Dad telling his 4 year old he could have any toy in the whole store and this kid proceeded to have a total melt down at Toys R Us.  Sometimes what we think is fun, can be too overwhelming for kids and you’ll know they are stressed if they are having a hard time making simple decisions like what to wear, they want for dinner, or who to play with.

Arguing & Whining – We all take our stress out on those who are closest to us (ask my poor husband!).  Kids are no different.  When they get in the car after school and immediately start bickering, you know they are purging all the negativity they picked up during the day.  Whining can usually be cured with loving attention or a nap.

Overeating, Under-eating, Difficulty Sleeping – Kids and parents alike.

Do you have a sensitive child?  Sensitive children can be like the canary in the mine, alerting us to problems we all may experience if we don’t pay attention and switch gears.  Luckily, there are MANY things you can do to reduce stress in kids, in fact too many for one blog post.  Until next time, try working on just one: your own.  We are all built to mirror the emotions of people around us unless we intentionally focus on holding a higher state.  It can be really hard to feel good when your child doesn’t but it’s one of the most helpful things you can do for her/him.  Your kids will automatically pick up on your worry, spoken and unspoken stress.  Instead, find out what makes you feel good:  exercise, sleep, yoga, healthy foods, life coaching, meditation, hiking, card games, gardening and do it.  The quickest, most effective way to reduce stress is to switch your thinking.  Say these words to yourself (if you can believe them) and to your children.  “There is nothing I (you) have to do right now”   “All is well”  “It’s ok to rest”  “Everything is unfolding exactly the way it’s supposed to”.

If you have another restful thought or mantra you love, please share it!