10 Secrets To Raising Less Stressed Kids

A couple of years ago I was driving my daughter home from high school, and she shared something from her Human Development class that day.  The students were asked to draw an illustration of their emotional state. “And mom,” she said, “everyone drew pictures of stacks of books and things like that.  I think I’m the only one who’s not stressed. The only pressure I ever feel is the pressure I put on myself.”

My daughter’s no slacker. Now a freshman at a top university, she’s always been a high achiever and managed to find balance and have a really good time. My two younger children, both busy, accomplished students, also seem to handle stress remarkably well.

Unfortunately, the results of recent research align with my daughter’s discovery in class.  According to a study reported on MSNBC, “…five times as many high school and college students are dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues as youth of the same age who were studied in the Great Depression era. The findings, culled from responses to a popular psychological questionnaire used as far back as 1938, confirm what counselors on campuses nationwide have long suspected as more students struggle with the stresses of school and life in general.”

The question is, what to do about it?

I don’t claim to have the answer to helping overstressed college students, but I give credit for my children’s apparent immunity to the effects of stress to infant specialist Magda Gerber.  Through Magda I learned how to minimize stress beginning in the early, formative years. She also taught me that the real secret to raising children who stress less is nurturing their natural ability to cope with stress, process and offload it.

Here are some details…

Minimizing stress

1. Be responsive and communicative

Tune in and respond to babies. Observe sensitively and learn to interpret their cries and signals. Tell babies what you are doing with them (like picking them up) before you do it. Begin this two-way communication with babies at birth. Invite babies to participate in their care from the very beginning.

2. Keep it simple, safe, peaceful, predictable, age appropriate

Becoming a parent is the best excuse you’ll ever have to slow down and simplify your life. Recognize that infants and toddlers are sensitive, absorbent and easily over-stimulated, unable to screen out stimulation the way their elders are. Less is more, safest and best.

“No matter how simple an environment is, a baby may be overwhelmed by too much stimulation,” Magda Gerber notes in Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect.  “Allow the infant to develop her biological rhythm first and then slowly ease the infant into to the life of the family.”

And since adults are far less sensitive to stimulation, overstimulation is not something we easily detect. “A infant or toddler’s wide-eyed stare may appear to be surprise or intense interest, but according to newborn infant specialist Dr. Kevin Nugent the child is in fact saying “back off”. “A slight turning away of the head, arched eyebrows and too-wide eyes are all signs that he is over-stimulated.” – “Know Your Baby“, The Irish Times

Children feel calmest, happiest and most confident when they can “get a handle on things”, when they know what to expect and comprehend the things they are exposed to. Consider your child’s readiness before asking her to participate in lessons and classes, going to shows, movies or amusement parks, etc. When in doubt, wait.

3. Protect the developing brain

I know this is a controversial and guilt-inducing subject, but I would love to change the mindset I hear about TV use for babies. Parents have been duped into believing that TV is the best or only way to get a break from caring for their children, and that following the guidelines of the AAP is difficult to impossible. The need for TV is not only a lie, it actually creates dependencies on passive entertainment that work against getting those breaks! Perhaps marketers are perpetuating this lie? Or friends and relatives who want you to do what they’re doing, a “safety in numbers” attitude.

If you want a child who can spend long hours entertaining herself (which will afford you many breaks and make you the envy of all your friends with children); and if you want your child to have the best chance of reaching her educational potential, be able to listen and retain what she learns and need to spend less time doing homework, studying for tests, stressing about school in general; then don’t turn on the TV for the first 2 to 3 years. It is much easier than you imagine. But once you begin using TV, it’s harder.

I’m not saying that you should keep your child away from TV, but you need to know, it’s no different than putting them on drugs. It’s an effective, but not a harmless way to buy yourself a little peace and quiet.” –Teacher Tom, “Watching Television Is Relaxing

…research strongly indicates that [screen-viewing] has the potential to affect both the brain itself and related learning abilities.  Abilities to sustain attention independently, stick to problems actively, listen intelligently, read with understanding, and use language effectively may be particularly at risk.  No one knows how much exposure is necessary to make a difference”, notes brain researcher Dr. Jane Healy in Endangered Minds.

If I could share just one secret to raising stress-free learners, it would be to avoid screen use in the early years.

4. Enjoy “being” together rather than requesting performances

Allow your infants, toddlers and preschoolers to learn through play and encourage them to develop naturally at their individual pace. Follow your child’s lead when he plays rather than trying to direct or teach him. Only your child knows what he is ready to learn.

“Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at the Rockefeller University, notes that asking children to handle material that their brain is not yet equipped for can cause frustration. Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory” -“The Death Of Preschool“, Scientific American

Enjoy your children’s company.  Let them be themselves. Give your children the empowering and comforting message through your interactions that they are “enough”.

5. Have an “all feelings allowed” attitude so that children feel their bright and dark sides wholly accepted and welcome. Then they don’t feel pressured to hide their feelings or be inauthentic in order to please us.

6. Provide the comfort and freedom of non-punitive boundaries

Although young children will seldom express this to us, it’s stressful and even frightening for them when they feel “in charge” and have the sense that they are calling the shots — that their parents will give in to avoid their disappointments and tantrums. Parents were created to be their children’s gentle, empathetic leaders.

Enabling children to relieve and manage stress

7. Encourage play as therapy

Cultivate the habit of uninterrupted, self-directed play so that your child has plenty of opportunities to benefit from play’s therapeutic value. (For more, please read: The Power Of Play Therapy.) As your child grows, continue to provide lots of downtime between activities. Value daydreams and puttering.

8. Encourage children to express feelings

Even young infants need to be listened to when they cry, allowed to release stress and offload their feelings. Contrary to conventional thought, there is not a magical age when this begins. It begins at the beginning.

“Respond to your baby by letting him know that you are there and that you care. First, do accept that you don’t understand instinctively what exactly makes your baby cry, nor what to do about it. Next, rather than responding mechanically with one of the usual routines of feeding or changing your baby, to stop the crying, try quietly talking to your baby. Remember, crying is a baby’s language – it is a way to express pain, anger, and sadness.  Acknowledge the emotions your baby is expressing. Let him know he has communicated.” –Magda Gerber

9. Encourage children to actively participate in coping with stress and conflict

Allow children to be problem solvers whenever possible, whether it be during conflicts with peers, while playing with toys, putting on clothes, or finding their thumb. Allow children opportunities to do the things they are capable of doing. I share more on this subject in The Truth About Infant Self-Soothing.

“We can look at life as a continuation of conflicts or problems. The more often we have mastered a minute difficulty, the more capable we feel the next time.” – Gerber

10. Trust and belief in your baby as a competent, inner-directed human being capable of making choices is the key to minimizing and processing stress.

An acquaintance once commented to me about my daughter, “Oh, you’re so lucky she’s self-motivated, you don’t have to push her.” As I nodded my head I thought to myself, “No, she’s self-motivated because we don’t push her.” And, thanks to Magda Gerber, that’s the way it has always been.

I’d love to hear your ideas for helping children deal with stress…

(Photo of my daughter was taken by her friend and I’m pretty sure that’s a phone, not a beer in her hand.)


I share more about this respectful approach in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

 

References (all of which I recommend):

Watching Television is Relaxing” by Teacher Tom

Students report more serious stress”, Children’s health on msnbc.com

Babies And TV: New Media Use Guideline From The AAP” by  Alice Callahan, Ph.D., Science Of Mom

The Death Of Preschool” by Paul Tullis, Scientific American

Endangered Minds -Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It by Jane M. Healy, PH.D.

Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

Know Your Baby” by Sheila Wayman, The Irish Times

29 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This is one of the best, most sensible and thoughtful pieces I’ve read recently. Although I’m not sure that all children really are as stressed as the studies say, your daughter for example, there are many things to do to help them cope. I think the most important is whether the parents are stressed or not, since that projects very strongly on the young ones. I’m so glad that you mention the limitation of TV, and the idea of simply “being” together. I find that children do like to be in charge, to the degree they can handle it, but I agree with you that they really want parents to handle the stuff they instinctively feel they can’t — even when they don’t necessarily say it.

    Wonderful, I’m so glad I discovered this site.

    1. Thanks, Alex! I’m sure that the way we model handling stress has a huge impact. Anything we model for our children has a huge impact.

  2. avatar Elizabeth says:

    Thanks Janet for another amazing post!

    We don’t have tv so our 15 month old does not watch any…however she is very attracted to cell phones and the computer. I use my cell phone as little as possible …the computer more so. She gets very upset because she can’t play with them.
    Any suggestions?

    Blessings for your wonderful work!
    Elizabeth

    1. Hi Elizabeth! And thank you for your kind words!

      Regarding the cell phone and computer, it’s definitely tempting for her to want to use those things, especially when you are using them in front of her. I would be very nonchalant about them and let her touch them as much as you are comfortable with. I’d calmly acknowledge, “Yes, those buttons I use are interesting, aren’t they?” She probably won’t get too involved in the screens on those things at this age. It’s more about pushing buttons, right? So I wouldn’t encourage her by accessing engaging content, but I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it either, because then it might become an even bigger focus for her.

      Hope that helps!

      1. I’m not sure when this was written, I see the original article was written in 2011, so I think things have changed quite a lot regarding cell phones and tablets etc. in 2014! I see so many parents lately allowing their very young children to play with these “mini screens”. Would you agree that this is just as worrisome?
        Thanks for your always interesting posts!

  3. Hi Janet,

    As always, I love this post! One thing I struggle with is trying to keep my 4 month old from getting overstimulated. I have two year old twins and since there is one of me and 3 of them, they are often in the same room. The baby loves to spend time on his back watching his hands or shadows and light on the wall and can play like that for hours, but he does get scared and startled by all of the shrieking and laughing and general noise of two busy toddlers. Is this bad? I feel like I can keep things as calm and predictable as possible, but I can tell the baby gets overstimulated by all of the noise of the house. When he does, I use the “sportscasting” to describe what’s going on, but I don’t know if thats helpful-

    Thanks again for all of your amazing posts. You have really helped me become a better mother. And less stressed 🙂

    PS: I love the part about not requiring children to “perform” Now if only my mother in-law could read this!! For the entirety of her visits, its “cook for me!” “read me a book!” “build me a block tower” “Put that toy down and come do this puzzle for me” etc. oh well!

    1. Hi Courtney! Oy… I know what you mean about the constant demand for performance, but it is so well-meant. Since it’s grandma, not you or your husband, I wouldn’t worry about it having an effect. “Oh well” is right!

      Your baby was born into a home that’s a bit noisier than if he were a firstborn, and that’s just fine. He’ll adapt… and the sportscasting sounds perfect. The point is not to think he needs more stimulation, especially when he lives in such an already stimulating environment. And just continue to be as wonderfully sensitive as you are obviously being. Sounds like you’re quite busy, but doing great!

  4. ”Parents have been duped into believing that TV is the best or only way to get a break from caring for their children, and that following the guidelines of the AAP is difficult to impossible. ”

    I recently returned from living in Taiwan. There, TV is simply seen as not appropriate for small children.

    Typically a family member would provide much appreciated breaks – an elder relative or friend.

    I realise that different societies have their pros and cons and it did make me wonder where we’re going!

    If we accept that, while the child is developing their identity in relation to what they are not (I am me because am not you) and, in general, infants are highly impressionable and reliant on positive influences then then reliance of television as a pseudo-sitter simply.. scares me!

  5. Wow Janet! I’ve bookmarked this one for my family resources file. Thank you!

  6. This article is particularly meaningful after reading a study on stress and depression indicating 1 in 4 adults are needing mental health care sometime in their lives, with stress being a major factor.Of course mental illness is more widely recognized now but it makes you think how so much could be prevented if children’s feelings are respected from the very beginning. I always love how Magda Gerber talks about putting the therapists out of business!

  7. Hi Janet! great article! I teach kids yoga through storytelling and games (the universal language of children!)and we help the kids to still the body and calm the mind so they are better learners, more focused and attentive, and better able to cope with life’s challenges. Breath work and mindfulness slows the heart rate and eases the body from a “flight or fight” response into a relaxed state. Preschoolers to pre-teens can take these skills off the mat into the classroom, home, at bed time or preparing for exams. And yoga is a great thing to practice together ! 🙂

  8. Janet, thank you for your page. I discovered it just as I had my third baby. I am a work in progress but love the ideas of Magda Gerber. A question on this post in particular. Do you or any of your followers have any creative ideas for when my 6 yo watches tv? 9 mo old stares atbscreen and I hate it. I often make 6 yo use comp or iPad instead but still. Baby is also very interested in iPad as well, I’m fearing for the future already! Thanks again.

    1. Mette, I think this is a great excuse to limit your 6 year old’s screen time to when the baby is asleep. If it’s an iPad, perhaps your older child can be restricted to using it in his or her room…at certain times of the day.

  9. I love how all this sounds and it sounds like it would work great if started from the beginning, particularly the self-directed play. However, I did not know all this when my son was born and he was a very fussy baby. We found very little to comfort him most of the time. I was directed to the Happiest Baby on the Block book with the five S’s. We did have some success with some of those and often combining them. I’d also read so much attachment parenting stuff and all the stuff against CIO so I got the feeling that I needed to be holding my baby all the time if he was crying. That led to me neglecting my own care all too often and getting incredibly frustrated. I feel this set the tone for our relationship. While I feel I’ve been successful at incorporating some of these things and I feel we have a pretty good relationship, there are still times at 2 now that I get really frustrated and he does a lot of screaming (I feel this is a carry-over from his crying). I also feel as a result of all this attention that he does not know how to play by himself, he always wants one of us with him. It never helped that my husband was even more concerned about him hurting himself than I am and he rarely leaves our son’s side. How can a parent undo, or move in the direction of self-guided play at this point? How long would you expect it to take to turn things around? The unfortunate part is my husband and I are both working now and he’s with my MIL and his young cousin all day and I’m sure he does very little on his own then too. I’m hoping to quit working again this summer so I can devote more time to this and reduce the TV time my husband started and MIL continues. Thanks!

    1. Hi Adrianne! I would start by understanding that crying, screaming and other emotional outbursts are not your responsibilty or something to fear. These are healthy expressions of your child’s will. Your only obligation is to accept and acknowledge these feelings, not try to change them.

      When parents make changes of any kind in terms of their responses, it’s best to be honest and upfront about it. “Yes, I used to always stay next to you, but I have to do such-in-such for a few minutes and then I’ll be back. You have toys and books here and I’m sure you’ll find something interesting to do while I’m busy.”

      Your boy needs a safe place to play, so that you and your husband don’t worry about him hurting himself.

      Self-directed play is learned when parents understand how to stay in responsive mode while they “play” with their child. I’ve written a lot about this. Here are a couple of posts:

      http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2009/11/becoming-unglued/

      http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2010/08/solo-engagement-fostering-your-toddlers-independent-play/

      http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2012/11/7-myths-that-discourage-independent-play/

      Confidence and belief in your son are the key!

      1. This seems like it would work so much better for us, but to such a large degree this type of interaction and knowing what to say seem so foreign to me. Its not how I was brought up and not how I see other parents manage. He does have safe places to play. We turned his bedroom into a play room since he still sleeps in our room. And he can always play in the living room and he has a drawer and a learning tower to play in while we’re in the kitchen. He will sometimes play for little bits, but not very long. I just can’t get my husband to leave his side. He’s afraid he’s going to fall and bump his head (he’s already had several bloody lips). And what’s interesting is that when my husband is by his side he rarely says anything to our son, and from what I’ve seen rarely interjects in what my son is doing, so you’d think our son would have the idea by now. I wonder what we’re still missing. I’ll check out some of those other references for other ideas. Thanks!

  10. Great post! We struggle with our daughter’s mood-swings (she is 5) and how to handle her emotions and bad-mood days. I appreciate your “all feelings allowed” point, but our girl often takes her feelings out on the rest of the family and we all feel miserable on these days. Any suggestions on how we can accept ALL her feelings and moods, without it having to negatively affect the rest of us (especially her younger brother)? Thank you!!

  11. an informative read. Thank you! Love learning new things, which I did reading this and having my mother-instincts confirmed as healthy parenting choices.Good to know I have been doing some things right , phew!! 🙂

  12. avatar Katherine says:

    Hi Janet,

    I am so in love with your website, I am a logical person and it just makes so much sense to me! Although I do struggle to implement it as I myself struggle with stressful situations (probably for these reasons when I was growing up).

    I am wondering if you have any advice about what to do with a 5month old who seems to have colic or stomach pains. I sit next to him and tell him “I hear you are feeling upset, I am going to stay here with you” and stroke his face but he waves his arms around and hits my hand. He literally screams, like a piercing scream that makes you need to cover your ears. So I pick him up and cuddle him or lie in bed cuddling him until his body can relax. I could handle a bit of crying but not this and he wouldn’t even hear my words over his screaming. I feel he is becoming more dependant on me to fix the problem but I don’t know what to do to stop it.

    Also how are you meant to sportscast when you have no idea what is wrong! My 3 year old has been getting increasingly angry lately and it could possibly be because I am stressed but I am unsure of what to say other than “I see you are angry. When I say “I will not let you hit me” he gets worse and I have to take him to his room to be angry there as it gets too dangerous for the baby. Probably sounds worse than it is because he does calm down but often through distraction. Like “would you like to come out now and have an ice block with us”. That’s his Dad who is master of distractions..

    If you get time to respond I would appreciate it immensely 🙂 thank you!

  13. Wonderful. Just wonderful.
    My favorite line: “Becoming a parent is the best excuse you’ll ever have to slow down and simplify your life.”

    If our society can align our working lives with children (our future!) at the center, we’ll make some real progress. Here’s are a couple of posts on just that.

    http://currencyofempathy.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/lets-admit-it-we-left-the-baby-behind/

    http://currencyofempathy.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/dear-ceo-heres-the-new-way-to-work-aka-how-to-get-your-mojo-back/
    Would love to know what you think of them.

    Thanks! Look forward to more.

    1. I’ll rush over and look at it right now! Hi Laura! Seriously, thank you…I look forward to checking that out.

  14. This all makes me very sad because these are all the things I try to do with my son and my husband thinks I’m nuts and contradicts me. I try to respect the fact that he’ the parent too and he deserves input but I disagree with his approach to many things. What do you do when parents can’t agree on how to parent?

    1. That’s a very tough situation, Nora… Having a different opinion is one thing; thinking you are “nuts” is another. Have you considered couples counseling?

  15. avatar Pia Gundersen says:

    Great article! Thank you.

  16. My daughter who is six clearly has some anxiety. She hides it very well and has some excellent coping skills but I do worry. Her grandfather and one of her uncles have panic attacks and at times suffer extreme stress. For example she did a fire unit at school and bought home a package around fire safety in the home. As soon as it was at home we had to read through the plan altogether and then she obsessed about having fire alarms and a fire plan etc. we did the fire plan, got extra alarms for her bedroom and her brothers, practised the fire plan etc. But still she worried. She will not sleep with the heater on in her room and she worries her fire alarm won’t work. She has dreams about her fire alarm batteries not working and she wakes up in bed and her legs are on fire.
    I tell her that being worried is normal, that mummy worries about lots of things too and that this just makes us sure we do all the right things to keep us safe. What we have to do is not let our worry grow so big that that’s all we can think about. So we do a mental list of checking things out (eg fire alarm light working, know what to do if alarm goes off, know how to get out of house, know where to meet, YES to all, then time to put it away. Usually she says yes to putting it away and we move on, but it reoccurs all the time. Last week she told me she dreamed that the letterbox was on fire and we couldn’t meet there. I asked her what we should do if that happens and she said lets meet at the neighbours letterbox if we can’t meet at ours. This resolved things fine. Should I be worried??? Is she managing fine, is there anything else I should be doing???

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