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…
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
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