Christmas is a magical time of year but it can also be rather stressful. Modern life is fast and highly stimulating, we are bombarded by information and are tempted by endless opportunities which create increasingly high expectations of what we should do and achieve. Many adults thrive on this adrenaline-high lifestyle. But have you noticed how many children are far from happy?
A happy, healthy child is busy, energetic, and carefree. In contrast many children now have intense episodes of panic, prolonged bouts of tearfulness, frequent nightmares, fears of being left alone and extreme temper tantrums.
Your grandmother may believe that modern kids are spoilt, have too many material goods and have become self centred. But there is another explanation. Modern life can be too stressful for children. The reason why is linked to their hyper sensitive reactions to stress.
Children have the most brilliant built in survival systems which are more finely tuned than the adult’s alert system. This makes evolutionary sense because children are more vulnerable. Nature protects children by making them ultra sensitive to any possible threats or dangers. In simple terms, the child’s body and brain are more finely tuned to automatically detect possible dangers. Immediately there is a surge of adrenaline and cortisol which is needed to create the flight or fight reaction.
However children cannot protect themselves so their reaction includes extreme emotional reactions guaranteed to attract their parents’ protection. Now these automatic alarm systems are rather primitive so don’t know real danger from false. They are designed to be fast rather than accurate. They work by detecting either external signs of danger or by reading increased internal signs of stress from raised heart rate and breathing which has not been caused by exertion. If your heart rate and breathing increase, so the brain reasons, there must be something going on.
For the 21st century child these internal stress reactions are more likely to be due to being bombarded by noise, having too much to do or being rushed from place to place by an adult in hurry. Raised expectations at school, too much homework, not enough time to play all raise stress levels. All contribute to a speeded up life which increases heart rate and speeds up breathing which results in increasing meltdown.
So what can we do? Not everyone can, or wants to downshift, move to the country and weave their own cloth. If the credit crunch has added more, not less pressure to your life here are some of your options.
1) Build up the pleasure to pain ratio
Research from positive psychology has found a ratio of 3:1 is the tipping point for well being. You don’t even have to create endless good times, you can increase your ratio by creating good memories to draw on and by slowly and deliberately anticipating and savouring something special that is still in the future. So when the present is dull and routine you can revisit the past or imagine the future with equally good results for your well being.
2) Find time to slow down
Children can benefit from as little as 5 minutes a day deliberately focused on slowing down the breathing and heart rate to create a calm but alert state of mind. More is better, but learning the skill will allow a child to repeat this for themselves when needed. Yoga or other slow exercise which concentrates the mind works well as does slow breathing techniques (breathing in and out to a slow count of 4 from 5 to 10 times is effective). Some schools are experimenting with child friendly forms of meditation which not only calm emotions but also improve concentration and learning. A stressed child does not learn effectively as both concentration and memory are adversely affected by stress.
On the home front, a slow, warm bath and a bedtime story are also very calming and help promote deep sleep which is restorative.
3) Turn taking and sharing
Family occasions where we wait and listen to others, not only calm us, but also help our bodies to entrain to each other. Entrainment is a biological process whereby we become in tune with others who we support and depend on, this process is often lost when we all do our own thing, and only meet up occasionally, despite being in the same house. Being in tune with others makes children feel safe and protected.
4) Create a treasure Chest
Building memories to draw upon creates precious moments that can be savoured again and again. Give your child a special box to collect photos, drawings, tickets from days out, postcards, small objects and anything else which will trigger intense pleasure when recalling a past event. Look at these treasures together to recall happy times when your child needs their spirits lifted.
Being under pressure and being judged for your achievements is a commonplace of modern childhood. Childhood is no longer a time of innocence and freedom to explore and grow at your own pace. Many children are now on a fast track timetable to accelerate achievement. Sadly this often backfires.
Instead offer your child the gift of appreciation, to acknowledge who they are now, and to signal your belief in their potential. Your observations and comments in recognising their true selves will show your appreciation and acceptance which will fortify them through tough times. A golden seed is true recognition from others which creates faith and optimism for the future. Tell them what you see rather than what you wish for.
Lastly be alert to your child’s expression of the uncomfortable emotions of fear, anger and distress, they are there as a warning that all is not well. These emotions can be triggered by a lifestyle which is not in reality threatening or dangerous but is stressful or too fast and too busy. Children run on slow time. You don’t have to totally change your life but do try small steady changes. Decide what the smallest thing is that you can start today that will create the biggest difference to your life.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0