We dread them, we hate them, we get thrown off our game when they happen.…
When I sat down to write this blog post, part 2 of a series on stress in young children, it gave me pause for reflection on the stress in my life and forced me to look at my own patterns.
For example, last year I made some decisions about the direction I wanted to go in my life.
On top of running my very busy retail store (Mountain Baby), I decided to recertify as a Lactation Consultant (has to be done every five years) AND I decided to train and get certified as a Life Coach. Both of these took many hours every week.
I also decided to substitute occasionally as the Lactation Consultant at the local Maternity Clinic.
All that while I was consistently writing this weekly parenting blog.
Then I was selected to contribute to a book and write a chapter on parenting. Which I did (and it was recently published!)
And I was taking piano lessons, and singing in the Community Choir. And trying to work out every day.
And I cross country skied as much as I could in the winter, and kayaked and hiked as much as I could in the summer.
To say I was stressed and consistently under pressure would be an understatement.
But, I was doing things that I loved and that were meaningful to me.
And I was doing them by choice.
Or so it seemed.
This past year wasn’t actually that different from other years.
I am always taking on things to do, be it a new website, starting a Health Co-op, serving on boards and committees, taking on City Hall.
When I was younger, I finished both my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees while working (with children) during the day and going to school at night, and taking dance lessons and being in a Woman’s Writing Group.
Then there was the time I was the Head of the Early Childhood Department at the College of New Caledonia. I not only designed and taught the full curriculum but at the same time I developed an outreach program for remote rural communities and l traveled around the central interior of British Columbia setting up programs, giving parenting workshops, etc etc etc.
There are many variations on this theme in my life and it would take a novel to list them.
Yet in all that activity, I was doing what I loved and having a very full and meaningful life.
A very full and continuously under pressure and stressed meaningful life
Ok. I know you came here to read about stress in young children and not my stressful patterns but I needed to tell you about my stress to illustrate my next point about childhood stress…
Let me explain.
Living my life this way is not an accident.
I just have to look at my own childhood to understand how this happens.
My parents were very loving and devoted. Coming from an immigrant background they wanted my sister and me to have everything they didn’t and to have a rich and full childhood.
So I went to another school, after regular school, to learn about my cultural background and it’s language. I took piano lessons and I took dance lessons. I did any extracurricular activity that was available at school. I was involved in student government, president of the honour society etc etc.
See the pattern? This was something in me that was established early on.
This is a pattern I am still living.
I was an overscheduled child – all done from my parents’ love and devotion.
And now I’m an overscheduled adult.
One of the greatest acknowledged sources of stress in children’s lives today is being overscheduled.
We all want to provide our children with great experiences.
If they show an interest, and we have the financial means, we put them in an activity. And they say they “love it” so maybe we put them in another activity, and another until its activity after activity after activity, after activity after playdate after playdate, often after a full day at daycare or school.
And, let’s be honest, we often put them into activities so we’ll have a few free hours for ourselves – a totally legitimate desire.
Sometimes we put them into activities because we think we might look like bad parents if we don’t put our kids into lots of activities. Then we make them stick it out even if they don’t like it because we don’t want them to be “quitters”.
But what is this doing to them?
We are turning them into overscheduled children.
We all know that too much stress is hard on the body. The constant stress hormone, cortisol, is damaging to our brains, and to our immune systems. It makes us feel anxious and unsettled – it can make us hyper-vigilant (always on guard waiting for the next bad thing to happen).
Many of the activities we put our kids in are actually very stressful. They demand a lot of our children. They stimulate the production of cortisol.
Many kids activities have a performance component to them – not in the sense of being on stage and performing (although some do) but performance as in having to learn how to kick the ball, or swim the lap, or dance the dance, or have the right martial arts form, or learn the notes to the music, or be a good team player, follow the routines, show up on time, keep going even if exhausted.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities. But too much is too much. Where is the down time? Where is the play time?
And absolutely most importantly – where is the quiet, connected, loving time with you? Not a five-minute story at night, but time where you are TOTALLY present with your children.
The gift of your time and your full loving attention is the greatest stress preventer and the greatest de-stressor for children of all ages, including teenagers.
Not just telling your kids what to do, or rushing them to get dressed or to bed, but just hanging out together, making dinner together, playing games together, watching a movie together snuggled up on the couch. Putting on music and dancing together.
If you say you “don’t have time” for this, then take a look at your life.
How much time are you spending on your phone? How much time on Facebook? Pinterest? Texting? Are you allowing your precious time with your children to be interrupted by that little red notification on your iPhone?
Are you working full time and then involved in lots of activities without your children when you are not at work?
Yes, of course, you need to do some things for yourself – it’s essential and your children need to see you taking care of yourself. But constantly rushing to get away from them via your smartphone or otherwise (which is how they may well perceive it) is not what they need to see.
They need to see you choosing to be with them; wanting to be with them. Wanting to really listen to them and do things with them.
There is no set amount of time, but the more you can be with them, the better.
Everything you do gives a message to your children about what is important. And they need to know that they are important. If they don’t know they are important and that you want to be with them, they won’t feel good about themselves.
And as you definitely know, not feeling good about yourself is VERY VERY stressful.
Yes, it’s all about you.
You are the most important person in your children’s life. And that goes for both parents whether you are together or separated and sharing parenting.
Now before you get your back up about my suggestion that you need to put down your iPhone to spend quality time with your kids… here’s the upside.
The more focused time you have with your children, the more de-stressing you do with them, THE BETTER BEHAVED THEY ARE!
When children are hard to be with, it’s because they are feeling bad inside.
As one of the wisest child development people I’ve known once said, “The more obnoxious your children are, the more they are telling you how much they need your love and attention.”
How do you identify your child’s stressors
I’ve come up with a little homework exercise for you this week.
This exercise is designed to enhance your awareness, not to prove that you are a good or bad parent. It will help you see some of your child’s stressors are AND where some of your stressors are as well. Maybe you’ll see some ways to reduce everyone’s stress a little. Click here for a form you can fill out. PLEASE print it or do it by hand. It’s not formatted to be done on a computer or phone (on purpose!)
For Three Days (try to include a weekend day):
- Count how many activities your children are involved in away from you and calculate the time spent away per activity. Include school, daycare, preschool, playdates, sports, classes, lessons, etc.
- Count YOUR activities and the hours spent away from your child (while they are awake) each of those days – include work, classes, committees, rehearsals, visiting friends on your own etc.
- Track how much time you spend on the phone or on your computer each of those days. Honestly.
- Count ALL the actual time you spend together with your child/children each of those three days. Include anything you do together, eating together, reading together, cleaning together, playing together, bathtime, being outside together, making things together etc. Going to the park or playground together counts, even if they play with other kids.
- Keep track of how many times you check your phone and/or are interrupted by texts or calls when you are with your child.
You may be surprised at what your 3-days actually look like. How much or little time you are actually spending focused on your kids?
If you see that you are spending very little time with them, make the decision to add in 15 more minutes a day for a start. Maybe just putting your phone away for 15 minutes is all you will need.
I would love your feedback. What did you find out? What insights? What changes are you going to make? Email me and let me know.
Next week is part three of my series on stress in young children. I’ll be talking about stress prevention in babies, general signs of stress in children of all ages, signs that you are stressed, and things to do about stress.
And if you have specific things you would like me to address, please let me know.