Dr Laura Markham talks us through stress in infancy and childhood and how to protect your children from it.

The greatest dangers to our kids may not be the ones we worry most about or the ones that make the evening news. Stress researchers now believe that the greatest risk for many children is the stress of the way we live. Stress has a biological impact, which causes physical, emotional and brain changes. Stress makes all humans, young and old, more vulnerable to dangers from anxiety to depression and from obesity to substance abuse.

The American Psychological Association’s annual stress survey has concluded that teens are as stressed as adults in our culture. But they’ve also found that even younger children are more stressed than we realise.

Given how stressed we feel as parents, it’s often a surprise to hear that stress can be even worse for your children. Why? Kids suffer from the same hyper-scheduling as adults, but it’s made even more challenging by their immature emotional and intellectual development. Children’s brains are still developing, laying down neural pathways in a daily context of stressful over-activity, upsetting images and hyper-stimulation. Researchers are only beginning to understand the effects of this on children’s neurological development.

Compared to adults, children perceive themselves as powerless, at the mercy of schedules, parents, peers and school. They struggle with pressures that most of us never suffered with like much more homework and the over-precocious peer culture to be constantly plugged in. They have less downtime, less playtime, less warm face-to-face connection and less access to the grounding effects of nature.

But resisting the seductions of our culture altogether is impossible because virtually all parents participate in it themselves. How many of us would be willing to move to the country and live slower, more peaceful lives without screens and alarm clocks, being in tune with the rhythms of nature?

On the other hand, it’s our job as parents to protect our children from things that may endanger their welfare, and we need to face the hard truth that some of what we take for granted in our modern lives is actually destructive to our children. Here are a dozen tips that together help provide a protective shield for your child against the stresses of modern lives.

1. Slow down

Humans are designed to love excitement and novelty but stress kills. Literally. Stress erodes our patience, our health and our ability to give our best to our kids. Stress makes us edgy and compromises our emotional control so we’re more likely to become annoyed or angry. Stress sabotages our immune systems and our energy levels. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can usually see how we make our lives more stressful than they need to be, simply by being unwilling to make the choice to pare back. If you want your kids to behave better, start by slowing down and not rushing so much. Your child will gravitate toward your centred presence and want to follow your lead.

2. Resist the impulse to over-schedule your child

All kids need downtime, creative time, time to dream and do nothing and even time to get bored. Kids need to learn to like being with themselves without being entertained. They need quiet time to tap into their own still voice. They need to notice that when we’re still, unfinished emotional business often arises, swamps them and then passes away, resolved, leaving them freer. They need to learn to structure their own time without always looking to us or their screens. They need to understand that life isn’t the activities that fill it but something much more vast and mysterious.

3. Teach stress reduction skills

Teach your child that we all need a repertoire of healthy ways to reduce stress so that we aren’t vulnerable to misusing unhealthy ones, like food. For instance, physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce the stress hormones circulating in our bodies. Make it a daily habit to get your child moving. Nature is also a proven antidote to stress so be sure that some of that movement happens outdoors.

Another helpful technique for kids is for them to regularly listen to audio recordings specifically designed to help them learn to regulate stress, such as a guided visualisation or a story that teaches deep breathing.

4. Listen and laugh

Like adults, children need a chance just to talk and to offload the worries and tensions of the day. They also need plenty of laughter, which helps them heal the normal anxieties of daily life. If you find you’re too caught up in moving your child through the routine to take time for listening and laughter, build some small connection rituals into your family life, such as snuggling each morning, roughhousing and laughter before bath time and everyone sharing their favourite and worst parts of the day at dinner.

5. Encourage your child’s passions without pushing

Encouraging children to be creative ultimately gives them more joy in life than the passive consumption of culture created by others. Any talent, skill or hobby that matters to your child will insulate them from peer pressure, drug use and the extremes of pop culture. Just don’t push your child to perform or to ‘win’ with their passion or you’ll take a source of joy and transform it to another source of stress.

6. Choose a school that minimises homework and competition and emphasises social-emotional learning

Children learn best when the ‘whole’ child is acknowledged and encouraged. That means a curriculum that includes social-emotional development will help your child develop both emotional intelligence and intellect and reduce stress levels.

Homework is a big stressor for children who have been sitting in a classroom all day. If you can choose a school that minimises homework, you’ll be freeing your child to have more downtime for play, self-initiated exploration and pursuit of their own passions. That not only reduces the stress level in your child’s life but is ultimately better for learning.

7. Choose age-appropriate family activities that connect rather than over-stimulate

Too often, we as parents forget what really nourishes our child’s soul. For instance, children need desperately to spend more time in nature, which calms their physiology and grounds them. Young children don’t need movies, virtually all of which are inappropriate for them. If every other second grader is talking about some new movie, you may well agree to take your child but that’s very different to making movies a routine part of life. Parents often take young kids to the movies because the parent finds it easier than taking the child on an adventure, be it a hike, bike ride or a trip to the museum.

8. Limit screen time and teach media literacy 

Research shows that all screen usage contributes to our stress levels.

TV teaches children that the most important things in life are money, appearance and fame, which increases their stress levels. Research shows that TV stifles creativity, lowers self-esteem (particularly in girls) and increases violence.

Talk with your kids on an ongoing basis about the media messages that they see. Does this ad make them want to buy that product? What else does it make them feel and think? (Hint: You and your life are inadequate without this product, which will supposedly make you beautiful, popular and talented.)

Research shows that even when we don’t think we’re influenced by advertising – and  most people say they aren’t – we are very likely to act on the ad’s message. That’s scary. But what’s really scary is that corporations spend billions to target our kids who are even easier prey than we are. Even when we don’t act on advertising messages, we unconsciously respond to the message that we aren’t good enough the way we are. Children, whose brains function differently to adult brains, are more susceptible to those messages.

But the stress comes from more than advertising. Studies show that adults and children who watch TV news believe the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is.

Seeing TV news increases stress levels, causes nightmares and makes kids more anxious. You might still choose to watch the news but that doesn’t make it appropriate for children. Even when you watch it with them, kids under the age of 10 are not ready to see in colour all the terrible things that happen in the world. Reading the newspaper together is fine because it isn’t as visceral and you can help with the interpretation, unlike the unmediated sensationalism of the news. Even children  who are in late-primary and early high school need your help to be savvy media interpreters.

What about just playing games? Games are designed to be addictive. They stress the brain and change the way it develops. Research shows that many children cannot handle iPad usage without meltdowns, difficulty transitioning and the need for constant stimulation.

9. Keep phones from becoming yet another stress

Of course, now our children consume smaller screens all day long. Most adults admit that being at the mercy of the incoming texts on their phone increases their stress level. If your child has his or her own phone, be sure that it gets parked in the charging station at the front door for most of the time that your child is home, including during meals and homework time and after dinner. Kids need explicit direction that phones are a convenience for them and that texts and calls don’t have to be answered immediately.

10. Protect sleep

Many children are chronically sleep-deprived, which reduces their ability to cope with the normal stresses of life. If you have to wake your child in the morning, they are not getting enough sleep. Start moving bedtime back by 15 minutes every night until you find the sweet spot where your child wakes up on their own, refreshed

and cheerful.

11. Check your own attitude

If you’re running around stressed out all the time, bemoaning how busy you are, what are you modelling for your child? That they’re not good enough unless they’re over-extended? Stress is not inevitable – it’s a choice. Notice also what you’re modelling and discussing with your child about values, choices and the meaning of life. Is life about working more to buy more things? Competing to be the best? Does your child feel like they have to achieve to be worthy of your love or are they more than enough, exactly as they are?

Finally, notice that your stress has a huge impact on your child. When you get huffy, your child gets stressed. All of us will lose it if we get pushed to the edge. Our responsibility as grown-ups is to stay away from the edge.

12. Stay connected

Most of us take for granted that kids would rather be with other kids. But when children are asked, they invariably say they wish their parents wanted to spend more time with them. Think of this as an insurance policy for your child. Your very presence helps them feel secure and melts away the stress. In fact, the most important factor in protecting your child from stress may be the delight you take in them, and the closeness of your connection. If you’re too stressed to feel that delight, why not give yourself whatever support you need, to rediscover it?

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