Last week I went to hear a speaker at our school. The topic was stress. As a meditation teacher and happiness coach I would like to think that my children have been given all the tools they need to cope with the regular stressors in their lives however my family has a long history of anxiety so I felt a need to go just in case there was something I could learn about the genetics of stress.
Lynn Lyons was the speaker and I highly recommend her book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents. The evening contained some neuroscience, some personal stories and some practical applications but my biggest take away was this simple sentence:
Your child’s anxiety is your fault. If it’s nature, it’s your fault. If it’s nurture it’s your fault.
Pretty bold words but shatteringly true.
Science has not been able to discover an anxiety gene. What it has discovered is a pattern of anxiety that is somehow passed down from one generation to the next. North America currently reports its highest incidence of stress ever. One in five adults are medicated for stress or depression (two sides of the same coin). The part that scares me is that when asked, fifty percent of adults said they would prefer to have a prescription than to learn meditation or mindful breathing techniques to decrease stress.
What Is Stress and Why Is It So Bad?
Anxiety is an overestimation of the problem and an underestimation of your ability to deal with the problem.
Stress is the activation of our fight or flight system. It was really useful in prehistoric times when we were in danger of being eaten by a dinosaur. When the dinosaur starts to chase you your body here’s what happens:
1. Increase in blood pressure- this allows you to run fast and get away.
2. Clotting of blood platelets- in case the dinosaur bites you, you are less likely to bleed out.
3. Releases stress hormones – gives you that superhuman burst that lets moms lift cars off babies.
4. Decreased growth hormones, decrease circulation to digestive tract- these are all systems of the body that are not needed to flee or fight, so they are temporarily turned off to allow the other systems to use the body’s full available resources.
5. Weakened immunity- the body takes its focus of the non-essential services to allow all energy to be involved in saving itself.
Here’s the problem; in today’s world stress is provoked not by dinosaurs but by encountering obstacles to getting what we want, things like traffic, public speaking, being misunderstood in conversation, failing a test or losing a job. The long term exposure to the chemicals our body releases when fight or flight is enabled causes health issues like coronary heart disease, insomnia, addictions, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, infections, cancer, heart attacks, strokes and digestive disturbances.
Knowing this makes a parent want to alleviate any potential stressors a child might encounter. We have seen a rise in organized sport teams where everyone wins. Some schools have a rule that if you invite one child from the class to a birthday party you have to include them all. Our kids are in helmets as they bike to after school tutors while eating gluten-free organic, free-range snack food while listening to moms and dads quote safety stats so they won’t be abducted.
We are setting our children up for failure! In their teen years, if we don’t allow as pre-teens to fail, to fall down, or to experience disappointment they are going to be entirely unable to cope.
Instead of removing stress from our kids’ lives we need to teach them that they control their reactions.
How do we do this?
Help them identify stress.Talk about how stress feels in their body. Explain that it feels different to everyone and get them recognizing if they feel it in their jaw, in their tummy or in their chest.
Remind them of times where they had success in a stressful situation.Pointing out where they successfully overcame stress in the past actually strengthens the neural pathways that will allow them to resist stress in the future.
Teach them to talk to their stress. Using simple phrases like, “I remember you but you aren’t needed here” or “I’m in control stress.” Or “You bore me, every single time I see a dog you show up- boring!” makes stress seem manageable to them
Watch your pattern of communicating about potential stressors. It is important to teach your children about safety. They need to hear “look both ways before you cross the street.” They don’t need to hear “because if you don’t you will get hit by a car and you could die and I couldn’t handle it if you died.”
Don’t change the situation, change the way your child deals with the situation.If your child experiences stress when you drop them at daycare, you are still going to drop them off. Make sure you reinforce how they made it without you. Adopt this behavior for other situations too. If playdates are another source of separation anxiety, parents frequently just don’t do them. This isn’t helping your child. Instead, suggest options. You could stay for 15 minutes at the beginning. Or leave the child wearing your watch or necklace to remind them that you are coming back soon. My children were anxious sleeping in their own beds so we planned where we would meet in our dreams so that they wouldn’t feel alone.
Remember, worrying about your child’s tendency to be anxious is only fueling anxiety’s flame. Showing your children how you deal with anxiety models for them how to deal with theirs.
The conversation about stress and children is relatively new but clearly a hot topic. Do you think kids today have more stress than previous generations or are we just parenting in a way that highlights their stresses? I ‘d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.