How Not to Be a Stressed Parent & Not Raise a Stressed Kid
posted by: Lori Holden
Colorado mom Kristen Race, PhD, has been practicing mindfulness since well before that. Being a student of mindfulness myself, I first came across Kristen in 2012 at her Train-the -Teacher seminar, which helps Colorado K-12 educators bring principles of mindfulness into their classroom so kids can better “pay attention.”
Now, Kristen’s new book is available, and it’s a must-read for any parent who wishes to raise a child capable of calm and rational thought in the midst of chaos. I recently read Mindful Parenting: Simple and Powerful Solutions for Raising Creative, Engaged, Happy Kids in Today’s Hectic World and had these questions for Dr Race. It immediately caused me to re-evaluate some of what goes on in our home. Changes are a-coming in the Lavender Luz household, and when you discover what Kristen has to say in our Q&A below, maybe in yours, too.
Isn’t “doing nothing” a luxury? How can we afford time for this mindfulness stuff?
Families today are in crisis. Parents are extremely stressed — and they’re raising stressed out kids. Veteran teachers describe kids entering kindergarten today as the most stressed kids they have seen in their careers.
Mindfulness doesn’t require developing a whole new set of parenting strategies. It can be simple. For example, I spend 15 minutes a day on my formal mindfulness practice. This 15 minutes pays off in droves in its impact on my anxiety, patience, enjoyment — and productivity! For me, mindful parenting it is about slowing down, creating strong relationships with our kids, and wholeheartedly engaging with the people I care about most.
What is the value of unstructured time?
Some very important brain development occurs during unstructured time. Not only does racing from one event to the next trigger stress, it has a negative impact on the way kids’ brains develop. But during unstructured or play time, some very rich development occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that helps us pay attention, control impulse, make good choices and solve-problems.
Compare a pick up game in the neighborhood to an organized sports practice. When kids play such a game, many things have to occur. They have to choose teams fairly, they have to make up rules, the set boundaries, and adapt when a new player wants to join the game. They choose their own positions and if there is a problem they figure out a way to solve it. All of these skills (planning, decision-making, problem-solving) are functions of the prefrontal cortex.
When kids participate in an organized activity they have a much different experience. Typically a coach chooses the teams, the fields are lined, if there is a problem the adults solve it and kids are told what to do and how to do it. It doesn’t allow them to use their prefrontal cortex in the same way. This is not to say that kids should not participate in organized sports, but we need to be intentional about the way we schedule organized activities and ensure that kids have adequate down time as well.
What’s the difference between a normal stress response and a chronic stress response?
A normal stress response is a reaction in our brain designed to promote survival. This is what’s happening: messages travel through our brain by first passing through the thalamus, a sort of triage station. The thalamus figures out where to route the sensory information as it receives it. If the information is perceived as unfamiliar or threatening, the brain signals a part of the brain called the amygdala to act. The amygdala is like a little fire alarm. Its job is to respond to situations that are unfamiliar, emotionally charged, dangerous, exciting, or painful. That’s an important function—it activates a set of responses that has helped human being survive throughout evolution.
Your body then goes on emergency alert. Your logical brain takes a back seat to the reactions triggered by the amygdala. Your body is bathed in stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol — the classic “fight, flight, or freeze” response . The effects within your body are instantaneous and profound, and they work—they’ve worked to keep us safe since we were at risk of attack by saber-toothed tigers.
Only most of the time, there are no tigers. This is where the chronic stress response comes in. There are constant texts and emails and overlapping activities and meetings and long days and too much homework and too little sleep—stressors our modern brains read as just as threatening as the saber-toothed tiger. Our bodies respond in kind, again and again, and then again. Our hearts race, our blood pressure rises, and our decision-making centers stay roped off while our bodies tend to the ever-present emergencies. As we engage our stress response more frequently, we actually rewire our own brains, teaching our bodies that our go-to response needs to be a stress response.
Our kids’ brains, mirroring our own, get rewired too. The omnipresent stress response shapes a brain that can’t pay attention, solve problems, or think critically. As a result, many adults and kids today are in chronic states of emergency.
If a video games isn’t violent, is it still harmful?
Much of the fast-paced, attention-grabbing features of video games and children’s programming were modeled after advertising research, which revealed that the best way to engage the brain’s attention is to do so involuntarily. To grab a brain without its permission, games use things like rapid zooms and pans, flashes of color, quick movement in the peripheral visual field, sudden loud noises. The brain interprets this sensory overload as threatening, triggering the stress response and everything that goes along with it. Though playing these games may appear to be down time for our kids, from a neurological perspective it is anything but! Kids today spend an average of 53 hours a week interacting with screen media. Much of this time reinforces a constant state of stress in their brains.
How does the Hang-Up-and-Hang-Out Challenge helps families?
Our brains are highly triggered by the perception that we need to be constantly accessible. Hang Up and Hang Out is a challenge to families to curtail their use of technology for one week in the presence of their kids.
The idea is not to give up your cell phone or computer altogether. It is more like a cleanse. Take a break, see what emerges, and then be intentional about the way you engage with technology as a family.
How can parents help kids make mindfulness a regular practice?
We can’t always control the amount of stress in kid’s lives; but we can teach them how to respond to stress in ways that are healthier for their brains. In Mindful Parenting I give parents specific tools to use with kids PreK-teens to build resilience to stress. Here are three simple ways to start.
First, parents need to start with themselves. Take 5 minutes a day to bring awareness to your breathing. Breath awareness is one of the best ways to calm the stress response to the brain. Take it a step further by offering your child a Three Breath Hug. When you or your kids feel overwhelmed simply embrace and take three breaths together. This is an excellent way to model how to use your breath to manage stress. It also feels as good for you as it does for them.
Second, examine the hidden stressors in your life. Kids spend 53 hours a week interacting with screen media (sometimes more than one screen at a time). They have 50% less free time then they did a generation ago and they get an hour less sleep. These factors cause stress in the brain. Ask yourself: How much technology does the family use? Is everyone getting enough sleep? Are we overscheduled?
When we can manage and modify these hidden stressors we can give ourselves breathing room, space to live more intentionally.
Finally, integrate a few simple practices that build resilience to stress. Here’s an example from the book: Rose, Bud, Thorn is a simple game that helps families to be present with each other around the dinner table, and kids of all ages love it! Each person around the table takes a turn describing their Rose – something good they experienced over the course of the day, their Thorn – the worst part of their day, and their Bud – something they are looking forward to tomorrow. Try it once and the kids will ask for it time and time again.
It is up to us as parents to teach our children how to live healthy and happy lives. Integrating simple mindfulness practices and activities improves the ways our brains function and makes us more resilient to the stress that modern life presents. A few simple practices can make a difference, for stressed kids AND for stressed parents!
Lori Holden blogs from metro-Denver at LavenderLuz.com and can also be found @LavLuz on Twitter. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, written with her daughter’s birth mom, is available through your favorite online bookseller. If you know anyone who is parenting via adoption (open, closed, foster, international) or donor conception (sperm, egg, embryo), or is a birth parent, check this book out as a thoughtful anytime gift.