Children and Stress – How to Create a Low Stress Environment for Your Child

Children and Stress - How to Create a Low Stress Environment for Your Child

When you put a load on a piece of metal you stress it. That’s what the engineers call it. Stress. There’s actually a profession that deals only with understanding how much of a load any material can take. They’re called stress engineers.

And these folks know everything about what happens when you exert a lot of pressure on a lot of different materials.

I like to remember that when I feel stressed–there’s something unnatural about feeling like I’m about to break any minute, like I can’t take the pressure.

It’s my human nature crying out for some release from inhuman demands. It’s my body’s–and my spirit’s–response to an all too heavy load that I’m not made to support.

And becoming a father is stressful in many ways.

Knowing the early signs of stress and how to lessen our load, is hugely helpful to our children, not least in their early years. They’re constantly scanning their environment to know if it’s safe or not.

When we’re stressed, it tells our children there’s something to fear. Our stress quickly becomes theirs, and it affects how our children develop.

Our stress will affect our child’s behavior, which is always an appropriate response to his or her environment.

‘When things go wrong, don’t ask what’s wrong with the kid. Let’s look at the environment. Let’s look at what’s going on in the family, let’s look at what’s going on in the culture, let’s look at what’s going on in the community. And particularly, what’s going on in the child’s immediate relationships with the one that he or she is closest to. Which means to say we have to look at ourselves.’ –Gabor Maté

When you’re stressed, your child’s small body senses that there’s some unknown reason for her, too, to be on high alert. Her most trusted adult is wound up tight with apprehension.

The better you get at understanding your body’s response to overload–and how to lighten your load–the easier it will be for you to ease the pressures on your child as well.

That’s why one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is to deepen your understanding of your limits, and honor your true nature.

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You can learn to recognize the signs of stress.

The word ‘stress’ goes all the way back to the 14th century, and is partly rooted in the word ‘distress’.  When the life we lead is not the life we’re meant to lead, we become anxious, worried and immeasurably sad.

It is also related to the latin word for something that is tight, drawn together, compressed.

These are really hard feelings to be with, and most of us will do anything we can to get away from them. They’re just too uncomfortable, and we either numb out or lash out. Maybe you recognize some of these behaviors when you’re stressed:

  • You can’t stop eating sweets or starch
  • You’re not sleeping well
  • You’re constantly checking your Iphone, Ipad or Facebook page
  • Your back aches, your head hurts, your neck is sore
  • You’re irritated, angry, frustrated a lot
  • You have trouble concentrating and remembering

If some of these signs are familiar, chances are your body is responding to a perceived threat, something that drives you to flee, fight or freeze.

Your body releases a flood of stress hormones and you’re on high alert. Your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, your blood pressure rises and your breath quickens.

You’re all set to escape.

Being a father is full of stressfull pressures.

If we’ve never known stress before, we’ll most likely get a taste of it when we become fathers. It’s like we enter a new dimension where time is a rare commodity. Burnout consultants and stress managers (yes, those are sadly professions) know this as time stress.

The late Irish poet John O’Donoghue would agree to some extent.  Stress, he said, is a “perverted relationship with time. So that rather than being a subject of your own time, you have become its target and victim, and time has become routine. So at the end of the day, you probably haven’t had a true moment for yourself”.

This is not surprising if you’re in a two-parent family where you and your partner work full time. Financially, you’re better off. But in terms of time, it’s often a struggle to balance all your professional obligations with being a present father. And there’s hardly any time to turn inwards, to visit with yourself, and hear what is calling you.

There are many other reasons most men find fatherhood to be stressful. Your family budget may be tight, especially if you’re a single-earner family. Your child’s behavior may trigger emotional memories in you that you’d rather not face (more stress!). Your relationship with your spouse may be strained from lack of attention or understanding, and there’s a silent distance growing between the two of you. Or you’re physically and mentally depleted, but taking care of yourself is not your top priority.

Your stress troubles your child.

When there’s too much stress on our systems, we’re battling invisible forces. One one level we’re just late for work. On another level our whole existence is under threat.

It’s hard to stay present with our children when we’re fighting for our lives.

This is why stressed dads don’t pick up on the subtle cues of our children. We miss a lot of what they’re communicating, either in words, sounds or signs. We’re what Dr. Gabor Maté calls proximally separated. Physically close but emotionally far away.

Despite the best of our intentions, we inevitably transfer our emotional stress to our kids. Not because we aren’t doing our best, not because the we aren’t dedicated or devoted, but because we’re stressed.

Children develop in immediate response to their surroundings; their physiologies and psyches are shaped by their social environments. For instance, children who grow up in stressful homes are more likely to have asthma.

A father who lives at a breathless pace is more likely to have a child who finds it hard to breathe.

Far from all levels of stress has this kind of impact. There are obviously gradations to how stressful the home environment is to a child. Stress specialists use the terms positive, tolerable and toxic stress.

Toxic stress is relentless and deeply damaging to our children’s health. This is caused by neglect, exposure to violence, physically or emotionally abusive relationships. It’s a recurring stress in the absence of adult support. It needs to stop, or the child will suffer for life.

Tolerable stress is manageable for our children if they receive loving attention and reassurance from a trusted adult. Maybe the child is injured, experiences the death of a loved one, or faces a calamity like a natural disaster. With the right support, this kind of stress is tolerable, if difficult. The child recovers.

Positive stress is to be expected in our children’s lives. A visit to the doctors. A conflict with a friend. Their hearts race for a while before coming back to baseline. Learning to handle positive stress is an essential part of our children’s healthy development.

A radical way to handle your stress

Knowing that our stress impacts our children one way or another can be hard to hear, especially if our lives are marked by stress. What makes it easier to bear is that at any moment we can take greater responsability for how we relate to stress and what we pass on to our children.

You may have heard that meditation helps. Or exercise. Or eating well. Or getting enough sleep. These are all valuable ways of calming, grounding or strengthening ourselves. But from my own experiences of stress, I’ve learned it’s really hard to meditate when my body tells me to run. It’s hard to will myself to sleep better when my body is under attack and needs to say awake. It’s hard to feed on lettuce and lentils when my body is ready to stampede across a savannah.

Stress isn’t merely a call for yet another coping strategy to help us get by. It’s a call for a radical new stance towards what are essentially inhuman pressures on us and our families.

In his wonderful book Fire in the Belly, Sam Keen takes a poetic, rather than stoic, stance for a wholehearted masculine and a new form of heroism. He speaks of a man who doesn’t try to endure overload by engaging in fortifying practices of self-improvement.

What he envisions is a man who recognizes stress as a sign that we find ourselves in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

‘Beware the once-born psychological cheerleaders, the purveyors of one-minute solutions, who assure you that all you need to do is change your diet, manage your time more efficiently, exercise more, learn to relax on the job, adjust your priorities, communiate better, learn to enjoy stress, or think positively and avoid ‘negative’ emotions. Because stress is not simply a disease; it is a symptom that you are living somebody else’s life, marching to a drumbeat that doesn’t syncopate with your personal body rhythms, playing a role you didn’t create, living a script written by an alien authority.’

When I  burned out, a few years before becoming a father, it took me over a year to recover. It was a year that changed me to the core.

One of the things I learned is that our symptoms of stress can guide us towards our deeper needs and innate giftedness. Stress is a bundle of heart-sourced messages that hold a lot of wisdom for us, if we know how to listen. By kneeling down and leaning in, we learn to lovingly care for our own safety, and to accept our limitations and our profound need of others.

Soul-based stress relief.

‘There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.’ –Meister Eckhardt

Rather than managing our stress with short-term tactics, we can approach ourselves with a gentle intention of understanding what we’re able to hold with grace. This is a routine of deep listening, acceptance and joyful curiosity. Here are some gifts we might discover along the way.

  • Rediscovering your natural baseline. 

We each have a natural rhythm at which we prefer to move, act, live. It’s different for each one of us. In the absence of overload, in a safe and peaceful environment, each of us settles in to an inborn beat. This is our baseline. Some of us are naturally ebullient. Others more prone to stillness. What is yours? Whatever it is, see to it that you can spend most of your days in baseline. Get really good at saying no to busy as a badge of self-worth. Say yes to swimming in a rollicking sea. Run barefoot through the autumnal woods. Dance naked to loud disco with your children. Or go for a solitary wander. Build relationship with the pace of your own heartbeat.

  • Celebrating your dependencies. 

Isolation is tremendously stressful. We’re professionally mobile. We may have little or no connection to place. Our families are spread across the globe, or nuclear. We struggle to belong. You can change this, by intentionally weaving more people back into your life and cracking the shell of outmoded heroic isolation. Revel in your dependency. Create a micro-tribe of people you’re drawn to. Surround your children with adults who share your values. Take time to build relationships and a rich social ecology that supports you and your family. Reach out, share your feelings and welcome support. You will be a lot happier, and far less stressed.

  • Giving freely from your heart. 

    Mainstream culture teaches us to work or act to receive income, position, title, promotion, accolade of some form or another. If we don’t get, we don’t give. It’s a conditioning that for most of us goes back to our early school days, if not before. Our behavior is conditioned by rewards that often do not meet our deeper needs. The radical stance is to give without expecting anything in return. Give your love, your time, your finest pair of trousers. Give from your heart, give with gratitude, and graciously overflow onto those you love. Follow your excitement, and find your own way to free yourself from external motivations for your natural generosity. When you do, when you help others without expectations, when you devote time to care for your child, your life is richer, and you’ll recover a lot faster from stressful situations.

  • Receiving guidance.

    Let stress be your teacher and see it as helpful. Don’t simply cope with or manage your stress response so you can get back in the saddle again to reclaim your efficiency. Try instead to listen to your body and ask yourself what it’s telling you. Your body is your most amazing guide. Get curious and allow it to teach you. When you turn towards your discomfort rather than manage it, your strategies for evasion will become more apparent. You will understand what in your life is causing you to suffer, and you will see more clearly what needs to change. The next time you are stressed, find a tree to lean against (even if it’s on a busy street in a crowded city). Stay there one breath after another.  Be with the unbearalbe discomfort and restlessness for as long as you can. One day your tension will yield to bird song, to the wind in the canopy, to the scent of warm soil. Instead of running away from the discomfort, you are now moving towards greater meaning in your life.

Stress is often our response as humans to conditions that are less than human.

We didn’t develop to be entrepreneurs in a capitalist environment. We didn’t develop to compete, profit and win over each other.

We developed to cooperate and be in wholehearted connection with ourselves, each other and nature. When we allow stress to guide us towards insight, we take another step towards our deepest needs and wants.

“Stress,” says Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “gives us access to our hearts” 

And when we have greater access to our hearts, we’re more able to offer our children our wholehearted presence in a peaceful home where there’s an abundance of time for play and connection.

Here we learn to let go of “hurry up”, or “we don’t have time for that” or “we need to get going now”.

Instead we find ourselves saying “wow, look at that,” or “take your time honey” or “I’ll sit here with you until you’re done.”


About the Author: Miki Dedijer
Miki Dedijers primary vocation is being the father of two free-range, organic boys.  He is a community builder who also works as a life coach for fathers around the world through naturaldads.com, lectures, and runs outdoor workshops for fathers and their children. He is the founder of a local men’s group and a leader in training with the Mankind Project.
 
Miki lives with his wife on a farm on the west coast of Sweden, accompanied by a Norwegian Puffindog, a Norwegian Forest cat, a flock of Muscovy ducks, and Orpington chickens.
 
 
You can find out more about Miki through his website, naturaldads.comor on Facebook.

12 Comments

Karen Young

Nina this isn’t unusual at all. Eating and fidgeting are ways to self-soothe, and a headache can come from the tension in your body that comes wth stress. Anything you can do to protect yourself from stress is important, such as eating well, sleeping, exercise, mindfulness – these all protect the brain from the effects of stress.

Reply
Christine Heywood

How can you deal with stress that is caused by another person’s behaviour over which you have no control ?

Reply
Jenn

I was thinking the same thing! I have an autistic child who yells, interrupts nonstop so conversations are impossible, and st times she is violent. I love the article but not sure how to apply it to her.

Reply
Miki

Hey Jenn–I have little experience of autism, and can only share from what I know myself.

When we’re stressed, we’re facing an imminent threat or situation that calls for an immediate response. A child who yells, interrupts or is violent. You may want to look at my articles on emotion coaching and empathic responses on Hey Sigmund for some support in those moments when you’re struggling to keep it all together.

But I believe it’s in the calmer moments that we can gain a valuable perspective, and reflection, to create the conditions that help our child self-regulate better.

This asks that we can take a step back and parent the environment, not just the child. Providing consistency, daily rhythms, sufficient sleep, peaceful spaces, minimal screen exposure, healthy (low-sugar) and varied diets can all help in lowering stressful situations. You may likely have tried many of these already.

I’ve learned from a few children who were diagnosed as autistic, and when I’ve seen them in nature, their gifts shone. Studies show how regular nature connection helps autistic children find greater stillness and focus. Some time outdoors (or if it’s hard to access then even watching nature programs if that suits your child) may be helpful.

Warmest,
Miki

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Clark frisbie

I’m to unstrung to comment at this time but I will say I feel like I just woke out of a coma. Thank you. I will read your book and learn to be a present father not a shell of me .

Reply
Miki

Hey Clark– I’m glad to hear you found a way to move towards greater awareness. It’s a journey. One step and then another. I’d love to hear if you find the ebook helpful. Blessings, Miki

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StrangerfromOZ

The one minute fixers are so funny and frustrating. I like how you wrote something along the line of how can one sleep when one is ready to run.

It’s similar to when I suffered Hyperemesis Gravidarum, it’s when a pregant woman can’t stop vomitting up food and even water.

One day, I managed to get off the bathroom floor and commando crawl to my laptop. I googled it only to read I had to eat a small cracker upon waking – that didn’t work for months and I only ended up severley dehydrated. It was bad enough I wasn’t thinking clearly but I had some useless articles back then.

There was one article (we are going back 12 years) that suggested trying B6 supplements and that supported me enough to consume at least water. It went into the anxiety behind the condition and I was able to treat that instead of “here just eat a dry toast and everything will be OK”.

I’m glad your’s guides people to more deeply and profound meanings to their struggles. They are blessings in disguise to start loving themselves not through more productivity but by being present. It’s the bodies way of saving years of regret. I never once heard of someone wishing they spent more time at work but I’ve heard of much regret that they wish they spent more time with their families. Children dont care for luxury vacations, they want their parents around in PRESENT.

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miki

So beautiful and true what you write. Dry toast is a great metaphor for all the quick and easy suggestions to alleviate our sufferings, and we so want them to work, but they so rarely do.

Stress has a thousand causes, and in my experience they all grow out of our discomfort with living in a culture created mostly for the machine and productivity. The remedy is rarely more strategy or tactics to manage or cope, and more often a deeper reminder of our fundamental need to belong.

It is, I agree, all about finding our individual paths to presence and listening to our bodies.

Thank you for sharing so fully!

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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