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 ?

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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 .

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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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