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 .

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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