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10 Ways to Protect Your Child From Stress

Parents have always grappled with harsh realities to protect their children. But our culture poses risks that are difficult to navigate, because they aren't obviously dangerous. In fact, we take them for granted as we go about our busy lives.

The greatest dangers to our kids may not be the ones we worry most about, the ones that make the evening news, like abduction and child molestation.  Random abductions by strangers are relatively rare in the U.S., approximately 200 annually, and molestation is almost always perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts.  Most parents can reduce these risks dramatically with attentive parenting.


Stress researchers now believe that the greatest risk for many children is the wear and tear of the way we live, which makes all of us more vulnerable to dangers from depression to obesity to substance abuse. 


All of us pay a high price for living in our stressful society. Everything is hyper: hyper-stimulated, hyper-materialistic, hyper-sexed, hyper-competitive, hyper-busy. No wonder we're all so anxious so much of the time.


But whatever stresses parents feel are worse for children, who suffer from the same hyper-scheduling, made even more challenging by their immature emotional and intellectual development. Not only are children stressed out, our way of life disconnects them from us, so they can't even depend on their parents to protect and guide them.  


Compared to us, children perceive themselves as powerless, at the mercy of parents, peers, school. They struggle with pressures, from peer rejection to sexual exploitation, which most of us could not have imagined.


Worse yet, children's brains are still developing, laying down neural pathways in the daily context of stressful over-activity, terrifying images and hyper-stimulation. Researchers are only beginning to understand the negative neurological effects of this on children's development.


But resisting the seductions of our culture altogether is impossible, because virtually all parents participate in it ourselves. How many of us would be willing to move to the country and live slow, peaceful, more physical lives without screens and alarm clocks?


On the other hand, it is our job as parents to protect our children from things that may endanger their welfare, and we need to face the hard truth that some of what we take for granted in our modern lives is actually destructive to our children.   I don't have all the answers on this. But research studies do give us some guidance on how to protect our kids. For instance:


1. Slow down.  Humans are designed to love excitement, but stress kills.  Literally.  Stress erodes our patience, our ability to give our best to our kids, and our health.  Stress makes us fat, frantic and more likely to become furious.  If we're honest with ourselves, we can usually see how we make our lives more stressful than they need to be, simply by being unwilling to make the choice to slow down. If you want your kids to behave better, start by slowing down and not rushing so much.


2. Resist the impulse to over-schedule.All kids need downtime, creative time, time to dream and do nothing and even get bored.  Kids need to learn to like being with themselves without being entertained.  They need quiet to tap into their own still voice.  They need to learn to structure their own time.  They need to understand that life isn't the activities that fill it, but something much more vast and mysterious.


3. Encourage your child's passions -- without pushing. Encouraging children to be creative agents ultimately gives them more joy in life than modeling the passive consumption of culture created by others.  But I'm not just referring to the arts; any talent, skill or hobby that matters to your child will insulate him from peer pressure, drug use, and extremes of pop culture.  Just don't push your child to perform or to "win" with his passion, or you take a source of joy and transform it to another source of stress.

4. Listen, and Laugh. Like adults, children need a chance just to talk, to offload the worries and tensions of the day. They also need plenty of laughter, which helps them heal the normal anxieties of daily life. If you find you're too caught up in moving your child through the routine to take time for listening and laughter, find some small rituals and build them into your family life, such as roughhousing before bath time or everyone sharing their favorite and worst parts of the day at dinner .


5. Teach Stress Reduction Skills. Teach your child that we all need a repertoire of healthy ways to reduce stress, so we aren't vulnerable to misusing unhealthy ones, like food and alcohol. For instance, physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce the  stress hormones circulating in our bodies. Another helpful technique for kids is to listen regularly to a download specifically designed to help them learn to regulate stress, such as a guided visualization or story that teaches deep breathing.


6. Choose a school that minimizes homework. Homework is often stressful for children who have been sitting in a classroom all day.  If you can choose a school that minimizes it, you'll be freeing your child to have more of what really matters for learning -- play, self-initiated exploration, and connection.


7. Choose age-appropriate family activities that connect rather than over-stimulate.  Too often, we as parents forget what really nourishes our child's soul. For instance, children need desperately to spend more time in nature, which calms their physiology and grounds them. Young children DON'T need movies, virtually all of which are inappropriate for them. If every other second grader is talking about some new movie, you may well agree to take him, but that’s very different than making movies a routine part of life. Parents often take young kids to movies because the parent finds it easier than taking the child on an adventure, whether that be a hike, bike ride, or museum.


8. Teach Media Literacy and Limit Screen Time. 


Research shows that media messages contribute to our stress levels. Talk with your kids, constantly, about the media messages that they see.  Does this ad make them want to buy that product?  What else does it make them feel, and think? (Hint: You and your life are inadequate without this product, which will make you beautiful, popular, and talented.)  Research shows that even when we don't think we're influenced by advertising, we act on the ad's message.  That's scary, but what's really scary is that corporations spend billions to target our kids, who are even easier prey. 


TV is designed to be addictive. It changes the way the brain develops. And it's a very eloquent and effective teacher.  It teaches our children that the most important things in life are money, appearance and fame. It stifles creativity, lowers self esteem (particularly in girls), and increases violence. Watching TV news increases stress levels, causes nightmares, and makes kids more anxious.   


Studies show that adults and children who watch TV news believe the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is.  You might still choose to watch the news, but that doesn't make it appropriate for children. Even when you watch it with them, kids under the age of ten are not ready to see in technicolor all the terrible things that happen in the world.  Reading the newspaper together is fine, because it isn't as visceral, and you can help with the interpretation, unlike the unmediated sensationalism of the news.  Even middle schoolers need your help to be savvy media interpreters.


9.  Check your own attitudes. If you're running around stressed out all the time, bemoaning how busy you are, what are you modeling for your child?  Stress is not inevitable; it's a choice. Notice also what you're modeling and discussing with your child about values, choices, and the meaning of life. Is life about working more to buy more things?  Competing to be "the best"? Does your child feel like she has to achieve to be worthy of your love, or is she more than enough, exactly as she is?


10. Stay Connected.  Most of us take for granted that kids would rather be with other kids.  But when children are asked, they invariably say they wish their parents wanted to spend more time with them.  Think of this as an insurance policy for your child.  Your very presence helps him feel secure and melts away the stress.

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