Lots may have changed over the past few decades, but the essentials kids need in order to thrive are exactly the same as they’ve always been. That old saying that love is the best medicine is not far from the truth. And now, because our lives have never ever been more frantic and busy and pressured, we need to remember that.
In my seventeen years of parenting and eighteen years of teaching, I’ve noticed a real increase in anxiety. I think the pressures of our society are unprecedented. Our kids are often paying the price. We hurry them from breakfast to the car, to school, to afterschool activities, we barrage them with demands and expectations and we suffuse their lives with sensory overload. We can’t even get in the car to go on a journey without sticking an iPad in front of our two-year-olds to keep them ‘entertained.’ And then we wonder why they melt down!
Okay, so we can’t prevent stress and anxiety from being out there, but we have a choice as to how we react to our kids, and it’s the way that WE react, especially when they’re small, that makes them either prone to the negative effects of stress, or resilient in the face of stress.
So how do we build the resilience they need for the world around them?
The protective factors against stress are simple but remarkably hard to achieve. We often forget to just hug our kids and hang out with them. To let them be bored! To NOT organise them. To give them time to be children. To read and tell them stories and let their imaginations be fed.
We are so goal-oriented, even in parenting our little ones, that we forget how development is slow and natural, and needs support, not hurrying along. Growing up is a beautiful journey.
In my research and practice I’ve uncovered a few basics that seem obvious to many of us, but at least now they now have their basis in neurocardiological (brain-heart) research.
The fact is, emotions like love and gratitude are at the root of coherent heart rhythms. They are the protective factors that have an enormous impact on how our children develop.
When we’re stressed, and when our kids are stressed, our hearts respond by anticipating danger, by speeding up and by flowing our systems with stress hormones. This is known as ‘fight or flight.’ Kids’ bodies are in that mode when they’re stressed, regardless of what’s stressing them. When our kids are stressed or anxious, we have to do a few immediate things:
1) Calm down ourselves (when we get ourselves into a state of calm, and generate a positive feeling state, research from the Institute of HeartMath shows this impacts the heart rhythms of those around us).
2) Love and hug our children! In the 1960’s, Harry Harlow proved what we instinctively know to be obvious, (with some cruel experiments involving Rhesus monkeys): loving touch is the most essential ingredient in raising healthy children; they need to be held and hugged in order to grow properly, in order to develop healthy social habits, in order to thrive at all.
3) Don’t shout.
The minute we can stop ourselves from reacting stressfully as parents to our children, the minute we begin to focus on generating a feeling of love or gratitude, the greater the benefit for our kids.
So, what to do, for example, when you need to get going in the morning, you’re late, and your three -year-old is dawdling?
The traditional response is: hurry him along with a few threats thrown in ‘Come on, Tommy! We can’t be late. We’ll miss the train!’
The truth is, a three year old doesn’t have a sufficiently developed prefrontal cortex (this part of the brain is only fully mature at around age 21!) to process the complex idea of the consequences of being late and how his current state, which he does not perceive as dawdling, because he is simply BEING, is related to that. But he does completely understand the fear you’re generating.
So what’s the low-stress approach? Positive emotions. Love and warmth. No threats, no fear. Just…action and imagination.
‘Come here Tommy. Let’s get your shoes on and my shoes on together. Ooo, look! It’s a bit windy outside. We need coats. Here, you carry your lunch box and I’ll take the big bag. Let’s go catch our train. I think it’s a fast blue train with a big loud whistle…’
And then, a big hug, and everyone’s ready to go.
And, it’s probably taken less time that the traditional approach. Tommy is feeling happy, loved and ready for the day. You’re feeling happy too, because you haven’t had to fight to get out of the door.
With the positive emotions of love and joy and gratitude that you’ve managed to manifest, you are building resilience. Tommy’s fight-or-flight response has not been activated, and yours, despite your concerns about getting to the train on time, is managed and mitigated by the love and positive emotions you’ve been able to sustain.
Actively feeling positive emotions will impact the baby in your arms. Our kids detect the real signals from our hearts…and their hearts respond in kind. Not only that: if our babies and our toddlers are surrounded by love, this impacts how their brains develop: positive emotions create coherent brain wave patterns. If we want to help our kids grow up to be smart, emotionally stable and resilient people, we have to start them off on the right foot. Luckily, the ingredients are dead simple: Love, hugs, imagination, stories and no unnecessary stress. That way, when they do come up against stressors in the world, they will be resilient and able to cope, because they will not have been primed into having an overactive stress-response to the world around them.