IS MY CHILD SINKING OR SWIMMING?: 5 Ways to Help your Child Navigate Stress
Since I specialize in working with adolescents it is common scenario for a parent to drag their reluctant high schooler into my office early on a Saturday morning for an intake. What the parent wants is often to the effect of: "How can you get my kid to care moreabout...(fill in the blank here) their grades, our house rules, getting involved in extra curricular activities, etc...And when I pose this question to their child the response usually comes in the form of a shoulder shrug or a grunt. Now there can be many reasons for this lack of interest ranging from depression, rebellion, normal adolescent individuation, or just plain apathy. But this lack of "interest" needs to be taken in context of many things including family dynamics, physical and mental functioning, and their environment. Oftentimes their perceived apathy is a normal reaction due to a stressful situation. Here are five things you can do to help ensure your child can navigate stress and be more self-motivated: 1. NOTICE WHERE MOST OF THE STRESS IS COMING FROM Let's look at the environment piece of stress. We are all influenced by the environment we are in and don't always give it enough credit. It's like the air. The average person takes over 23,000 breaths a day, but rarely do we think of the quality of it and how it may be affecting our health and well being. For all of us, parents and children alike, we learn to swim in this river of life and rarely take a moment to think about HOW we are functioning and whether or not we are swimming instead of sinking. It's not until we, or our child, is drowning and showing warning signs that we try to do something. One thing I always tell parents is that children and adolescents need a place where they feel like they CAN swim. A safe "home base" per se. If school is consistently hard, they need to feel like home and their relationship with you is their reliable safe place. Ask your child where they go to recharge. If it is their room, then ask them if they'd like to do anything to make it even more welcoming or inviting and offer to help them do it. Let them do it how THEY want to do it. When kids are given room to make their own decisions, they feel in charge in other contexts.
2. ASSESS FOR TOXIC STRESS The book "The Self-Driven Child," by Stixrud and Johnson recognizes that toxic stress isn't good for anyone, but adolescent brains are particularly vulnerable. Between the ages of 12 and 18 years your brain is changing more rapidly than at any other (besides those few first months of life). The judgement part of our brains during adolescence can't develop as it should when the stress response system is on for extended periods and can lead to struggles with depression into adulthood. THIS IS PREVENTABLE. Normal adolescents have an exaggerated stress response even when they aren't under duress. It is not a surprise then that affluent, high achieving communities like the Washington D.C. area are too familiar with suicide clusters impacting their high schools. Many kids in these areas are under the influence of toxic stress that is being reinforced by communities' expectations and definitions of "success." Have a conversation with your child about stress and what "success" means to them versus what they see in their community and their peers. Talk about it with them. Read this article with them. 3. STOP BEING YOUR CHILD’S MANAGER Looking at yourself as a "consultant" to your child's life choices, especially of high school age children is one way to help you give your child control over their life, according to researchers and clinicians William Stixrud and Neil Johnson. For instance, sometimes parents bring in detailed behavior contracts they have come up with to make their boundaries clear to their child. Behavior contracts CAN be helpful, but more so if the child is a part of creating them in a collaborative way with their parents. Contracts usually address some aspects of curfews and bedtimes. We know that getting enough sleep is paramount for a brain to function, and to combat stress. However, most teens lack sleep largely due to interrupted and late nights with cell phones. I often encourage parents of teens set the expectation that phones will be in a communal space at night (i.e. in parents' room by 7pm) and that there is an agreed upon recommended bedtime. The teens get to consult with the parents about this agreed upon recommended "bedtime." Without the temptation of technology it will be much easier for them to choose wisely. Once properly informed kids generally make wise decisions for themselves. Giving kids unlimited choices stresses them out. Kids feel secure when the world feels safe and there is a healthy, predictable structure of rules in place. 4. CHANNEL YOU INNER CALM If a parent is always anxious, nagging, and/or critical their child doesn't only lack social support at home but they are also making them anxious. However, just as kidsmirror anxiety, they mirror our calm. Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and intellectual who coined the term "nonanxious presence." In his opinion we live in an anxious society where too few people are modeling this. Groups, big organizations, and teams work best when leaders are not burdened with worry. The same is true for families. Also, when your home is calm, it becomes the safe regenerative space that kids need. Think about the majority of interactions you have with your child. Are you connecting in a meaningful and calm way or are you rushing and reminding them to do their homework? Are you usually distracted on your phone and trying to do too many things at once? Kids feel when your are tuned into them and their brains respond positively to it. At dinner insist everyone put down their phones and talk about your day or play a game. As a family try one of the many free mediation apps that are out there and see if you notice a difference. Sian Beilock, author of “How the Body Knows it’s Mind” states that research by Yale and Columbia indicates even a few minutes of meditation daily changes how the brain physically operates all the time. 5. ENJOY YOUR CHILD THIS IS YOUR TOP PARENTING PRIORITY: in an overly competitive and busy world it's easy to get caught up in the stream of stress and forget that you need to ENJOY your children. Your children, no matter what age, need to see your face light up because you are genuinely happy to see them. Self-esteem is contingent upon this. Set this priority and then work on what's getting in the way: Are you too overworked and stressed when you come home? Minimize it. You've got work to do for yourself. Do you fight with your spouse? Consider couples therapy. Are you spending too much time with your kids? Take time away. Jon Kabat-Zinn who is the author of “Full Catastrophe Living” recommends paying attention to the road block that is keeping you from really enjoying and engaging with them and remove it. *If your child is seriously depressed or suicidal, their logic is impaired and you cannot entrust them to make healthy decisions for themselves or to think clearly. The same is true if someone is dependent on alcohol/drugs or inflicting serious self-harm. Parents need to make decisions in these instances to keep their child safe. Establishing an ongoing relationship with a qualified therapist can help.