Raising stress-proof kids

Raising stress-proof kids

Creating calm and loving and supportive environments for young children is the most important protection we can give them against later trouble. And when those kids do meet stress (as they will), they’re less likely to have this hair-trigger, overactive response leading to tears and meltdown.


by Paul Freedman

Stress: one of the unavoidable facts of modern life. Will I get fired? How am I gonna get everything done? What’s that noise the car’s making? Can we meet our mortgage repayment? Won’t those blasted kids ever stop FIGHTING?

Just talking about stress raises the blood pressure and gets us into a nasty sweat, right? 

So when we came across a book titled ‘Raising Stress-Proof Kids’, it caught our interest. Stress-proof kids? On planet Earth? Really?

Author Shelley Davidow is a thinker, writer, teacher and parent from across the ditch. She’s put a lot of time and research into this incredibly vital subject, and we like her ideas. We really like the idea of a stress-free life too …

So we called her up to see what we could learn. And our first question (just so’s we’re all sure exactly what we’re talking about) was: just exactly what is “stress”?

SHELLEY: It’s a physiological response to a frightening event – the body’s way of mobilising the hormones, glucose and things we need to outrun danger. For example, when a tiger jumps out at us, stress floods our system with adrenalin, which makes the heart beat faster and sends all the blood away from our brain shutting down everything non-essential. This lets us run as fast as possible – and escape.

GRAPEVINE: Darn that tiger! So, are stress and worry the same?

SHELLEY: Well, worry is what your mind does when it has a concern: it just happens to produce those same physiological responses as it does with the tiger. Our bodies haven’t learned to distinguish between different kinds of stressors – so, if you’re stressed in your mind, the body reacts exactly as if you really were being chased by the tiger. Except, of course, you’re never going to outrun worry because it’s in your head

So we sit there and worry. Our heart rate increases … we sweat … we can’t think properly (because the blood’s diverted from our brain). But we’re not really achieving anything useful – and we can’t ‘get away’.

GV: What happens if we stay stressed for ages?

SHELLEY: We’re not designed for sustained fight-or-flight. That’s meant to happen in short bursts. So, when we’ve outrun the tiger, our heart should slow down again, we get flooded with endorphins (the ‘feel good’ hormones), and we relax. 

To get technical for a moment, the fight-or-flight reaction is called ‘sympathetic nervous system’ activity. Calming down and getting back-to-normal is ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ activity. And, together, these two are called the ‘autonomic nervous system’.

It’s really important to have that secondary reaction – when we slow down, relax, and let it all go. When that doesn’t happen – when we’re stuck in the fight-or-flight response – then we start to burn out. We’re not supposed to keep producing adrenalin all the time: that makes your body like a runaway train, causing things to wear out. And prolonged stress does the same thing: it can result in reproductive problems, sleep problems, adrenal fatigue and, of course, chronic anxiety.

GV: Your book is really all about providing a stress-free (or stress-proof) environment for our KIDS, so I guess we need to talk about the atmosphere at home – right?

SHELLEY: Yes – especially for pre-school children, who spend most of their time at home. Now, who makes up the home environment? We do – as parents. We often focus so much on managing our children that we forget that we are their ‘environment’ – and everything we are and do and say impacts their bodies and emotions.

GV: We seem to react differently to stress don’t we? Some people freak out if they’re five minutes late for an appointment, while others sail through tight deadlines, tough job interviews and exams with no trouble. How come stress affects us so differently?

SHELLEY: Great question. We have different stress responses based on how we’ve been programmed … how it’s been written into our neural circuitry. That stress response (and whether we over-react to things) is set up very early on – even in the womb! 

If you’re constantly shouting at a small child (and raising their stress level), you’re setting that child up to have an easily-triggered stress reaction. You’re triggering fight-or-flight. Somebody comes along and does or says something a bit startling, and that child will easily fly off the handle. Whereas kids who are mostly protected from too much stress – shouting, frightening experiences, etc – will usually have a much more measured response in stressful situations.

For our youngest children, creating calm and loving and supportive environments is the most important protection we can give them against later trouble. And when those kids do meet stress (as they will), they’re less likely to have this hair-trigger, overactive response leading to tears and meltdown.

Of course, we’re not perfect. We all make mistakes as parents. But we do have to be conscious about building an environment of love and care. We can’t do that on auto-pilot.

GV: You cite quite a lot of research to support the view that there’s a strong interaction between our brain and our heart. And when those two are in ‘alignment’ – when both our heart (feelings) and our brain (logical thought processes) are at one with each other, we’re in a state of what you refer to as ‘high coherence’. What does this mean really?

SHELLEY: High coherence is an ideal physiological state (the term was coined by the Institute of HeartMath in California, run by a group of neuro-cardiologists). They’ve extensively studied how different emotions affect the heart and the brain. They’ve discovered, for example, that the most powerful emotion is gratitude – it impacts not only the heart’s rhythms, but also the brain’s. 

They’ve also discovered that the heart actually secretes oxytocin (that’s the ‘love’ hormone, the ‘bonding’ hormone!) It had always been thought that oxytocin was secreted only by the brain – but now they’ve documented that the heart does as well. In fact, they say that messages going from the heart to the brain are twice as frequent as the other way round!

GV: This isn’t New Age, hug-a-tree stuff is it?

SHELLEY: No. The electro-magnetic field your heart puts out is measurable, and there are tons of papers and articles in medical journals backing up these findings. The Institute of HeartMath researchers are scientists and neuro-cardiologists – not touchy-feely, “let’s take a picture of your aura” fans! Their aim is decoding the intelligence of the heart, and there’s lots of science to back it up.

GV: Okay. So, for our kids to have the best chance to escape the downside of stress they need a calm, loving environment. I guess that happens automatically in the womb – and then, when they’re babies, we pay a lot of attention to having soft, gentle colours in their rooms, lots of rocking and touching, etc. But then, as they age, we seem to forget that and start to emphasize academic skills above everything else – isn’t that true?

SHELLEY: Exactly. It’s almost like we abandon that protective environment. We think that by pushing them to get top scores, we’re creating the best for them because they’ll get good jobs and financial security, and that’ll make them happy.

So instead of understanding that little kids should be playing in the dirt, climbing trees, feeling the joy of just being alive while growing their bodies and their brains, we concentrate on academic targets.

GV: You’re very critical about the tendency among education authorities to have everything tested and measured when kids hit school age. Why is that? 

SHELLEY: I think testing’s a complete waste of time for most young children. First of all, their brains are developing at vastly different rates. It reminds me of that little comic you might’ve seen showing an elephant, a snake, a fish and a monkey. They’re all going to be ‘tested’ – and the test is: how well can they climb a tree? The poor fish and elephant are in despair – how will they ever climb a tree?

Now, with children from toddlers up to the age of 14, you have such a range of brain development that there’s no point in having standardised tests supposedly showing some ‘benchmark’ where children are meant to be at a certain age. That’s completely misguided.

If you look at countries in, say, Scandinavia (Finland for example), there are no formal tests at all until high school (age 14). And the results of those tests don’t go to the students – they go to the teachers. 

I’m very dubious about the value of tests – most particularly for very young children. And of course, knowing that this “big, important TEST” is coming up really stresses many kids and probably skews the result anyway.

GV: So we’re largely testing how well fish can climb trees?

SHELLEY: Yes – exactly that! I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and I’ve worked with and taught a lot of those fish who ‘can’t climb trees’ … but when you put them in water, they swim really, really well! You have to find the right teaching style for each particular child to get the optimum, stress-proof learning.

Classrooms are often not ideally set up for true learning. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the whole ADHD thing and the attention problems we see are being made worse because of this – there’s a million posters on the wall, you don’t know where to look … or there’s fluorescent lighting, which can affect some kids in a very detrimental way … or there’s lots of noise …

GV: Are you suggesting that these factors build stress in kids, and keep adrenalin pumping?

SHELLEY: Yes. Especially sensitive kids. Some students manage that environment okay, but, with sensitive kids, it interferes with their ability to learn and feel good about their environment.

GV: Don’t different children learn in different ways? Some need to touch things … some need to walk around. Yet we mostly seem to be asking them to “be quiet, sit up straight, and listen” to a sort of lecture. This has got to be a stress factor, right?

SHELLEY: Most little children don’t learn well by words alone. They might love stories – but not lectures. With the majority of children, if you want them to learn something, let them do it. 

I’ve visited kindergartens in Europe where the kids are using knives and scissors at a very young age, and they’re fully engaged in the world. They know how to do everything! And when it comes to learning how to read and write, they’re way ahead, because all the necessary neural connections have been set up. They know sequencing; what to do first; they’ve got fine motor skills; they’re completely ready for this big step.

GV: As our kids move on from primary to secondary education, do the same sorts of things apply?

SHELLEY: What becomes very important then is the emotional and intellectual environment that the teenagers are in. They’re now spending a lot more time in a teaching environment than at home – which means parents are having less influence on that setting. So it’s important for mums and dads to look for a school where the atmosphere isn’t punitive and aggressive. Have long talks with your kids and try to find out if they’re in an environment where they’ll flourish and not feel pressured.

GV: Reducing the stress on kids when they’ve reached their teens sounds like a major challenge. What sort of approach is best?

SHELLEY: Well, remember they’re still the same people they were when they were little – which is often hard to see, I know! They just need different handling. Your teenagers are now way too big to be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. You have to win their empathy – and if you haven’t already done this earlier, it’s going to be hard work.

GV: The pressure seems to come from all directions at that age, doesn’t it? Kids are often presented with the idea that they simply MUST pass these final academic hurdles or their lives will be over – they’ll be doomed to have only a poor job or no job – and no financial security!

SHELLEY: I call that ‘finish-line syndrome’. As parents, we need to step back and not indulge in the constant pushing of our kids towards this imaginary finish line – which doesn’t exist! There’s more than one way to get into university, if that’s what they want. 

This ‘finish-line’ hurdle is misguided because not only is it incorrect – they do get more than just one single chance – but it’s also very stress-inducing. And none of us can do our best when we live with the effects of constant stress. If your kids face this all day at school, they’re not going to be helped if they face exactly the same thing at home … “Have you done all your homework?” “Have you memorized your vocab?” “Is this the best grade you can get?”

This idea that if you stress kids and push them, then they’ll take their work seriously and do better – they’ll get into university, be successful, have lots of money – that’s all totally misguided!

We need to give them a broader picture of ‘success’. How many people go straight to university from school? We can all think of examples of people who’ve succeeded brilliantly later on – people who’ve achieved happy and fulfilled lives without ever climbing on the academic treadmill! The truth is, there are a million other options our kids can pursue when they’re ready.

GV: And I guess for parents the most important thing in all this is to keep talking with your kids – not battling? Keep showing them love?

SHELLEY: Right. And look for stress-reducing alternatives. Lots of kids now take a gap year – to experience the world and see more of life … and yes, to avoid the ‘finish-line syndrome’ of stress, stress, stress! By the time the gap year’s over they may well have changed their mind about what they really want to do. 

Help them to realise for themselves that doing well academically doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be successful – and not doing well academically doesn’t mean they’ll be unsuccessful. It’s not the sole predictor of success. 

GV: Surely another thing that affects kids in their schooling is how well they sleep. Do you have strong views on that?

SHELLEY: I do! We now know that some teenagers experience late-onset melatonin (the ‘sleep-hormone’). Instead of beginning to secrete melatonin at, say, around 8:00pm, it might not start with them until midnight.

GV: And melatonin’s necessary for …?

SHELLEY: It’s a neurotransmitter-like hormone that settles you down and gets you ready for sleep. It’s what makes you feel tired. When you’re secreting it, you’re either settling down to sleep or in the deepest part of your sleep cycle. So when teenagers stay up till 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, it’s often because their melatonin production hasn’t reached its peak yet. 

And then, when you wake them up at 7:00am, they’re actually in the deepest part of their sleep – and their melatonin is still being secreted until about 9:00 or 10:00am.

GV: I guess lots of parents see this as an obedience issue? “You’re just staying up the whole night – go to bed at a reasonable hour!”

SHELLEY: Yes. “You’re being obnoxious.” “You’re disobeying us, and that’s why you can’t get up in the morning!”

But actually, it’s a physiological issue, not disobedience! In fact, there are several schools in America which have now delayed their start times as a result of studies done on teens and sleep.

GV: There are other major stressors for kids at this stage of their education too, aren’t there? For example, the internet … and the way kids spend so much time on social media?

SHELLEY: Social media is a huge stressor. And we can’t just ‘pull the plug out’ any longer and deny them all media access. I do think, though, that it’s absolutely critical for parents to be vigilant with their younger kids. We cannot have a hands-off approach to kids and media. They can access the most horrendous stuff in a couple of button-clicks. 

We have to educate our kids socially and emotionally so they can talk with us about what they’re viewing and who they’re talking to. It’s important to have healthy conversations about the issues that may come up … how much time they’re spending online … and so on.

Kids can live this ‘virtual life’. Every time they get so many ‘likes’ on Facebook they get a dopamine ‘hit’. It’s exactly like substance abuse, but the substance is being created by their own body. Their bodies are producing chemicals as a reaction to the intense things they’re experiencing on social media.

GV: And the best way parents can help them in a situation like this is …?

SHELLEY: To still be a parent. To keep the lines of communication open. Not raging or battling – keep those conversations going. Keep the love flowing. And also to monitor the amount of time kids spend hooked in to social media. They can’t flourish in real life if they’re online 10 hours a day. You’ve still got the power to tell them, “You’ve got this much time online. When you’ve used it up, that’s it. Over and out!”

It does take effort. It means that sometimes we’ll need to do something together … go for a bike-ride or a picnic. You can’t just let it go, ignore it, and say, “Well, at least they’re quiet!”

GV: So far, we’ve been speaking mostly about relationships and stress. But some kinds of stress are out of our control aren’t they? Work stress – will I be made redundant? Will Christchurch get another earthquake? How do we cope with stressors like that?

SHELLEY: Well, I’m impressed with the Heart Lock-In Technique which is from the Institute of HeartMath. It’s a simple, two-minute process. When you’re feeling stressed, you close your eyes, and you breathe in and out regularly. Breathe in for seven or eight seconds, and out for eight or nine seconds. You count this out. You’re forcing your heart into a regular rhythm; you’re putting yourself into ‘organisation’ (forcing your heart to be ‘organised’ in its rhythm). You do that for two minutes. And then, if you can, when you breathe in, you think about someone you love, something that you’re grateful for. When you add gratitude to the breathing, it changes your hormones significantly.

Do that for two minutes and you’ll feel the parasympathetic nervous system start to kick in (that’s the ‘brakes’ that come on after you’ve finished with fight-or-flight). Breathing out activates this system. That’s why, when we get stressed, we often sigh. When you give a long, slow, out breath, you calm down a bit, because you’re unconsciously turning off the fight-or-flight reaction.

GV: You are very keen on something you call ‘Restorative Parenting’. Now I’ve heard of restorative justice, but what on earth is restorative parenting?

SHELLEY: The whole ‘restorative’ approach is a very simple, effective way of tackling issues that come our way. Instead of focusing on what ‘crime’ our children have committed and what punishment they deserve, we look at what harm has been done, and how we can fix it. This approach creates a low-stress environment. It puts relationships at the centre, so you end up building trust. Kids know that they’re not going to get into trouble – but there are consequences. So it’s not a ‘soft option’!

For example, let’s say our 17-year-old crashes the car. We don’t rage and fume and shout, “You idiot! Look what you’ve done. I should never have trusted you with the keys!”

Instead, we say, “Okay – the car’s damaged. Thank goodness you’re okay! Now, what needs to happen to make things better?” We talk about it calmly, and he’ll probably agree that, yes, he needs to work to pay off the damage (or the insurance premium) or at the very least make a substantial contribution.

Of course, in order to have a restorative approach, the ‘culprit’ needs to accept responsibility – and agree to whatever steps we all think are necessary to get the car on the road again. And that process can take a while if you’re trying to change your approach from the crime-&-punishment method.

GV: How early can you start with restorative parenting? Would you do it with toddlers?

SHELLEY: Absolutely. You can do it right from the beginning of their lives. When your one-year-old clouts your three-year-old on the head with a toy spade, instead of saying, “No! That’s naughty! Bad boy! You’re going in the naughty corner!” You say, “Oh dear … look, your brother’s crying. He’s hurt. Come with Mummy and let’s get a cold cloth to put on his bump and see if we can make him feel better. Do you remember falling down the steps and hurting your head? Well, that’s how Billy’s feeling!”

So, right from the beginning we concentrate on what has happened, and what we need to do to put things right. How can we make sure it doesn’t happen again? It avoids fights and yelling and sibling rivalry and “He hit me first!” arguments.

The focus is on the behaviour – not the person. And this really makes a huge difference, because when kids feel shame, they focus on avoiding punishment and not on making things right.

GV: I suspect lots of people just grit their teeth and battle on – living with all kinds of stress, in the belief that it’s simply unavoidable. Do you have any words of comfort? Can you hold out hope?

SHELLEY: I believe we can all make fundamental changes that are simple and profoundly effective. Use the Heart Lock-In technique … consider each reaction to a situation … don’t shame or blame children … get everyone off the stress-motorway! 

It starts with us, and it can start today. It’s not rocket science. We’ve just lost touch with what really matters – our relationships. And, really, it’s not hard to find that again.