Fostering Independence in Toddlers

Two year olds get a bad rap.  It is all too common to label this stage of development “the terrible twos”.  But after four years of teaching in a toddler classroom, I am convinced that much  of what we call ‘terrible twos’ is simply the growing baby’s frustration at the limits placed on him by the well-meaning adults in his life.

By the age of two, babies have figured out that they are both physically and neurologically separate from their primary caregivers.  They have learned to control the movements of their limbs, and have developed the ability to grasp and manipulate objects. They’ve learned enough language to begin to communicate their wants and needs with words and speech.

They still have a long way to go, but they are not the helpless infants they were a short while ago.  Caregivers, living day in and day out with this growing child, can sometimes stay stuck in an early stage of development, not always recognizing how capable the toddler has become.

Babies come into the world so very helpless.  We spend 365 days that first year helping, and then helping some more, as they learn to roll over, sit up, and eventually crawl and walk.  That’s a long time to form a habit. And it doesn’t stop there. They will need help with so many things for years to come. So naturally, when they seem suddenly ready to be independent in some aspects of caring for themselves or their environment, we don’t always notice. 

Their awareness of their growing abilities, coupled with our tendency to see them as the helpless infants they once were, creates an environment ripe for conflict.  

Giving our ‘terrible twos’ the opportunity to demonstrate their growing developmental skills invites their cooperation and reduces frustration – both theirs and yours.  We can foster independence in toddlers by making a few small changes in our daily routines.

Here are 5 easy ways to give your toddler more autonomy and invite them into the process of family life.

  1. Attach a coat hook (or two!) to the wall at toddler level, so they can hang their coat themselves.  Provide a small bench below it to sit on when removing shoes. Store shoes and boots under the stool where they are easy to reach and put on when needed.  
  2. Create a routine for coming and going that is consistent.  For example, “we always hang our coat and remove our shoes or boots when we walk in the door.  We always sit to put on our shoes before we walk out the door.” Here’s how to teach your toddler to independently put on a coat: Have them lay the coat on the ground with the inside facing up.  Have them stand at the neck facing the coat and reach down, inserting both hands into the sleeve openings. Once their arms are inserted into the sleeves, have them swing their arms over their head, bringing the coat up and over their head.  The coat will fall down their back and their arms can then be lowered. Voila! Coat is on. If the coat has a zipper, get it started for them, but let them pull the zipper pull up. (You may need to hold the bottom of the zipper to provide resistance.)
  3. Move the cutlery to a low drawer, and invite them to help set the table at mealtime by taking silverware to the table.  (If you are reluctant to set them loose on everyone’s place settings, store their utensils, plates, bowls, and cups in a low drawer and invite them to set their place at the table while you set the rest.)
  4. Have a small whisk broom and dustpan stored where it is accessible to them.  Hang it on a low hook, or store it in a cupboard that does not have a child lock on it.  Invite them to help with cleaning up spills, using their broom.
  5. Build in extra time.  Above all, give yourself and your toddler more time to accomplish tasks together.  Sometimes toddler frustration is the result of being hurried to complete a task at which they are not yet fully proficient.  When we are in a hurry we are less likely to wait patiently while our two year old practices a new skill. Building in an extra 10 minutes gives us time to be patient and wait, allowing them to try, to practice, and to get better at it. 

Consistent routines, operating at ‘toddler speed’, and helping them do it themselves can all work together to foster toddler independence and reduce frustration all around.

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Temperament and Self-regulation

A pouting young girl in pigtails peeks around from behind a door.Anyone who has more than one child will tell you it is nothing short of amazing how such very different people can be born of the same two parents.  But it’s true. Babies seem to come into this world each with their own unique attitude. Called ‘temperament’, that inborn personality has an effect on how they respond to their world.

Temperament, says Leigha MacNeill, of the Pennsylvania State University, is “a biologically rooted and relatively stable disposition that contributes to how infants and children experience, express, and regulate their emotions.”

A baby’s inborn disposition encompasses such things as cheerfulness (positive affect), busyness (level of activity), risk-taking, sensitivity, and their response to discomfort (negative affect).  Variations in all of these areas are what make us all uniquely us.

Every baby is different

A child’s temperament affects how they respond to caregivers, how they navigate their environment and their receptiveness to new experiences. It also affects the development of self-regulation, a key component of executive function.

Executive function is important in helping us control and regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions.  It includes things such as self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility – skills necessary for success at school and in the work force. 

“Self -regulation,” says Amanda Morin at Understood.org, “allows kids to manage their emotions, behavior and body movement when they’re faced with a situation that’s tough to handle. And it allows them to do that while still staying focused and paying attention.”

These differences impact the development of self-regulation

Differences in temperament can mean that some children struggle with self-regulation.  Says Dr. Matthew Rouse, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “Problems with self-regulation manifest in different ways depending on the child. Some kids are instantaneous — they have a huge, strong reaction and there’s no lead-in or build-up. They can’t inhibit that immediate behavior response.

A child’s innate capacities for self-regulation are temperament and personality-based,” he explains. “Some babies have trouble self-soothing and get very distressed when you’re trying to bathe them or put on clothes. Those kids may be more likely to experience trouble with emotional self-regulation when they’re older.”

Tailoring parenting styles to the child’s temperament can help the child in their self-regulation journey

What does this mean for parents?  What if you have one child who is easy to calm, cheerfully embracing new experiences, waiting patiently for their turn, or accepting that their hoped-for result is not in the cards.  While another is reluctant to try the new activity, has difficulty not grabbing the toy they want to play with, and devolves into hysterics when they don’t get their way. 

Adapting your parenting style to the unique temperament of each child can support them as they work to develop greater self-control and self-regulation. 

For the child who has trouble controlling their impulses, helping them build their awareness of the emotions they are feeling can help them develop self-regulation.  Talking ahead of time about possible scenarios can help them work through the ‘what ifs’ before their emotions are affecting their thinking and reactions.

Practicing in a low-stress environment can also help children build their self-regulation skills.  Childmind.org offers this helpful advice: “Dry runs are another way to scaffold self-regulation. For instance, if you’ve had trouble with a child reacting impulsively or having a tantrum in a store, make a short visit when you don’t need to do serious shopping. Have her practice walking with you, keeping her hands to herself. She gets points towards some goal every time she is successful.”

A happy girl rides in a shopping cart at the grocery storeBut don’t give up if it takes time.  Says Dr. Rouse, “Parents get discouraged when things don’t go well the first time they try skill-building, but consistency and starting at a level that is appropriate for your child are key. Rather than giving up, try paring down the activity so it is more doable, and slowly give your child more and more independence to handle it. Breaking things into small steps allows them to build self-regulation skills in manageable increments.”

For more tips on helping kids develop self-regulation and coping skills, visit Understood.org.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

5 Ways to Improve Communication Skills for Parents

Does trying to have a conversation with your ‘tween feel like nails on a chalkboard?  Do you feel like you are talking to a wall rather than your teen? Do you try to have a heartfelt conversation, but feel like they just don’t hear you?  

If you struggle when trying to communicate with your children, here are 5 tips for improving parent-child communication skills.

Start with shared feelings, not a question

  • Initiate the conversation by sharing your thoughts and feelings rather than with a question.  Questions can make children defensive, making it harder for them to listen openly. Who hasn’t started a conversation with the question, “How was your day?”, only to get “fine” as the sum total of response? Starting with a comment about how you are feeling helps them see you as someone with feelings just like theirs and lays a foundation for reciprocal sharing.

Check yourself 

  • Remove distractions and make eye contact when your child is speaking. Make sure they know they have your full attention.
  • Don’t interrupt when they are talking – demonstrate good conversational skills by waiting until they have finished sharing their thoughts and opinions before you start sharing yours.
  • Be sure you are actively listening. Confirm understanding by restating what your child said, “What I heard you say is …, is that correct?”.  Let them repeat or rephrase what they said if your summary wasn’t correct.  
  • Don’t lecture or use a tone of voice that sounds angry or defensive.  

Get to know how your child communicates  

  • We all have different styles of communication.  Some children will happily expound on every detail of their day, while others have little to say and reluctantly engage in conversation.  If talking isn’t your child’s cup of tea, just spending time with them can help them know you are available if ever they want to talk.

Improve their listening skills

  •  Be a role model for good listening and demonstrate reciprocal conversation regularly. Practice active listening and demonstrate how to give undivided attention to the conversation.
  • Start young by reading together.  Invite questions and comment as you read, so your child has opportunities to practice listening and being listened to.  

A mom and a young girl gaze into each other's eyes

Talk every day

  • Find time to talk every day.  With a little time each day spent together and talking, your children will be practicing their communication skills.
  • Spend time one-on-one every week to build connection.  Learn about your children’s interests and show your support by expressing interest in what they love.
  • When your child talks about something that is bothering them, stop whatever you are doing and listen to them.  Let them share their feelings, and practice active listening by rephrasing what you heard them say.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Celebrating Valentine’s Day, Family Style

Valentines heart shapes in red and pink glued like balloons on a red background

It’s February and Valentine’s Day is right around the corner.  While many of us think of Valentine’s Day as a time to celebrate our romantic relationships, it doesn’t have to be just for grownups.  Celebrate Valentine’s Day family-style and share the spirit of love and affection with your kids this Valentine’s Day with these ideas for including the whole family in Valentine’s Day festivities.

Set the Mood

Decorate! Invite the kids to help you create paper hearts and chains to hang on walls and in windows. Make Valentine-themed placemats.  If you’re feeling adventurous, feature a Valentine tree where your Christmas tree sat! 

Your family can even put small gifts from the heart underneath to help create a sense of wonder and anticipation. Gifts can include small treats and useful items, or consider including handmade gift certificates. “Read aloud time”, “Walk the dog”, or “Help in the kitchen” are all great ways to model selfless giving.

Love of Food

Nothing says Valentine’s Day like special foods! Have a heart-filled menu for the day. 

The tools to make valentine cookies are gathered together, flour in a red ramkin, eggs in an egg carton, two heart shaped cookie cutters and a rolling pin.

Break out the heart-shaped cookie cutters and heart-shaped muffin pans and have some fun! Serve waffles, pancakes, toast, and sweet muffins in heart shapes along with a side of sliced strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream.

For a gluten-free start to the day, use heart-shaped cookie or biscuit cutters in a shallow frying pan to create heart-shaped eggs.  Or blend up a red breakfast smoothie made with beets.

If you’re packing lunches, Your cookie cutters come in handy to create heart-shaped sandwiches or pieces of cheese.  Serve them alongside red fruits or bowls of their favorite soup. Include a special Valentine card to make them smile.

Pull out all the stops for a romantic Valentine’s Day family dinner. Light candles or turn off overhead lights and use lamps. Put out fresh flowers and play soft music.  During dinner invite each family member to tell something they love about the others. Ask questions and really listen to the feelings beneath the answers. Finish the sharing with a funny story to lighten the mood.

Make the grand finale special by including chocolate or another favorite flavor in the form of brownies, cookies, or even ice cream. The kids can help create the menu and help you bake or assemble the goodies.)

Love of Play

Nothing says family like spending fun time together. Gather up the electronics, turn off the screens, and enjoy some good old-fashioned family fun this Valentine’s Day.

Break out the craft supplies and create Valentine cards. The Victorian era was the high point of exchanging Valentine’s cards. Print out some frilly Victorian images to cut and paste onto construction paper. Add ribbons and lace plus a warm sentiment or verse of poetry. (You can even exchange the cards at dinner.)

Take the family out for the evening.  Head to a movie, a family adventure center, or even the animal shelter to love on the puppies and kittens. Enjoy your time together by choosing something you all love to do together.   

adult and child hands holding red heart on aqua background,

Love of Family

Spend some time looking through photo albums and invite questions about the pictures you see together.  Use the opportunity to tell stories of loved ones and past adventures to help your kids feel like a part of your extended family.  The tale of the time Great-Uncle Paul got to ride an elephant will spark lively conversations and ignite wonder in your kids’ imaginations.

Another way to show love of family is to exchange chores for the day. Each family member takes over one chore from another, and dad or mom can help younger kids complete a grown-up chore for the other parent. Kids feel a special sense of pride when they’ve done something for someone else. Use dinner time to announce the chore and gratitude for the other person’s efforts.

Love of Life

End your family Valentine’s Day with a book about love from the library and a cuddle on the couch.  Reading together, sharing thoughts, and being grateful for the day of love and family can make a perfect ending to your family Valentine’s Day celebrations.  

Let this Valentine’s Day be a time of love, giving, and reflection. Fun foods, celebrating together, and sharing thoughts can build a sense of connection and unity.   A little planning can make this the very best Season of Love ever.

What are your family celebration plans for this Valentine’s Day?

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Observation and Reflection: keys to understanding your child

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a child by simply observing them in action. As adults, we often end up reacting to our children.  We know what needs to be done and how to do it, so we are quick to offer direction, tell them ‘no’ or ‘don’t’, or jump in and do it for them.

Yet, when we take the time to wait and watch and then reflect on what we’ve seen and heard, we gain insight into their needs and motives.  Our observation and reflection can make us better parents, by helping us see why they are behaving the way they are and what they are capable of.

Back when I was still in the classroom, I was having lunch with ten 2-year-olds.  We were gathered together around one large table. It was low to the ground, and each child sat in a small chair, feet firmly planted on the floor under the table.  I sat not quite so comfortably on a low stool at the same low table.

We each had a placemat, a plate, a glass of milk or water, a fork and a spoon.  Our food had been moved from lunch boxes to our plates and we used our forks, or fingers, as we ate and talked together.   Suddenly the child across the table from me swept his arm across his plate, accidentally knocking over his glass, which toppled and spilled its contents across the table.  My “oh!” burst forth, but then I stopped moving or speaking and simply observed what would happen next.  Group of preschool kids have a lunch in daycare. Children eating healthy food.

It was not easy to refrain from offering comment or advice, or leaping up to grab a towel and stop the flow of liquid. We are so wired to be helpful.  Often without even realizing we are doing it, we leap to assist. But something in that moment reminded me of the power of observation – and I waited.  

The toddler across the table took a moment to observe as well, and then pushed his chair back, exclaiming, “I’ll get a cloth!”.  He crossed the room, got a cleaning cloth from the stack on the shelf, returned with it in hand, and began to wipe up the spill. When he had finished, he took the wet cloth to the laundry basket and returned to his seat, smiling.  

He knew exactly what to do – without me needing to direct or advise – because he had observed me and the other children wiping up spills many, many times before that day.  By holding my tongue, he was given the opportunity bask in the pride of his own ability to solve the problem.  

Letting him fix the problem by waiting and observing let us both see that this young child was completely capable and needed no adult directing his actions.  

He sat back down and we shared a smile of satisfaction. He was proud of his ability to help and I was proud I’d chosen to observe and not rush in to fix it.

As adults, responsible for keeping our children safe, it isn’t easy to stop and watch or to wait and ‘see what happens.’  But practicing the art of observation, and taking time to reflect on what we observe, is a parenting skill that helps build strong relationships.

Observation: The What

As you observe your child in action, it isn’t necessary to take notes, document every action or utterance, or follow a prescribed checklist, although those things can sometimes add value.  "Observing can foster more positive relationships." quote by Kelly Griffith Mannion

Ask yourself, “What do I see and hear?”  Simply watch your child and notice how he interacts.   

Take note (either write it down or mentally file it away) of what is happening and how your child is responding to it.  Are there challenges? How do they meet those challenges? What do they choose when they are playing alone? What do they prefer when they are playing with others?  When do they become frustrated? How do they respond to the frustration? Patterns will emerge that will help you see what it is that results in perseverance and what leads to meltdown.  You will find underlying causes for mystifying behaviors.

“As parents, observing can be tough. We aren’t always objective. It can be hard to hang back, and it can be the last thing on our minds as we are busy multi-tasking and managing a busy family life. Yet, observing is truly the most illuminating gift—the gift of understanding our children,” notes Kelly Griffith Mannion, M. Ed.  

Reflection: The ‘So what’ and ‘What Next’

After observing, take time for reflection.  Reflecting on what you’ve observed helps you answer the question: “What does that mean to me?  What will I do with it?”

Reflection can help you make connections between behavior and what was going on inside the child.  As you reflect, try to identify what happened before, and what happened after. Is there a pattern?

Reflecting on the behaviors and emotions you observe in your child can deepen your understanding of your child’s inner life and create a greater connection.  Often as parents, we are in reactive mode, always trying to stay one step ahead of difficulties and challenges.  

Says Regina Pally, founder of the Center for Reflective Communities, “Reflective Parenting is a set of skills and guiding principles that encourage and support the use of Reflective Thinking in all the interactions parents have with their children. Reflective Parenting enables a parent to see the world from his or her own perspective and from their child’s perspective.” 

Taking time for observation and reflection helps us move from reactive parenting to reflective parenting.  Reflective parenting can foster positive relationships, allow for greater independence and growth in your child, and ensure greater satisfaction and fulfillment for you.

 

 

 

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Self-Care and Better Parenting

Finding Your Passion

Happy New Year!  Happy New Decade!  What better time to do a little bit of self-reflection and check in on how we are doing with self-care?  Parents often feel guilty about pursuing interests that have nothing to do with raising their children. Honestly, when you have little ones it’s hard to find the time – or the energy – to enjoy time doing things that aren’t related to raising children.  

But hard as it is, time taken pursuing your interests – doing things just for yourself – makes parenting easier and helps you be the best parent you can be.

Parenting is hard work. It is a 24/7 job that demands mental and physical energy nonstop.  Never taking a break can lead to short tempers, exhaustion, and discord.

“When the daily stress of parenting becomes chronic it can turn into parental burnout, an intense exhaustion that leads parents to feel detached from their children and unsure of their parenting abilities, according to new research. This type of burnout can have serious consequences for both parent and child.” – Science Daily

Says researcher Moïra Mikolajczak, “In the current cultural context, there is a lot of pressure on parents. But being a perfect parent is impossible and attempting to be one can lead to exhaustion. Our research suggests that whatever allows parents to recharge their batteries, to avoid exhaustion, is good for children.”

“Being on and at the ready for your children at all times can cause burnout and make things that could be everyday treasures feel like everyday chores. That’s why it’s important that all parents start taking real, regular days off,” says Lindsey Roberts on finding time for yourself in an article written for the Washington Post.

“This could mean asking a spouse to take the day off from an office job and be with the kids, or asking a family member to cover you for a day. Maybe it involves hiring a sitter. One friend of mine and her husband take days off from work together to go golfing while their son is in school. Whatever you need to do, make it happen.”

So where do we start? 

First, maximize your health.  Are you fueling your body with a balanced diet of healthy vegetables and sufficient proteins? (Are your kids eating better than you do?)  Are you getting enough sleep? Are you exercising? (Is finding time to exercise one of your goals for me-time?)

Next, address check your emotional/relationship health.  Are there relationship issues that might be dragging you down?  Would seeing a counselor to help resolve these might be a good thing to put on your me-time list?

Finally, find your passion – and pursue it.  Have you been in the parenting trenches so long you have no idea what you might be interested in? 

Be curious, try lots of different things

What did you enjoy before children? As a teenager, I square danced.  It didn’t score me popularity points back in high school, but I loved it and the friends I made there.  When I saw square dancing class in the LBCC community class catalog, I decided I’d make some space for me-time and signed up. Once a week I escaped the parenting routine with dancing – which turned out to be both just like it was way back when and yet different.

You can also try something new and see how it feels.  Try it again and see how you respond. Does it continue to excite and energize you?  If so, you can make a longer-term commitment. If not, find a new new thing to try.

Another way to find your passion is to tag along with friends who enjoy activities you are curious about. 

Most importantly, schedule your me-time just like you schedule routine doctor’s appointments.  It’s a commitment to better mental health and can help you be a better parent.

Ready to devote some time to you? 

Check out LBCC’s Adult Ed catalog. What piques your interest?  Classes are often low cost and short-lived.  If you don’t love it, you can move on to something different. If you join an activity that you find you love, you’ll have tapped into a group of people who are also interested and can point you to clubs or groups that meet on an ongoing basis.

Need more ideas on finding your passion?  You’ll find some here:

5 Ways to Find a Personal Passion

7 steps to Finding What You are Passionate AboutLynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Family Traditions Build Strong Families

Traditions are an important part of family culture.  The things we do together routinely, over and over, become our family’s traditions and define our family’s unique family culture.  Family traditions can be big (the Thanksgiving meal or family reunions) and traditions can be small (saying grace before dinner or sharing a hug when parting).  

Big or small, family traditions help define a family’s culture and help strengthen families in a number of important ways.  

What is a tradition?

What do we mean when we say ‘tradition’? Webster’s dictionary defines ‘tradition’ as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom).”  

Simply put, a tradition is something that is done the same way over time.  The holidays we celebrate and the way we celebrate them are often traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Following traditions that have been passed down from previous generations contributes to a family’s unique family culture.

What is ‘family culture’?

Culture is the way a group of people collectively thinks, feels and acts. We often think of countries, or regions of a country, as having a culture that is unique and different from the country or region next door.  

But families also have a culture, whether they intentionally set out to create one or not.  The things you do as a family, the values you hold and demonstrate to your children by your actions, and the daily, weekly, or annual rituals of family members all form a family culture that is unique to your family.

Why are traditions important?

Those habits we form together in a family can provide each family member with connection, comfort, and the security of being part of a like-minded group.  Shared activities strengthen the connections between family members and provide a source of identity and feeling of belonging.  

Traditions, and family culture, are also a way to pass along the values you hold dear to your children.  

When we form family traditions, we create opportunities to build connections within our family.  The things we do together regularly as a family- daily, weekly, or even annually – give children a sense of belonging.  

Daily traditions are small things you do each day to reinforce your family values and connection.  A high-five as kids leave for the school bus. Or the commitment to sit and eat a meal together around the dinner table.  

Weekly traditions can also be small activities you do together as a group to build strong, supportive relationships. Family game night on the weekend. Attending religious services together each week.

Life Change traditions celebrate family milestones – the beginning and end of a school year, birthdays, graduations, and weddings. 

For more on the importance of family traditions – and how to create them – check out Creating a Positive Family Culture.  

 

In our family, we have a simple birthday tradition that involves hanging streamers from the chandelier over the dining room table.  The streamers are hung after the birthday person has gone to bed the night before their birthday. The next morning the whole family is part of birthday excitement, seeing the table festooned with birthday streamers. The streamers stay up all day, and sometimes beyond the day if I forget to take them down!

Another family tradition at our house is the advent wreath in the center of the dining room table right after Thanksgiving each year.  Each Sunday in Advent, we read from a script that we brought home from church in 1984. It’s looking pretty tattered at this point, but it’s a family tradition we all cherish.  

One of our more recently implemented family traditions was started by my 17-year-old, who a few years back began baking massive amounts of cookies throughout the month of December.  By Christmas, we have platters of cookies, in an assortment of epic proportions. 

This goes to show that family traditions, while enduring and often passed down generation to generation, can also be begun, or even stopped, at any time.  

Family traditions can also be implemented at any time.  And can begin spontaneously. Our streamer tradition started that way.  The first time I hung them, it wasn’t in a conscious effort to start a tradition. But when the next birthday rolled around, someone asked where the streamers were.  And a tradition was born.

What family traditions define your family’s culture?  

Family traditions work together with a family’s values and norms to form a family’s culture.  They provide family members with a healthy sense of belonging, security, and connection – contributing to everyone’s well-being and healthy emotional development.

 

 

 

Holiday Stressbusters: 10 Tips for Reducing Stress

As we wind up for the holidays and anticipate a break from the school routine, here are 10 Quick Stressbusters, scientifically proven to help your body fight the chemical overload caused by stress and anxiety.

1. Belly Breaths

Get into a comfortable, relaxed sitting or standing position.  Put one hand on your belly, just below your ribs. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to push your hand outward.  It sometimes helps to count slowly to 3 as you inhale. Exhale slowly. Repeat at least two more times. Belly breaths send messages to your brain to calm down and will reduce muscle tension throughout your body.  To learn more about belly breathing, see Breathing Exercises for stress management.

2. Take a walk

A brisk walk sends messages to your body to produce more endorphins, the chemical that makes us feel good and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression.  Stepping out of a stressful environment, even if only for a few minutes, also provides space for your mind and body to regroup.

3. Skip the nightcap

As a depressant, alcohol is sometimes viewed as a stress-reducer.  But when alcohol is added to the mix, the body releases higher amounts of cortisol, which is the hormone that triggers our ‘flight or fight’ response in stressful situations. This change to the balance of hormones changes the way the body perceives stress. Thus, alcohol prevents the body from returning to its original hormonal balance, which actually adds to feelings of stress and anxiety in the long run.

4. Drink water

Dehydration also increases cortisol levels in the body.  So when we don’t drink enough water, our body responds by releasing cortisol, increasing feelings of stress.  Says Gina Shaw, on WebMD, “Stress can cause dehydration, and dehydration can cause stress. It’s a vicious cycle. You can break it by building more water consumption into your day.”

5. Check your posture

Studies have shown that posture – how we sit and stand – affects not just our bones and muscles, but our emotions as well.  Sitting up straight, standing with shoulders back and relaxed, contributes to the body’s sense of well-being. A study on slumping, performed by the Department of Psychological Medicine, The University of Auckland, found that “Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases the rate of speech and reduces self-focus. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress.”

6. Turn on some soothing music

Music has long been known to directly connect to our emotions, so choosing some calming classical music can help your body deal with stress hormones.  As a side benefit, listening to music can be done while you are busy with other things – like getting ready for work or preparing the evening family meal. Combining the soothing effect of calming music with an activity that can be typically stressful can help balance the impact of the stressor.

7. Take a cuddle break with a loved one

Hugging has some surprising physical benefits, with stress relief being just one of them.  Studies have found that people who received more hugs were less likely to catch a cold, saw their blood pressure decline, and felt better emotionally.  According to one study, “volunteers felt better than usual on days on which they had received at least one hug.”  So counter those negative feelings by wrapping your arms around someone you love (with their permission, of course!).

8. Try some yoga

Yoga combines physical and mental discipline – bringing together mind and body.  Combining poses and controlled breathing, yoga can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.  While there are many different styles of yoga, the popular Hatha yoga provides a slower pace and easier movements. Relaxing into a series of yoga poses sends good vibes to your brain, increasing endorphins and lowering cortisol levels.

9. Write it down 

Journaling doesn’t release muscle tension from your body, like some of the other options for reducing the physical effects of stress and anxiety, but keeping a diary can help vent stressful emotions.  Spending quiet time alone, writing down your thoughts and describing your feelings can help process those emotions and provide relief. A journaling practice can take many forms – a daily gratitude journal, occasionally writing down feelings and strong emotions, or even a bullet list of goals, memories, or other things we want to remember.  And it’s a practice that can be restarted at any time if life gets in the way and derails regular journaling. 

10. Talk to someone

Telling a friend or willing listener about the stress you are feeling – talking through your feelings – can also help reduce the physical effects of stress and anxiety.  In a Forbes article on talking as therapy, Dr. Marian Margulies explained, “When I think of the process of engaging in talk therapy, I think of the analogy with writing.  The more you write, the more you know what you are trying to say – it clarifies your thinking. Similarly with talking and with talk therapy, one becomes more aware of what is making one feel anxious, sad, angry or frustrated. And then one is freer to decide how to manage these feelings or take action to alleviate them.” 

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

The Health Benefits of Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving! It’s the perfect time to look at the health benefits of gratitude.  With the holidays Hearight around the corner, we look forward to celebrating with family and friends, far and near. But the holidays can often overwhelm, even as we anticipate them.

If we are already worrying about so many things in our daily lives – how well we are parenting, how well we are doing our job, whether we’ll make it to the end of the month on the money in the bank – our expectations for the holidays, and the expectations of others, can add another layer of stress. 

But Thanksgiving reminds us that a healthy dose of simple, mindful gratitude can help. November is a great time to pause and take a moment to be consciously grateful, and let that be an antidote to the stress in our lives.

Research has shown that there are health benefits of gratitude.  Over time gratitude leads to lower stress and depression and higher levels of social support.  Amy Morin, writing for Psychology Today, identifies seven scientifically-proven benefits of giving thanks.  Among them: improving physical health, sleeping better, growing social networks, and increasing mental strength.

Says another research study, “Grateful individuals are more likely to appreciate good in their lives, accept social support when needed, which boosts self-esteem, and engage in self-reassuring behaviors and less likely to be self-critical. All of these are associated with higher satisfaction with life.” (Kong, Ding, & Zhao, 2015; Petrocchi & Couyoumdjian, 2016).

Some people find that regularly using a Gratitude Journal helps them see all the things they have to be grateful for.  Others take time out of their day to be still, silent, and meditate on the good things in their life. Even a simple, conscious thought of gratefulness as we pack lunches before sending the kids off to school can contribute to stress reduction. 

The key is to be deliberate about identifying those things you are grateful for and consciously identifying them.

Says David Steindelt-Rast, in his Ted Talk on gratitude, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”  He goes on to encourage listeners in a life of gratefulness by building in opportunities to notice.  He describes his own experience with noticing. After spending time in Africa, without drinkable water, he returned to his home and would stop and be consciously grateful each time he turned on the tap and fresh water poured out. A simple thing, easily overlooked.  But having done without provided the impetus toward gratitude. 

Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful.  But gratitude, recognized throughout the regular days of our lives, offers a way to reduce our stress levels all year long. 

Next time you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, think Gratitude.  Take some time to acknowledge the good things that crossed your path that day.  Keep a gratitude journal, send a thank you note, or share the things you are grateful for today with the ones you love. 

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Screen Time: Strategies for Plugging into Healthy Technology

Is there such a thing as ‘good’ screen time?

Is there such a thing as ‘good’ screen time?

We’ve all heard it – too much screen time can cause insomnia, social disconnection, even impact cognitive development.  As parents, we agonize over how much is too much. Should I be confiscating their phones and iPads? Limiting use of the wifi and TV?  Shutting down the video game console?

Actually, researchers say there are upsides to the technology era we live in.

Says Dr. Katherine M. Keyes, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, “Video game playing is often a collaborative leisure time activity for school-aged children. These results indicate that children who frequently play video games may be socially cohesive with peers and integrated into the school community.  We caution against over interpretation, however, as setting limits on screen usage remains an important component of parental responsibility as an overall strategy for student success.” Dr. Keyes made her remarks following a study she conducted on the positive effects of video games on children.

Kara Loo, writing in the Huffington Post, notes seven different ways video games can help kids in school.  Among them, she cites development of critical thinking and reading skills. In her article she says, “Video games also hone spatial thinking, reasoning, memory, perception, and problem-solving — all which come in handy for a wide range of technical careers.”

So what is a parent to do?

The very best time to start thinking about screen time is early – before the age of 5.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 18 months not have any screen time.  For 18 – 24-month-olds, they advise only high-quality programming that you watch with your child. For two-to-five-year-olds (preschoolers), the AAP says you should limit screen time to an hour per day.  

As you decide what is appropriate for your family, you can begin to talk about the use of technology and set expectations.  Conversations started when your child is young helps establish a pattern of communication about technology early on, which can reduce the likelihood of challenges when they are teenagers.

It is also a good idea to take a look at your own relationship with technology.  Very young children absorb much of what they know by observing their environment.  What are your children seeing when they watch how you use technology? How much are you on your phone?  What are your children learning from observing you?  

I was in Seattle over the summer.  We were hurrying down the street, with three hungry children in tow, anxious to get them fed.  Walking along one block, I noticed another family working their way down the same street. Dad was out front, with their older daughter.  Mom followed with the younger child in a stroller. Dad was holding his daughter’s hand with one hand and his cell phone to his ear with the other.  

I watched them walk the entire length of the block, he

deep in conversation, she beside him.  She glanced up at him every so often, but he never noticed. His eyes looked keenly ahead as he focused on the conversation he was having on the phone.  

It was only a moment in time.  Perhaps he’d told her before the phone call started that he’d be busy while they walked.  Maybe she was only checking to see if he was still busy. But I was struck by what he was missing as he pressed forward, unaware of the non-verbal communication from the child at his side.  

It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of our ever-present technology.  A quick check of incoming messages becomes a half-hour of email responses. Spending that free five minutes on social media becomes twenty or more.  

There is a lot of good in the technology we all have access to.  But we are also increasingly aware of the need for establishing boundaries around the time we spend with it.  As Geraldine Walsh exclaimed in an article in the Irish Times, “We need to disconnect and reassure children we value them above our devices.”  

Want to learn more?

For more information on the healthy use of technology, join us at the Old Mill Center on October 15th, 6:30 pm,  for a free parent workshop, “Strategies for Plugging Into Healthy Technology.”  Designed to help parents of young children (0-5) get off on the right foot, the workshop will be led by Richard Halpern, an educator with over 25 years of experience helping parents navigate the growing up years.

Workshop attendees will learn the initial steps to take to assure balance and control around the issue of screen time.  Halpern will help parents learn how to identify a good app or video and will provide resources you can take home and use immediately.

The workshop is free and open to the public. Free childcare will be provided.  Call 541-917-4884 to sign up and register for childcare.  

 

Ultimately, as parents, it is our goal to frame the conversation with our children so that as they grow they are educated and empowered to make healthy choices.  “Plugging into Healthy Technology” will add tools to your parenting tool kit that will help your family have a healthy and empowered relationship with technology.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.