How Do Children Show Stress?

The past year and a half has created a new paradigm of stress for many families. A couple of years ago, a stressful day meant losing a baseball game or getting a bad grade on a test. But since 2020, stress means spending months or more indoors separated from friends, struggles with virtual school, and tragic family losses.

As an adult, you’re probably familiar with how you tend to react when stress gets to be too much. You might get snappy or irritable; you might have trouble sleeping; you might struggle to concentrate at work. But for your kids, stress can be expressed in a variety of ways. As a parent, it can help you to know how stress can look in kids of different ages, so you can help your kids recognize and manage it. 

Infants 

You might think that young children are less susceptible to the stressors we’ve experienced in the past year – after all, they don’t understand what COVID means, and their entire lives have been in quarantine. But the truth is that babies and toddlers are highly sensitive to family stress, and even if the pandemic didn’t have a significant impact on their usual routine, the stress you’ve felt has affected them. 

For young babies born just before or during the lockdown, life in a global pandemic is the only life they’ve known. For them, the return to normal schedules might be a bigger stress than anything they’ve experienced yet. If you’ve been home 24/7 for most of your baby’s life, then a new daily routine involving driving, work, and daycare could be a big and stressful change. Babies who are stressed tend to cry more and sleep less, which isn’t likely to improve your stress level (or your ability to get out of the house on time). But any significant change in your baby’s normal behavior could be an indication of stress, from dietary and bowel changes to sleep and activity levels. 

On the bright side, helping your infant better manage stress is relatively easy: nurturing touch and quiet routines can go a long way toward calming them down. Young babies don’t need a lot of entertainment or stimulation, and they usually get enough educational stimulation from daily life, so reducing stress for infants usually means reducing stimulation with calm, quiet time together. Just holding and rocking your baby can cause her cortisol levels to drop. And the bonus? Snuggling with your baby can reduce your stress levels, too. 

Toddlers 

Toddlers who have been growing up in Covid probably appreciate the fact that their parents have been present a lot during quarantine. Just like with babies born in the past year, for young toddlers it’s probably the “new normal” of businesses opening back up and parents going back to work that’s causing the most stress in today’s changing world. 

Just like young babies, toddlers aren’t verbal enough to talk clearly about their feelings, so they mostly express stress through behavioral changes. Bedtime resistance and nighttime wakings are a common sign, as are bowel changes, dietary changes, and activity changes. Stressed-out toddlers might become more clingy and unwilling to go to daycare or play with friends, and they might have nightmares or bedtime fears. They might also say they feel sick and complain of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical pain. Finally, of course, toddlers will show stress with their favorite way to express emotions – tantrums. 

One of the biggest ways to help toddlers manage stress is with familiar routines. So while it’s helpful to acknowledge what your child is feeling, and to name the emotion they’re expressing, it’s usually not helpful to change your usual plans in response to your child’s tantrums. Giving your toddler choices can help them feel empowered, but too many choices or too much change will make them feel out of control. Rather than saying “ok, you don’t have to go to daycare today,” try offering a choice like “do you want to put on your shoes first or your pants first?” Keeping a (somewhat flexible) routine and structure helps toddlers feel more secure, which reduces stress in the long run – even if it means you have to push through some protests.

It’s also common for stressed-out toddlers to invent routines out of random things you happen to do once. For example, if one morning you give your child orange juice and then a plate of scrambled egg, they might decide that this routine is essential and get angry if the next morning you give them eggs first and then orange juice. As your routines are changing in the transition out of quarantine, it can help toddlers to maintain as many daily routines as you can — even if they seem minor or silly. 

School Aged Children 

For school-aged kids, school and friends are a key source of both social learning and emotional support. Kids who’ve been separated from friends for much of the past year might have been really stressed by the isolation – and even more stressed about the return to school. If they haven’t seen their friends in a long time, they might worry that their friends don’t like them anymore. They might feel that they’ve lost the knowledge of how to make friends or how to play with other people. All of this might mean they have very mixed feelings about the coming school year – a perfect recipe for stress and worry. 

These emotions can show up in a variety of ways. Just like with younger children, your first clue will probably be behavioral shifts such as changes in sleeping, eating, or activity levels. School-aged kids who are stressed might withdraw from family and friends, or they might lash out and get in fights with friends or siblings. They might also have problems with grades due to difficulty concentrating or a loss of interest in schoolwork. 

Vague physical complaints, such as stomach aches or headaches, are another common symptom of stress in school-age children. Younger school-aged kids may also regress with behaviors like bedwetting, thumb sucking, or even tantrums. 

Even though these kids’ language skills are developed enough to talk about complex emotions, they probably don’t have the emotional awareness to understand or put into words what they’re feeling. If your school-aged child is lashing out or overreacting to seemingly small problems, it’s probably a sign that their level of stress is at the tipping point. 

While talking about their emotions can help, talking about anything can actually help kids at this age process stress as long as they feel like you’re listening and you care. Schedule time every day to just listen to your child talk about whatever’s on their mind, even it’s only 15 or 20 minutes. This might feel like a waste of time when all they ever want to talk about is their favorite video game or the latest video they watched on YouTube. But if you provide that space every day to listen, then eventually they’ll surprise you by sharing the emotions and fears that are worrying most. Playing with you is also a powerful way for school-aged kids to connect and express themselves, so make time to play what they enjoy – even if that means playing that video game you hate. 

Teenagers 

Teens are almost adults, and they’re likely to express stress in many of the same ways you do: getting snappy and irritable, having trouble concentrating, and having outbursts of frustration or anger. But because they’re teens and have a harder time regulating their emotions than you do, these outbursts are likely to be more extreme than an adult’s. 

Peer relationships are incredibly important to teens, but they’re also a big source of stress – and never more than now that they’ve been strained by separation and quarantine in unprecedented ways. Stressed teens might withdraw from friends and from social activities, and they might express worries that no one likes them or they have no friends. 

Teens can also react to stress with the same types of behavior changes as younger kids, such as trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, and difficulty concentrating. 

However, all of these behaviors can be hard to distinguish from normal teenage moodiness, so how do you know if your child is stressed-out or just hormonal?

The truth is this: It doesn’t matter. No matter whether your child is dealing with the normal stress of teen hormones or the massive stress of transitioning out of a global pandemic, the emotions they’re feeling are real to them. It’s normal for teenagers to feel that problems that seem small to you are devastating and life-changing, and as their parent, it’s your job to accept those emotions and support them through them. Even if you think the source of their stress seems unimportant, treat it like it’s as big a deal as your child feels it is.

Just like with younger kids, scheduling time every day to talk with your teen about whatever’s on their mind can help them manage stress in their lives. Even if they don’t talk with you about what’s really bothering them, making yourself available is a statement to them that you care about their emotions. And just like younger kids, teens will eventually tell you what they’re feeling if you give them enough space and time and listen without any judgement. 

Stress is normal, and major transitions are always going to be stressful. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, it’s impossible to prevent your children from experiencing stress. However, the first step to helping them manage it is for you to recognize it for what it is. Once you understand that your child is dealing with big emotions, you are better equipped to help them manage and process stress. In our next blog post, we will talk about ways to help kids process stress and trauma.

Deactivating Stress Triggers

This is Part Two of our three-part series on stress and mindfulness. 

In our last post, we looked at the impact stress has on our minds and bodies. We talked about the overabundance of chemicals produced by our body in response to stress. We identified the impact of those excess chemicals on our physical, mental, and emotional health. 

A woman sitting on the ground is silhouetted by the setting sun. In this post, we will look at ways to help our minds and bodies manage by deactivating those stress triggers and minimizing those impacts. 

Says Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind. “In order to learn how to let go of stress, it’s advantageous to have a basic understanding of how it works in the body,” 

“When we detect a change in the environment that commands our attention, our body releases a precisely choreographed cascade of hormones designed to prepare us for a reaction. Our breathing and heart rate quicken, we may feel our muscles tense in preparation to fight or flee. Our body is shifting from a sympathetic-dominant state in order to prepare us for survival.”

The human stress response was well-developed eons ago when early man navigated in a wilderness of wild beasts. The problem today isn’t that our bodies react, but that usually what we are reacting to isn’t a saber tooth tiger about to pounce. 

Handling this disconnect, between the most primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, and the modern-day events that stimulate the amygdala’s ‘fight or flight’ response, requires some intervention.

Melanie Greenberg, in The Stress-Proof Brain, says, “Having a stress-proof brain means being able to slow things down, ground yourself, and overcome feelings of anxiety and helplessness that may have their roots in past, difficult experiences. It means being CEO of your own brain rather than letting your amygdala be in charge.” (p210) 

Stress experts like Drs. Greenberg and Lagos offer the following strategies for mindfully handling our responses to the emotions triggered by stress.

Still life of a bottle of olive oil surrounded by two red tomatoes, a sprig of green rosemary and a garlic bulb.Diet and Exercise

Being “CEO” of your brain begins with taking care of it and the rest of your body. Eating healthy foods, walking, and making sure you are moving and using your muscles in a healthy way all support an environment for optimum mental and physical health. Feeling tense? Take a brisk walk to boost endorphins and help your body regulate those stress hormones. Plan your meals and eat them on a regular schedule. This will help make sure you are eating fresh fruit, whole grains, and proteins – all helpful in stress-proofing your brain. It’s also helpful to be aware of foods that trigger overeating. For example, sugary foods can cause blood sugars to spike, then crash, leading to overeating.

Slow down, Positive thinking

When we are overwhelmed, our tendency is to shift into overdrive. But the acceleration adds to our anxiety, as we try to handle the stress and also the anxiety about the stress. To avoid stressing about stress, downshift instead of accelerating. Take a few moments to slow down and regroup. Allow your body to process your current emotion before taking action. Using the power of positive thinking can also help lower our anxiety, since pessimistic thoughts are more likely to cause anxiety. Try replacing self-defeating negative thoughts with more positive – or even more neutral – alternatives. When you find yourself thinking self-defeating thoughts like, “I never get this right,” try changing that thought to, “This time I didn’t get this right, but next time I will.”

Calming your amygdala

Another strategy for handling difficult emotions is to practice calming the amygdala with deep belly breathing and regular mindfulness meditation. 

Michigan Medicine, at the University of Michigan, offers these instructions for mindful belly breathing:

  1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.

Breath awareness 

Mindful breathing exercises can also help disrupt the ‘fight or flight’ response of the amygdala. Emily Fletcher, in Stress Less, Accomplish More, recommends the 2x Breath. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 2 and out through your mouth to the count of 4. Repeat a few times. (While walking if you feel really overloaded.) When you are calmer, find a comfortable chair and continue mindful breathing for a few more minutes, extending inhales to the count of 3 and then 4, with exhales twice as long. 

Dr. Leah Lagos, in her book Heart Breath Mind, encourages a twice-daily practice of 20 minutes of mindful breathing. She recommends heart rate monitors to track the benefits of these daily breathing exercises.

Presence and Mindfulness

Overriding the primitive reactions of our amygdala takes awareness. By slowing down we give ourselves the opportunity to experience our feelings without reacting to them mindlessly. By using simple techniques such as breath awareness and deep breathing, we help our bodies balance the chemical responses to stress. By bringing conscious awareness to the physical effects of our reactions to stressful events, we ground ourselves, keeping fear-based responses at bay, making us better able to respond with curiosity and creativity. 

Our amygdala, that most primitive part of our brain, engages without conscious thought. Finding ways to engage the more evolved parts of our brain when handling stress allows us to make conscious choices about our reactions. Next time we will delve more deeply into using presence and mindfulness as an antidote to stress.

Stress and Mindfulness

Today we begin a 3-part series on stress.  In this series we will begin by looking at the impact stress has on our well being – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then we’ll take a look at some tried and true methods for deactivating stress triggers. Finally, we will delve more deeply into presence and mindfulness as antidotes to stress.

What is “stress”?

We hear and talk a lot about stress. But what exactly is “stress”? Emily Fletcher, in her book Stress Less, Accomplish More, says stress is not a thing, it’s a reaction. She describes stress as the negative impact of the demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. (p45)

Stress is not the responsibilities themselves, but is a reaction to the demands those responsibilities put on us. Ms. Fletcher asserts, “And that is what stress is: your reaction to the stuff, not the stuff itself.”

That’s good news when we’re feeling overwhelmed.  In our next post we’ll look at ways to manage our reactions and reduce the negative impact. But first, let’s look at how our feelings of overwhelm impact us.

The impact of stress

When we are stressed, our bodies produce a variety of chemicals that affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. These include cortisol, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals are both beneficial and problematic.  In the right quantities, these chemicals coursing through our bodies help us. Serotonin, for example, helps aid digestion, heal wounds, and regulate anxiety. But excess serotonin can lead to diarrhea, headaches, and confusion. 

The American Institute of Stress lists 50 common signs and symptoms of stress. Among them: weight gain, overreaction to petty annoyances, difficulty making decisions, depression, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.

We may have trouble sleeping, experience headaches, overeat, or have neck or back pain. Stress also affects us mentally.  We may find it difficult to concentrate, hard to make a decision, or find ourselves less productive at work.  Emotionally, we may feel increased anxiety, worry more, feel frustrated or angry more often, and approach others with hostility. Depression and mood swings are also telltale signs of the effects of stress on us emotionally.

Statistics on the impact of stress

Stress takes a toll on all aspects of our life. At work, stress leads to distraction, feelings of isolation, absenteeism, and fear of job loss. At home, stress affects our relationships with our families and roommates, diminishes our enjoyment of everyday pleasures, and can lead to depression and addiction.

According to a study by the Mental Health Institute, 81% of respondents said workplace stress affects their relationships with friends and family. 53% of respondents missed 6 or more days of work a month due to workplace stress. 63% of respondents reported that their workplace stress resulted in a significant impact on their mental and behavioral health. 

Benefits of understanding the impact of stress

 

Understanding the impact of stress is the first step to minimizing those impacts. Recognizing the demands that are causing our stress responses, then taking action to change our response can have lasting benefits  and lead to a decrease in the negative impact on our brains, bodies, and mental health.

The good news is we can tame the beast. Each of us carries within us the ability to change how we respond.

We all have demands made on us by our personal and professional responsibilities. But we also have the tools available to manage those demands and lessen the impact of stressors. 

In our next post we will look at ways to deactivate our stress triggers – action we can take to reduce the impact of a chronic stress response. If stress is the reaction to the stuff of our lives, altering how we react can go a long way to reducing the negative impacts of stress. We will look at increasing cognitive flexibility, the power of positive thinking, and the impact of diet and lifestyle on our stress levels.  Until then, when your body is telling you it’s all too much, stop a minute and take a few slow, deep breaths.

Feeling anxious? Try Mindfulness

It’s been a wild month. We are all learning so many new things. What it’s like to be together 24/7 with no end in sight. What adding ‘working from home’ and ‘schooling at home’ does to family life. Exactly how many steps it takes to walk around the block, which we’ve counted as these walks are now happening multiple times a day.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many moments when I haven’t handled it well. I’m worried and stressed, frustrated and depressed. I have been delighting in the Zoom visits I’ve had with family and friends. But when the ‘meeting’ comes to an end, the weight of our social distancing crushes me. After one family call, I lost it and cried for nearly an hour. This is all so, so hard.

I was telling a friend about my rough week and she pointed me to an article that identified what I was feeling: grief. Says David Kessler, co-founder of grief.com, “We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” 

It helped to have a name for the weight I am bearing. But what helped more was his advice for dealing with these feelings. 

Presence and mindfulness

“To calm yourself, you want to come into the present. There’s a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It’s that simple. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel. The desk is hard. The blanket is soft. I can feel the breath coming into my nose. This really will work to dampen some of that pain,” says Kessler.

“Presence” is the practice of being present in the current moment, focusing thoughts on what is happening today, instead of thinking anxious thoughts about the future or dwelling on regrets about the past.

Focusing on the present – this immediate moment I am living – help reduce my anxiety. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that right now we are all ok. We are healthy, the sun is shining, the kids aren’t bickering. In this moment I am ‘ok’.

Being deliberate about noticing our present circumstances is often referred to as mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being intentional – aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Focus thoughts on that awareness, without judgment. Turning our thoughts to what we feel at the present moment, helps us turn away from thoughts about the past and anxiety about the future.

On my bleakest day so far, choosing to focus on just that day helped me move forward. I spent the rest of that day focused just on ‘today’. The next day I felt much better and the day after that, even better.

I know I’ll have hard days again on this roller coaster we are all riding. But remembering to come into the present moment and mindfully accept all the feelings – good and bad – will help on the rough days.

Let it go

When it gets hard, Kessler has one other bit of helpful advice: Think about how to let go of what you can’t control. “What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.”

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.

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.

Like Baby Steps, Only Tinier

“It takes 30 days to form a habit.” It’s always somehow shocking to me when these cliches turn out to be more or less true, as if the truthiness (thank you Stephen Colbert) rubs off in the repetition. But what if it’s backed by science? Turns out the facts are more complicated (AGAIN). Certainly too much so to comfortably aphorise.

So let’s put this another way: “It takes 66 days to form a habit. Or broadly, 18 to 254.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, does it?

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t bother to do this research before I started forming my new exercise habit. Because I was going by the 30 day thing.

Let me back up a little bit. I just turned 45 and I was thinking about, like, mortality, and things. In my parent-mind, I was thinking about how nice it would be to still be around when all my kids were doing grownup things and thinking about their mortality, and things.

Related to that thought was the one about how well I’ve modeled literacy and learning for my kids at the expense of other things like movement, sport (in the phenomenological sense), and exercise. Sure, we like to take hikes and go for walks, but that’s more about being in nature. And they do love to swim. So. But I have not prioritized those things, and I want to turn that around.

My brilliant wife is right on board, and has instituted a morning walking/jogging regimen for the girls, supplemented by yoga and frequent trips to the pool. It’s going…okay. And by okay, I mean that about half the kids are into it on any given day. Granted, it hasn’t been 30 days, much less 254.

As in all things parental, I had to start with me (we fill our own cup so that we can yada yada). As much as I cherished my morning ritual of making coffee and reading on the couch with a pointy cat on my lap, I knew I had to get moving. My aforementioned wife–the brilliant one–got me some workout clothes for Christmas (I HAVE NEVER OWNED workout clothes). I visualized myself waking up, suiting up, and heading out for an early morning jog, frost, rain and snails be darned (really, tried to be careful of the snails though).

I kept visualizing it every day as I made my coffee and sat down on the couch with coffee and a pointy cat, trying not to look in the direction of my workout clothes, which were balled up in a corner.

Finally I tried another way. Less ambitious, more…tiny. In this case, doing some research would have been helpful because I would have found something like this.

What I did was this: I got a gym bag. I put my workout clothes inside. I left the bag on the dining table when I went to bed. When I got up in the morning, I saw it there, taunting me like Mickey.

After a few days, I opened the bag and put the clothes on. And once I had done that, it just seemed silly not to go outside.

And the rest is…ongoing. Every morning, I put on the clothes and head out for a brisk walk. When I return, in 20-30 minutes, I feel awake and ready for the day. And also ready to do things like bend over and walk up stairs without wheezing.

My kids have noticed all these things. After (insert number of days here), it becomes just something that is done in our family.

Sometimes there are advantages to kids watching everything we do.

 

 

 

The Replacement

After some reminders about the importance of self-care (including one from Parenting Success Network boss Aoife Magee), I was thinking about some of the things I’ve been trying to do for myself. As I have written–and said–countless times, we can’t fill someone else’s cup unless we have filled our own.

In case this image is not clear enough (or if you still consider your cup to be half empty), imagine sitting next to your child on an airplane. If God forbid there should be an emergency and the oxygen masks come down, whose will you attach first? If you answered “your own,” you are in the company of the approximately 2/3 of respondents I just made up. Our instinct is to meet the child’s needs before your own, so it’s natural to want to put their mask on first. However, it’s also the wrong choice. Because if something goes wrong you need to be able to help, and you can’t help if you can’t breathe.

So there. How does this apply to the day-to-day? Without plane crashes and such?

I remembered that I hadn’t told you about my new car. New to me, anyway. It’s a 1993 Toyota Tercel, and it’s pretty much so uncool that it comes back around to cool again. To say it is an improvement on my previous car, a Volvo that could allegedly not be repaired following a crash into a curb one icy day because the company no longer made the parts. I took to calling it The Death Car and refused to take on passengers unless absolutely necessary, believing it would someday kill me, Christine-style.

Thankfully, this did not happen. It did not happen because I finally resolved to replace it and finally bought the Tercel from a mechanically inclined friend who had driven it for years before passing it down to adult daughters. The Volvo I donated to my workplace, using the great company V-DAC, for which they netted $25. Sorry, workplace!

Anyway, the point of this story is that once I decided to focus time and energy (and a surprisingly small amount of money) on my own needs, namely a reliable commuter car capable of more than 8 miles per gallon, I was able to shrug off a huge burden of shame and anxiety that was interfering with my ability to parent.

Am I recommending that you go out and buy a new car, for parenting purposes? Sure, I guess. But wait, there’s more. The Tercel is a manual transmission, something I hadn’t driven in about 20 years (ask me about that someday). I have been rediscovering the joys of riding up a learning curve. Between practicing driving a stick (thanks once again to the mighty Art of Manliness blog) and taking as many different routes to and from work as I can (thanks to decent mileage), I’m keeping my brain healthy and burning some new neural pathways. And that’s a good way to fill your cup.

Also, did I mention it has a tape deck?

 

A Parent’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, drew from his experience as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Auschwitz to assert (and I don’t think anyone would argue) that the way in which we approach our lives determines our ability to find fulfillment and purpose within it.

He writes, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This conclusion is echoed by the Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who in his long-form essay The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to imagine what motivates the king from Greek mythology whose eternal punishment in the afterlife was to labor to push a huge boulder up a hill, near the peak of which it would inevitably slip through his hands and roll back down to the bottom. Camus argues that, when faced with even incredible, incomprehensible hardship (such as that lived by Frankl, above), we must use direct our free will to the conclusion that “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Finally, noted (to me, anyway) writer Jeremy Anderberg, in the great blog that everyone should read, The Art of Manliness, lists a few of the many character-building aspects of fatherhood before hitting on this discovery of meaning. He concludes:

“No matter your position in life — CEO, cubicle automaton, day laborer, stay-at-home dad, entrepreneur, freelancer, trade worker, unemployed — it’s very possible, perhaps even probable, that your greatest, most important role in life will be that of parent. Of provider. Of protector. Of wisdom-purveyor. What that looks like can vary widely from man to man, but have no doubt that raising and loving your children well is one of the most significant things you will do in life.”

Parenting, as you know, can be joyful and full of fun and mirth. It can also be grinding, harrowing, even absurd, and in the march of sleepless nights and seeming lack of evidence that our children are learning or even paying attention, it can be hard to find the motivation to be nurturing, patient, humble and persistent in our work. That’s when we must let the struggle be enough to fill our hearts. Unlike Sisyphus, however, we will experience the joy, the fun, the mirth, if not over this hill, then over the next, or the next.

A final thought, from Frank Pittman, author of Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity:

“These guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of childraising is not the child but the parent.”

Rough Patch

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this lately, but my wife Kyrie is super well trained in child development. We’re talking the whole gestalt ball of wax: Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, the regular OSU kind. So when she tells me that what is going on with our youngest daughter is not an extraterrestrial brain-swap or demonic possession or something equally drastic, but just an expected shift in the child’s growth (known in Waldorf arcana as “the seven year change”), why then I believe her.

Never mind that we have seen nothing like this with her older sisters. The next one up went through a rough patch at around the same time (in fact, I covered it pretty thoroughly while it was happening). That one didn’t want to sleep without an adult in the room even though she had been doing so just fine for a couple of years now. My solution to that had been to 1.) shunt her younger sister into our bedroom and sleep in her bed, which required me to be quite a bit shorter than I actually am, or 2.) move the seven year-old into the grownup bed and take hers, thus allowing the younger one to continue sleeping. Neither particularly worked, and the whole operation was almost certainly prolonged by my accomodationist method.

So when this one adds an inability to sleep for more than an hour at a time to a complete loss of her words to express a need for help (the words having been replaced by loud grunting and yelling), I tried to wait it out. I can get up once an hour, no problem. Get her some water, get her a homeopathic lozenge, pack her back into bed. Repeat.

The results were apparent after a couple of nights of this plan. She continued not sleeping and so did I. Turns out that neither of us do well on sleep deprivation. Something had to change, but I was fresh out of empathy. We were both pretty sure that she was just never going to sleep through the night again. And we both felt terrible.

It was at this time that I was preparing for the Nurturing Fathers class and came across the following passage: that we as parents want our children to know that “you are lovable, and you are capable.” Let’s read that again.

“You are lovable, and you are capable.”

It was enough. That night I reminded her of how good a sleeper she is and that this was a temporary phase. We would get through it. In fact, it was already better. Her hard work had already paid off.

I’d like to say that it turned around right away. We’re kind of still working on it.

But boy, does it suck less. I’ll keep you posted.

 

Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part II

So, as I was saying. The X-Men were always my jam. They appealed to me because, unlike other superheroes with their fantasies of power that came about usually through accidents (gamma rays, cosmic rays, radioactive bug bites), the X-Men (and -Women, and -Girls and -Boys) were who they were. In the comics, a mutation usually became active with the onset of puberty, which is just about the perfect way of talking about what happens to the adolescent body and brain. Think of Rogue, for whom intimate contact could have deadly consequences for the other person. Or Shadowcat, who in her social awkwardness could become a literal wallflower, fading into the wall and out the other side. Or Cyclops, who had to keep his vision (feelings?) covered up or risk causing limitless damage. Like millions of readers, I identified with these young adults who hadn’t asked for their powers, struggled to understand and control them, and in some cases would give anything to get rid of them.

What happens in adolescence that leads to such perilous places? We have long understood the changes that our bodies go through during puberty, with those new combinations of chemicals; those strange and powerful feelings; that hair.  It would be easy to think that you were going through this by yourself, and were suddenly separate from the human race. A mutant!

Recent work in neuroscience has been trying to understand the changes that take place in the teenage brain. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, in her extensive reporting on terrorism, wanted to understand the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS to adolescents. What would make a seemingly “normal” kid from a typical suburban background want to leave everything they knew and enter a life of secrecy and violence? Her excellent piece on reformed ISIS recruit Abdullahi Yusuf (seriously, it’s really good) shows how these questions must lead inevitably into teenage brain development. The teenage feeling of invulnerability, the aggrieved sensitivity to injustice, the penchant for risk-taking, the lack of consideration for consequences, can take an adolescent into any number of far-flung places. What’s missing during this time is that still, quiet voice that (tends to) guide us as adults. In the piece, Temple-Raston identifies it as the “part of the brain that neuroscientists liken to an internal compass, called the insula, can be built up during adolescence through critical thinking and self-reflective practices.”

This kind of strengthening practice, provided in Yusuf’s case through a reading list and assigned poetry, is what the X-Men find under the guidance of Professor X at the School for Gifted Youngsters (having a responsible adult mentor is clearly important as well). With these opportunities for reflection and control, those scary changes can become powers.

Now if only the films could get it right.