Stress In the West: This is a four-part series on how stress in Western society aggravates children's four brain systems and promotes challenging behaviors. After the Regulatory System, the second place the NRF looks when assessing stress is the Sensory System.
When my son, Franky, was little, I used to get anxious when I didn't have something for him to do. I knew he would be anxious about it, too, and somehow I felt that if he didn't have anything to do, it meant that I wasn't doing my job. I wish I knew then what I know now.
I wish I knew then that the angst I felt was a natural first phase of relaxing into life. "Just get over this little hump of boredom," I wish I'd told myself, "so you can get to the next phase: finding the simple pleasures that will feed your soul." By keeping my son busy, I was not only promoting more anxiety for both of us, I was also robbing my son of an important developmental need: down time.
Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, calls our current pace of life "the undeclared war on childhood." He describes children's need for down time as a pressure valve that needs releasing. Without that release, children experience anxiety, hot tempers, and a low threshold for frustration and disappointment.
Down time is free play, drawing, reading, or anything that is low-key and relaxing. Most screen time is not down time for children because the amount of dopamine it evokes in the brain is so overwhelming for their young nervous systems that it creates more stimulation, not a break from it.
Why We Don't Give Kids Down Time
One reason we fail to give our children down time is because we worry they could miss out on important opportunities. What if they became a virtuoso on the piano because of these lessons? And they need to learn soccer so they can get onto the varsity team in high school. And they get so much out of the play group. And they need to improve math, so Kumon is a must.
Teachers avoid down time because ensuring that students meet academic standards on time takes up a lot of time. Both teachers and parents avoid it because kids who are not at ease with down time get anxious, feisty, and mischievous.
The transition to down time is an opportune time to unleash pent-up emotion in children. These outbursts can be intimidating. The nervous system, particularly in children with fragile sensory systems, may balk at a radical change in their pace-of-life intensity. Going from high activity to low (and vice versa) can be a clunky adjustment, making transitions difficult for everyone involved. After attending school or running errands all morning, coming home to a situation of suddenly not having much to do can be literally nerve-wracking, inspiring bewildering behaviors.
A child might pick a fight by asking for something she knows is forbidden like candy, electronics, or food when not hungry. He might deliberately touch things you have explicitly told him to leave alone. Or you might hear whining in resistance to small requests or for what seems like no reason at all. These behaviors are all communicating discomfort with the new state of calm. "I don't know what to do with myself," they pronounce. "Help me deal with this!"
Supporting The Transition
You can help. When a child asks for things they know they can't have or does things they know they can't do, gently hold the limit with, "No, it's not time for that." Then be ready to support an explosion of emotion. All a child needs is a trusted adult to push against in order to benefit from a great way to get the pent-up tension out.
After the first few times of saying no, there could be an hour of tantruming or tears. You will wonder whether you should give in, particularly if it is electronics the child is asking for--something you know will soothe the angst. But hang in there. Stay connected, looking calmly and lovingly at the child through it all. Waiting patiently, say very few, supportive utterances like, "I know this is hard." And, "I'm here." (If your voice escalates the child's emotion at all, stay quiet.)
Once the shock of having nothing to do wears off, the brain's threat response system settles. The emotions drain out, and the brain's seeking system turns on. Curiosity is activated. Creativity moves in. Small things that have gone unnoticed in the bustle of the day can now take hold of a child's attention and, following that, imagination.
Gradually (and this may take anywhere from one to four or so days), those big feelings are gone. The child's mood becomes light, cheerful, and surprisingly cooperative. After a few rough transitions of holding a limit where you are not certain you will survive the storm, the child begins to look forward to down time.
Down time gives us a chance to know ourselves. It lets our minds wander, provides the void from which creativity springs, and helps build the fortitude to be with ourselves. Down time provides both children and adults with a sturdier center of gravity--a sense of security, both in life and who they are. It is imperative to strong development.
Egalitarian Relationship Tool #4: StayListening
This tool from the book, Listen: 5 Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, may be the most difficult for parents and teachers to execute, but also the most rewarding.
Emotional expression is one important way to release built-up tension of feelings like fear, frustration, disappointment and embarrassment that occur throughout a child's day. Rather than making suggestions or fixing things so the emotion goes away, trying help a child solve a problem they aren't ready to solve, this tool is to simply listen.
Hand in Hand Parenting, the parenting philosophy associated with the book, Listen, calls this "Staylistening." Rather than talking with a child, we can "sit in the rocky boat with the child with our hand on the rudder."
We do this by looking into the child's eyes, allowing the child to look away. We let the child get as loud, red-faced, and angry as they get without allowing anyone to get hurt. The child can have a cushion to hit, a paper bag to kick, push against someone strong, or throw something soft to help release these feelings.
The point of this is not to get the child to calm down or regulate. Releasing emotion is purpose enough.
Once big feelings are released, the child is ready to assume responsibilities, follow rules, try the tough challenge, or just reconnect.
This is a tough but valuable tool for adults to learn. Being with someone through hard emotions is triggering and can make us feel vulnerable. It can make us feel a strong urgency to fix the problem and make the crying stop. To get a better handle on this tool, I highly recommend the book, which describes it in far more detail.