by Susan Chilvers, Ed D
Today stress is a common word in our vocabulary. All aspects of life sweep us along and it’s likely
that if we stand still for a moment we will be knocked over and never regain our footing. Demands of
the world, work and family put pressures on us that cause us to be stressed and we recognize that this
is not healthy for us physically, emotionally or spiritually. So we stop (if we can find or make the
time!) and try to be mindful and in the moment to calm our turmoil and refresh. Many adults are
accomplished at this whether through meditation, prayer, yoga or just quiet time apart from regular
activities but what about children?
Like every other facet of the adult world stress presents itself far too early these days in the process ofgrowing and developing. Sadly, more and more children are joining the adult push to spend time “productively,” not to waste a moment, scheduled up to the hilt with school, after school activities, educational experiences, and family events (many times obligations) that can easily move them into that anxious stress mode of adults.
When I think back to my childhood I can remember experiencing many emotions—happiness,
excitement, expectation, sadness and at times, anxiety—usually very specific (such as exam time at
school) and short lived—but I would never have described myself as stressed which I think of as an
ongoing, often chronic condition.
Children are naturally busy, moving, exploring beings and don’t need exercises to help them live in the
moment, but they do need space physically and emotionally to just “be.”
Watch a two year old who has no idea of time and will repeat a simple activity that gives pleasure,
filling and emptying a bucket with sand, putting pebbles in a row and then rearranging them over and
over and being absolutely delighted with this accomplishment and you see an unstressed being. Parents
can often keep this free spirit alive in their preschool child but when they enter school it can be a very different story.
The way that many traditional classrooms evolve definitely puts stress on children. Teachers talk about
teaching to the test which often precludes children’s natural enthusiasm and curiosity because teachers
only want to address what’s on the test. Also, the obsession with no physical contact between teachers
and children is both unnatural and stressful. Small children need comfort, cuddles, a knee to sit on
when they are distressed or sharing important information. Teenagers need a reassuring hand on the
shoulder and yes, the occasional hug. Does worry about potential sex offenders and inappropriate
behavior really justify many teachers’ awkward behavior toward their students? Surely there is a better
way to monitor the adults in a situation than to ban all physical contact. What a sad environment we
are creating that cares more about law suits than emotional health.
Likewise in our homes children’s activities often focus on fast moving, competitive video games that
although fun, can be big stressors—even in some cases creating social isolation. The vast expanse of
the internet offers children of all ages not only helpful information, but the potential for stress caused by access to inappropriate material. Studies suggest that teenagers, although they like their peers’ company, also like their parents being involved in their lives. Generally parents who have meaningful interaction with their children when they are young tend to have teenagers who share their lives with them. Children empowered when younger often make good choices later with less caving to peer
pressure—hence less stress all round.
Keeping freedom alive in children as long as possible is our job as parents and educators. So don’t be
afraid to turn off the TV, hide (or not acquire) the video games, take your child out to the beach, woods or field in every kind of weather. Even let them get bored, because the “I’m bored” cry is often one from a child who is has been accustomed to being organized, provided with entertainment, given toys
that do the thinking for them and they need to recapture that magic of imagination and joy in the world
that will allow them to be stress-free for just a few more years.
As the poet, W. H. Davies says–
What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.
“Standing and staring” with a child can be a wonderfully de-stressing activity for child and adult.