To Decrease Stress, We Need to Take Back Childhood: A Guest Post by Katie Hurley

by | Dec 15, 2015 | Parenting

Note to Readers: One of my favorite parenting writers is Katie Hurley. Her latest book, “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World”, is one that all parents should have on their nightstand. It’s a wonderful parenting reference to help us all recognize that one of the most our important roles as moms and dads is to help raise happy, healthy kids – particularly in today’s topsy-turvy, troubling world. Here is a guest blog from Katie that features sound advice from her fabulous new book. I hope you get a copy. I know you’ll enjoy it.  Michele (And thanks, Katie!)

A Guest Blog by Katie Hurley

A few years ago I worked with a young girl who struggled in school. Her teachers reported inattention and lack of follow through on assignments but there wasn’t a single complaint about her behavior. In fact, she was consistently described as “kind” and “empathic.” She was, however, a daydreamer.

Her parents expressed concerns about what they considered “laziness”. She was more than capable of completing her assignments, they felt, but she just lacked the drive to do so.

She told a different story. She was bright and artistic and bored in a school that pushed the basics. She spent her free time engaged in self-taught art and photography. She went to the library to do her homework, but found herself lost in other interests once she got there. She wasn’t lazy; she was following her passion. There wasn’t time to do it all, so she focused on what she considered her future.

She wasn’t alone. In fact, many students who seek my help struggle with larger, societal issues. The race to the finish combined with the pressure to win the blue ribbon isn’t working for them. What they want is time to be kids and explore their interests. They crave time to interact with the world on their own terms – a positively archaic concept in the age of busy.

We live in a hyper competitive success driven society that is fueled by a culture of busy. Very young children (even toddlers!) play sports, spend their days in enrichment programs and engage in highly structured activities. Gone are the days of free play and heading outside with no particular goal in mind. Today many children are over-scheduled and live fairly scripted lives.

When I speak to groups of parents at schools I find that the vast majority of them have good intentions. They feel that that playing multiple sports and enrolling their kids in enrichment programs offers them opportunities to explore their interests and try new things.

I also find that parents feel trapped in the culture of busy. When everyone is on the treadmill, it’s difficult to be the first one to step down.

The result of childhood on the treadmill is stress, anxiety and exhaustion. It can also lead to learned helplessness. When your days are scripted and you lack time to think for yourself and work through obstacles, it’s very difficult to build grit and resiliency. When kids are not given time to play and experience childhood unscripted, they fail to work on things like social skills, coping skills and problem solving skills. In short, over scheduling children robs them of the opportunity to learn and grow in tune with their developmental age.

While the current buzz in the world of parenting would have us believe that much of this boils down to helicopter parenting and refusing to allow failure for our children, I tend to believe that there are bigger forces at play here.

In a series of articles for Psychology Today, Peter Gray, psychology professor and author of Free to Learn, investigates the problem of lack of resiliency and increased entitlement in college students. In the first article, Gray covers that research pointing to the fact that helicopter parenting is, in fact, harmful to kids. But he doesn’t stop there. In the article, Gray references the “helicopter society” that saturates our lives. That’s just it: It isn’t just parents on a mission to protect and micromanage, this helicopter business starts from the top. It’s a societal issue.

While the research is interesting, it’s Gray’s third article in the series that really struck a chord with me. In this article, Gray shares comments from various perspectives. There are the teachers who feel pressured to help kids succeed, college professors who worry about how student evaluations might affect their jobs, parents who push and hover because they worry about the economy and the rising cost of a college degree and students who feel that societal pressures conditioned them to believe that anything less than an “A” is a failure.

Our children are under increased stress and pressure across all age groups right now, and it’s up to us to take steps to reverse this trend. As one student bravely admitted, “Mental illness isn’t a crutch used by students; it’s an actual cry for help and support.”

Truly, we are all in this together. The question is… how can we change the current climate of childhood?

Make room for play.

The benefits of play are endless. When given the gift of time to play on their own terms, children work on things like problem solving skills, empathy, responsibility, assertiveness, self expression, social skills and coping with negative emotions. They also try on new roles and learn about the world around them.

Teach them how to cope.

We can’t create happiness for our children, and we certainly can’t hand it to them on a silver platter, but we can empower them to learn how to cope with stress and worry. In doing so, we show our kids that while no one is happy every moment of every day, we can take control of our own stress and find our way back to happiness when the going gets tough.

I provide several strategies to help kids learn to cope with stress and anxiety in my new book, “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World”, but try a few of these to get started:

Body Mapping: Help your kids connect the dots between physical aches and pains and emotional upset by coloring an outline of the body in red where the aches occur. Talk about how stress affects our physical wellbeing (ex: Clenching your fists when stressed can lead to neck, wrist and arm pain.)

Guided Imagery: Engaging in an imaginative journey while practicing deep breathing helps kids learn to breathe out stress while replacing worried thoughts with positive ones.

3 Good Things Journal: Journaling is a great way for older kids to get their stress out, but they can get stuck in a negative loop. Encourage your child to try writing down the stressors of the day followed by three positives to help end the night on a positive.

Step away from the culture of busy.

As I say to parents over and over again, it only takes one parent to start a revolution. We have to make peace with the fact that we can’t control everything and we can’t map out their lives for them. Filling their days with stuff doesn’t guarantee a Harvard acceptance letter down the line.

What we can do is provide unconditional love and support and give them the gift of time. Resist the urge to over schedule. Take a good look at your weekly planner and start by cutting at least one activity.

Let them learn by trial and error.

The second best gift you can give your child is the ability to try. “Let them fail,” shout the experts. And yes, there is a lot to be learned from failure. There’s also a lot to be learned from trying. Life isn’t black and white. It shouldn’t be about failing or succeeding.

For kids, the gift is in the trying. Let them make soup from cold noodles and frozen peas. Let them build castles of cardboard and run science experiments at the kitchen table. Childhood is messy, wondrous and exciting.

Take the pledge to take back childhood and watch your child thrive.

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, CA and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World(Tarcher/Penguin 2015). Her work can be found on PBS Parents, Momtastic, and The Huffington Post. Check in with Katie on Twitter or on her blog, Practical Parenting.