MHAW BLOG: Why we shouldn’t shield our children from stress

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Why diarised stress is crucial for our young people
by YOGADOO Founder, Lucy Aston

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, and the theme for this year’s campaign is STRESS.  Goodness me, I’ve suffered from the effects of stress in my time. I would even say I reached burn-out point a few years ago with a combination of things going on in my life at that time. I know all too well that feeling of a dark cloud above you from the moment you wake up, the sensation of “walking through treacle” to try and get even the smallest tasks done and just the overwhelming emotion of failing, all the time.

 

Yoga, and more specifically meditation saved me, it really did. Deciding to pack myself off to India to retrain as a yoga and meditation teacher two years ago, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, was about to completely change my life. And completely change how I viewed my own mental health, self-care, and ultimately my relationship with stress.

 

I was always a bit of a stress junkie you might say, I trained as a BBC journalist and I thrive on short deadlines. This transfers to all areas of my life, I very often self-impose tight deadlines on myself to give myself “the buzz” of getting things done. But this brings with it, stress. And what I’ve realised is it isn’t just stressful for me, it was having an impact on colleagues, friends and family who were waiting for information or work from me and in it would fly just on the right side of the deadline. “Yes, I’ve still got it”.

 

I still have a bit of this in me, I think I always will. But I am aware of it now. I’ve also realised that there is enough stress in life, without me feeling the need to add more.

 

The way I deal with stress now has also changed. I used to let it build up, ignoring it, the eternal tidal wave of burden constantly biting at my heels. I used to let it chase me, occasionally turning around and bashing it on the head with a virtual comedic frying pan, but it was always there like a terrier puppy, keen to get my attention. Eventually it would build to the point where the wave would swallow me whole, and I would drown in a sorry mess, only for my loved ones to pick me back up and start me on the same path once again.

 

Now, I see stress as (a necessary) part of life, it’s not something to be ashamed of, I deal with it in the same way as I need to eat. I have learnt to prioritise, to cut unnecessary stresses from my life, write lists, reflect and not rush. I also meditate every day, even if it is only for five minutes – but I try to do twenty. This might sound like a complete luxury, but I absolutely promise you I much more efficient for the rest of the day when I do this. Of course, it takes time and energy and practice to meditate, but for me it’s the simple sensation of stillness when faced with chaos. Forcing the calm, controlling the breath, being in the moment when all your brain wants to do is run away with you. Nature gave us the ability to spot danger and respond to it. When faced with dangerous or stressful situations, our body and brain kicks into “fight or flight” mode. But we don’t like to stay in that state for long. We like to deal with danger quickly so we can feel safe again. But if we are shielded from danger or stress, we don't learn how to deal with it.

 

I am going to talk more about meditation techniques later in the week, and I’ll also be announcing a brand new meditation course I’ll be running which will start later this month.

 

Ironically, as well as this week being Mental Health Awareness week, thousands of children will also be taking their SATs. Over the past few months, YOGADOO teachers have been working with a number of primary schools in the Bath and Somerset area to work with year 6 pupils specifically to prepare them for these tests. I’ve also worked with some children one-to-one privately to teach and develop resilience skills in coping with stressful situations. I have said to all of these children, teachers and parents, that we are not looking at the SATs in isolation. Life will throw at us a series of potentially stressful events, situations and phases and the yoga and meditation we learn will equip them for life.

 

Sometimes these are minor, temporary pressures where we feel a bit unsettled but can carry on with life as normal, sometimes these will develop into serious and traumatic times where we find it really difficult to function. What yoga and meditation teaches us is to notice how we are feeling in the present moment, to recognise our emotions, to listen to our bodies and to respond. We also teach that it is OK to ask for help. It is always OK. We all need to do this from time to time, and there is always someone to speak to. Talking helps and there’s always a way to sort out whatever the situation might be.

 

I have heard a lot of talk amongst parents and in the media about how the SATs are “unnecessary stress” for the children.

 

I agree that building the SATs to be something they are not is unnecessary, and they should be viewed with a sense of perspective and nothing more. But I actually believe some “planned” stress for children is good, and further than that, it’s essential. At least with “diarised” stressful encounters, we can prepare the child and teach them valuable coping mechanisms and skills. How else will we prepare them for life? And the pressures and stresses ahead? Prolonged periods of stress is of course, no good for anyone, but I really think that learning to deal with stress is a good thing, it helps children to gain confidence, experience problem solving and build resilience. 

 

So how do we help children cope with stress and prepare for stressful situations?

Here are my top ten ways we can help:

 

Create a calm environment

Try to be an organised parent or carer, have everything you need and leave enough time to get to places, particularly on the morning of exams. Don’t create any unnecessary chaos.

 

Get enough sleep

Children who sleep well are likely to be less irritable and better able to handle school stress.  If they have things on their mind at bedtime, help them to write a list, and tell them we will work through the list together to resolve their worries.

 

Talk

Keep talking to your child, but also know when to stop. Let them know you are on their team, you can help them resolve any worries by working together, but be aware of the “white noise” effect that constantly asking them if they are OK can also have.

 

Practice relaxation

Sitting or lying still with our eyes closed, and focussing on taking slow deep breaths can really help to calm the mind and body. With the emphasis on stillness, trying not to fidget, maybe placing a hand or toy on the child’s belly so they can tap in deeper to the sensation of the breath coming and going. Counting the breath in and trying to match the length of the breath out.

 

Affirmations
Leaving little positive notes of encouragement for your child to find is a really sweet way to help relieve stress. Popping a little affirmation in their pencil case, next to their bed or lunchbox can pepper their day with reminders that you are there with them, even when you’re not physically there.

 

Be less busy

Do they really need to go to that after school club? Do that extra swimming session? When a child is experiencing extra stress, cutting out any unnecessary activities and replacing it with bonding time with you can really help to make them feel better.

 

Fuel

It sounds simple, but remembering to eat well and drink lots of water is essential. Cooking can be a therapeutic activity, so why not get your child involved in the design of the week’s meal plan over the exam period, not only are they learning about how important food is to help our brain function more effectively, they will no doubt include some of their favourite foods (which is always a nice treat) and it’s also a really great bonding time together.

 

Leading by example

Stress is a part of life, as a parent if you can find age appropriate ways to talk about how you feel, how you sometimes feel stressed, about how sometimes things worry you, this will become part of a normal conversation you have with your child. You can also lead by example in how you manage your stress, let your child see you writing lists, enjoying ‘self care’ and relaxation time, practicing yoga and meditation, you may even want to try some of the activities together.

 

Limit screen time

Using digital devices, and (if the child is old enough) accessing social media can lead to a child feeling isolated and more anxious. Limiting the time on screens during stressful periods can be useful and replace it with activities you can enjoy together. Being away from screens can also be cause of anxiety and stress to helping your child to become more digitally resilient is really important too.

 

Professional help

If your child is experiencing prolonged periods of stress and anxiety, it is really important to speak to the school, and if necessary your GP. Never be afraid of asking for help, there is always a way to resolve the problem, and people are on your side.