Last summer I was preparing to make the three-hour drive back to our home in Steamboat Springs after taking the kids camping for four days with several other families. As I was packing up the car, I realized how relaxing our time in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area had been. The kids had played for hours on end in the outdoors, building forts, catching snakes and frogs, fishing, playing freeze tag, and making s’mores by the fire. There were plenty of adults around to watch the kids, so the parents were able to take turns slipping away for a hike or mountain bike ride. There’d been no fights over whose turn it was to pick the TV show, and with no cell phone service, I’d been able to disengage completely from work and other distractions. It had been easy just to be present with my family and friends.
My mood changed nearly immediately on the drive home: A small worry began to form in the pit of my stomach. First, I remembered some house repairs that had to get done; then my thoughts shifted to worrying about how we were going to juggle child care during the upcoming work week, which led to what activities I needed to sign the kids up for in the fall and how we were going to be able to afford them. In the background were the bigger stressors, such as would we ever be able to refinance our home, would our business make enough money to support us, and was my commitment to work making me a lousy mom?
As the feeling in the pit of my stomach grew, so did my level of impatience with the kids. “Stop talking to each other!” I remember screaming from the driver’s seat after my previous attempts to quell their bickering had failed. “I mean it! Silence for the rest of the ride!” What had happened to the super-chill mom they had just spent four days with?
Our modern lives are drastically different from how they were a generation ago. And as our attention becomes more and more fragmented as we juggle all the roles we are cast in, and play with all the modern devices that distract us, our brains are placed in a near-constant state of stress. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain was not designed to negotiate the stresses of today’s world. It is much more at ease on a four-day camping trip with no cell phone service.
Life Is Different
It’s not that adults didn’t work a lot when I was growing up. They did. My dad worked hard every weekday at his job as an attorney. He’d leave the house at 7:00 A.M. sharp and return around 6:00 in the evening. When he got home, my mom would have dinner ready for us, even though she had coached my soccer practice and driven my sisters and me all over town that day. But for my dad, that was it. He’d pour a cocktail, listen to us talk about our day, and eventually make his way to the TV, where he hoped to catch a rerun of a John Wayne movie. Or he’d pick up a book and sit and read. The next day, he’d get up, retrieve the morning newspaper from the front stoop, read it (crazy, right?), then drive in to work while listening to the radio. When he walked past the receptionist, she’d hand him a slip of paper with a few messages on it, and he’d start his workday.
Today, that same attorney drives to and from work talking to clients on the phone, wakes up and reads the news on his tablet while hearing the ping of the e-mails that came in overnight, and by the time he gets to his office, is inundated with the e-mails that came in while he was in transit, from clients wondering why they have not gotten a response yet.
My mom’s world would have been dramatically different today. The Saturday soccer game and one midweek practice have been replaced with a soccer club that is now a soccer business. This means she would have driven me to three practices during the week, a game an hour away on Saturday, and a tournament every other weekend. She would be inundated with e-mail reminders from teachers and school administrators, and on the way to school pickup, she would have five calls from me wondering why she was two minutes late.
The demands, the stimulation, the constant buzz—all have created, quite sadly, Generation Stress.
The reality is, I am Generation Stress. (If you read the introduction, you’ve probably gathered this already.) The irony is that I spend my working life researching stress and the brain, and creating solutions to help families become more resilient to the stressors in their lives. I have personally struggled with every topic presented in the pages that follow, which may have you thinking, why would I want to take advice from her? Certainly experience with my own stress has influenced my work, but my solutions are derived from brain science and grounded in my belief that small changes can make a big difference. I try to be intentional about practicing what I preach, and many of the solutions outlined in the chapters that follow come from trial and error in my search for ways to reduce stress and alleviate bad behaviors in my own family and in the lives of the many families I have worked with over the years.
IS IT THE KIDS OR THE PARENTS?
According to the 2010 American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America Findings” report, Generation X (those of us born between 1966 and 1979) is the most stressed-out generation yet, with the effects of prolonged recession-related difficulties topping the list of things stressing us out. Add to this the modern influences of being plugged in to some device 24/7; our ridiculously demanding schedules; an ever-increasing pressure to perform, look perfect, and be perfect; and you basically have a recipe for anxiety, depression, or a total emotional breakdown.
These stressors are not impacting only us, however, and that’s where our kids come in. Stress is highly contagious, so it makes sense that a generation of stressed-out parents is raising a generation of stressed-out kids. Human brains are equipped with special hardware that allows us to tap into the emotions we witness around us. This hardware comes in the form of so-called mirror neurons, which reflect the emotions we see expressed around us. Mirror neurons are the reason infants smile in response to our smiling at them. That’s a lovely example, but these neurons also light up in response to other kinds of expressed emotion, not just glee.
When we see an expression on someone’s face, not only do we recognize what that person is feeling, but also the area inside our brain responsible for that same emotion lights up. So if Mom is worried about something, even if she doesn’t talk about it, the worry neurons inside her toddler’s brain are firing as well. And if Mom is stressed, baby feels stressed, too. The good news is that positive as well as negative emotions are “catching” in this manner. So when we cultivate positive thinking and emotions in ourselves, everyone around us benefits, including our children. As more and more of us experience unprecedented levels of stress, and when the stress-associated emotions are the ones that catch and reflect back most frequently, stress makes an unprecedented impact on our mental, emotional, and physical health, and takes a significant toll on our kids.
The Down and Dirty (AKA the research)
According to research, Americans today live with moderate to high levels of stress, and struggle in their efforts to manage that stress. One in five American adults believes himself to be in poor health, and those adults who rate their health as poor report higher levels of stress. In addition to the negative affects on their physical health, stress affects the emotional and physical well-being of their families: “While the majority of parents don’t think their children are strongly affected by stress, children report otherwise. Nearly three-quarters of parents say their stress has only a slight or no impact on their children, yet 91 percent of children report they know their parent is stressed because they observe a multitude of behaviors, such as yelling, arguing, and complaining.” It should come as no surprise that children are more likely to report having a great deal of stress themselves when they have parents who live in a constant state of stress.
While so many Americans report being stressed, Generation Xers are not only the most stressed but also the most likely to report physical symptoms of stress and to rely on unhealthy behaviors to manage their stress. More than half of Gen Xers (56 percent) report feeling irritable and angry as a result of stress, and nearly half report having headaches and feeling fatigued as a result of stress. We are also the most likely to report unhealthy behaviors—such as lying awake at night, overeating, eating unhealthy foods, skipping meals, and drinking alcohol—because of stress. While six out of ten Gen Xers report that getting enough sleep is extremely important, fewer than one in five reports doing a very good job getting enough sleep.
If you are a Gen Xer and a married woman, the news is even worse for you. Women report higher levels of stress than men, and married women report higher levels of stress than single women. In 2005 the Lucille Packard Foundation for Children’s Health commissioned a series of studies that found that only 50 percent of parents rate their children’s overall emotional health as excellent. Two-thirds report being extremely concerned about the well-being of their children, and 67 percent worry that their teens are too stressed. Parents have reason to be concerned. Moms are intuitive, after all. Studies show we’re not worried for nothing.
Our Kids Are Paying the Price
In the course of my work, I encounter lots of kids on the edge. It didn’t surprise me when I read that California college counselors have started referring to some incoming freshman as either “crispies” (kids pushed so hard they’re already burned out at eighteen) or “teacups” (too fragile to exist in the world on their own). The signs show up early: levels of depression and anxiety among elementary school students are at an all-time high and continuing to rise. Nearly a third of high school students report feeling sad or hopeless. One in five school-age kids (ages eight through eighteen) has a diagnosable mental disorder—20 percent of our children! This kind of stress is incredibly dangerous, to the point where our kids’ very lives are being threatened. Each year, one in five teens thinks about suicide, one in six teens makes plans for suicide, and more than one in twelve teens attempt suicide. According to one high school resource officer, the new street drug of choice among adolescents is Xanax, an antianxiety medication. This is a huge indication of how these kids are feeling. Where kids used to look for drugs to pump them up—things like speed and Ritalin—they are now looking for drugs to calm them down.
When it comes to managing stress, the APA poll indicates that children turn to sedentary behaviors when they are stressed or worried. They increasingly turn to playing video games or watching TV to relax. Unfortunately, not only do these activities actually increase stress in the brain (more on this in chapter 3), but kids who learn early in life to rely on sedentary behaviors to manage stress face serious health implications. All this for a generation of kids already experiencing rampant levels of obesity.
The Helicopter Parent Has Landed
Not only do we have a generation of stressed-out parents trying to raise kids, but how we parent our children has changed dramatically over the last generation. I used to work as an educational consultant for the Early Childhood Council in my town. One of my responsibilities was to teach social and emotional learning skills in each of the early childhood education centers. Through this work I learned a lot about each center, and I am now often called upon when parents are trying to decide where to send their child to preschool. Over and over again I hear the same thing: “I just want to make sure she is challenged,” or “He already knows all his letters, so I need a place that is more academic.” Since when did preschools become college-prep programs?
There was a time when the purpose of preschool was to prepare kids for kindergarten, not to allow them to skip kindergarten altogether. We want kids to enter kindergarten ready to learn. This means having strategies for getting along with others, knowing how to share and take turns, having the foundation for problem-solving skills, and being able to recognize when people feel happy or sad. Entering kindergarten ready to learn does not mean being able to read and write. In fact, for most kids, reading is completely developmentally inappropriate before the age of five or six. Even though we want the best for them, this early push toward academic greatness causes a great deal of stress for kids who still just want to build block towers or put on a cape.
To complicate things, we push our children to grow up more quickly in many areas while protecting them from making developmentally appropriate mistakes in others. We’ve gone baby-proofing crazy, making it impossible to lift a toilet seat cover without a special code and buying fifteen-foot padded fences to enclose our living rooms. We don’t let our kids play with sticks or climb trees. We even put them on leashes called Kinderkords, which boast “three full feet of freedom for both you and your child.” Yet it doesn’t stop there. We hover over teachers, and even text them (or, worse, our kids’ college professors) to let them know that Johnny forgot his homework but that we’ll be running it by later. We want the best for our kids, and we want to protect them at every turn, but all this hovering and rescuing—known as helicopter parenting—has our kids thinking that making a mistake is to be avoided at all costs. We are raising perfectionists—and, by the way, that is not a compliment. These are kids who, at the first sign of difficulty, give up rather than try harder, for fear things won’t turn out just right. Our little perfectionists are developing eating disorders, turning to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, and are more likely than any generation before them to attempt or commit suicide. In our eagerness to keep them safe, we may actually be doing them harm.
On the one hand we are pushing our kids to excel, to learn earlier and faster than the rest, eager to carve out a place for them in this frenzied world. Yet on the other hand, we aren’t allowing them to develop the skills most correlated with success: intellectual curiosity (not rote learning), creative problem-solving (which requires problems to solve), and a belief that if they keep working at something, eventually they will succeed, or at least improve. Cognitively and emotionally our children face more adversity than ever—in the form of constant stress, overscheduling, pressure to succeed, and too much screen time. All these wreak havoc on a growing brain, while denying kids the ability to form the natural cognitive defenses to buoy them in stressful times.
The Myth of “But I Turned out Okay”
We have all heard it before: “Well, when I was young I did such-and-such, and I turned out okay.” At times this statement is perfectly appropriate (and comforting), but often parents do not realize the extent to which life is inherently different for kids growing up today. Life is simply not the same now as it was thirty years ago.
HOW DRASTICALLY TIMES HAVE CHANGED
It’s not like we didn’t watch television when we were kids.
Sure, maybe you watched The Love Boat on Friday nights or cartoons on Saturday. And if you missed the show, you missed it. There was no on-demand or TiVo. In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that analyzes health issues, determined that kids ages eight to eighteen spend seven hours and thirty-eight minutes per day using entertainment media—more hours per week than if it were a full-time job. And because they do so much multitasking in the form of watching television, texting, and doing homework, all at the same time, they actually manage to pack a total of ten hours and forty-five minutes worth of media content into those seven hours and thirty-eight minutes per day.
Our kids are spending between fifty-three and seventy-five hours a week using entertainment media alone. This is not your old TV schedule.
When I was a kid we didn’t even use seat belts, and we ran wild in the neighborhood!
Parents these days don’t let their tweens cross the street alone. Though studies show our kids are actually safer than ever before, we keep them on leashes, barricade them inside, and forbid their playing with anything that has a pointed end. The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research conducted a national study of 3,500 children, ages twelve and under, and found that kids today have half as much free time as they did thirty years ago. They don’t even get playtime in school. A 2009 study conducted by researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics found that only 30 percent of American students are granted adequate daily recess time.
But across the nation kids are failing in school. They need more homework!
Every study done shows that they actually need less. Not only are their creative brains completely undeveloped, but they are buried under useless rote homework. In a 2005 study, 70 percent of Bay Area parents reported that their nine- to thirteen-year-olds were suffering moderate to high stress levels, with homework topping the list of stressors. Homework is consuming all their time, it’s killing their love of learning, and it’s taking away their childhoods. The number one reason children over the age of eight stop reading for pleasure? Too much homework.
I stayed up late when I was a kid. What’s the big deal?
Kids who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be obese, have trouble paying attention, underperform in school, and suffer from anxiety and depression. A difference of fifteen minutes of daily sleep separates A students from B students, and Bs from Cs. Kids sleep an average of an hour less a night than they did thirty years ago.
* * *
There is hope. While we can’t eliminate all stress, there are a lot of things we can do to become more resilient to the stressors in our lives. These changes don’t require money, moving to the country, or quitting a job. In fact, most of my parenting lectures are more about simplifying your life rather than employing a slew of new parenting strategies. There are many simple changes we can make to help the whole family become more resilient to the stress that life presents.
At the core of the solutions throughout this book are both formal and informal practices of mindfulness. Many people to whom I mention the term mindfulness give me a blank stare in response, as if I’ve just pulled out a voodoo doll.
While there are many meanings of mindfulness out there, I define it as paying attention to the present moment with kindness. Mindfulness gives us the tools not only to manage the stress that life presents but also to experience more positive emotions. Neuroscientists are finding that mindfulness changes how our brain works. In the same way we practice physical exercise to strengthen our muscles, mindfulness practice can be used to strengthen our brains! It can be performed by adults, kids, and whole families—and as we will learn in chapter 8, the results are truly profound. The practice of mindfulness could be the single most effective way to improve your parenting, your relationships, your health, and to increase your happiness in general.
The formal practice of mindfulness in the United States was translated from Buddhist teachings by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created a secular program for people with chronic pain and stress in the 1970s. Since its inception, mindfulness has helped the people who practice it exhibit greater self-confidence, be more outgoing, and feel more grateful for their lives. They are healthier, have stronger immune systems, and exhibit less stress, aggression, anxiety, and depression. In fact they experience fewer negative emotions in general. They are simply happier.
While mindfulness is most commonly practiced by adults, I have found it to be a particularly effective technique for children. In fact, when I started teaching mindfulness skills to the students in preschools, I found the effects so powerful that I gave up my private psychology practice to create my own unique method for teaching mindfulness to children.
One of the beauties of using mindfulness in a classroom setting is that it positively impacts all kids. It helps kids who struggle with behavior and attention deficits, and it helps kids who may be at the high end academically but who struggle with perfectionism, anxiety, or obstacles to reaching their potential. I now spend a great deal of my time traveling around the country showing parents and teachers how to integrate mindfulness into their homes and classrooms. I’m finding that when kids learn these skills, they demonstrate significant improvement in attention, impulse control, ability to regulate emotions, and development of empathy. The benefits to this practice are extensive and very real.
If the term mindfulness sounds too esoteric to you, let me say that regardless of whether you’ve ever set foot in a yoga studio or sat on a meditation cushion, you likely engage in informal mindfulness practices without even realizing it. Informal mindfulness happens when you feel completely engaged in present moment-to-moment awareness, when you completely lose track of time because you’re so involved with what you’re doing. I’ll give you an example. At eleven o’clock on a typical Sunday evening in our town, dozens of middle-aged men and women descend upon the ice rink to play in the coed recreational hockey league. They play for a couple of hours and then return home at one o’clock in the morning, are lucky to be asleep by two, and have to wake up in time to get to work the next morning. It seems crazy to most people that anyone would want to start off their work week in this way, but if you ask any of them why they do it, they will say that when they play, they feel completely present and engaged in the game. They aren’t rehashing all the tasks they forgot to do that day or what they need to do tomorrow. They are 100 percent present in skating and following that puck, and that feels great!
You likely already engage in an activity that makes you feel this way. For me, it’s playing soccer. For my husband, it’s fishing and skiing. For others, it might be gardening, cooking, or praying.
We spend too much time in our minds revisiting the past or rehearsing for the future. Mindfulness is an exercise in paying attention to the here and now, something that in modern times is incredibly hard to do. While informal mindfulness activities make you feel good in the moment, when you practice mindfulness formally—this might include performing a sitting meditation or engaging in mindful breathing, mindful listening, or mindful eating—it brings that moment-to-moment awareness into your daily life. There is no one right way to do it, and mindfulness practice can be tailored to fit different lives. The importance lies in actually making the practice a regular part of your life.
For parents, practicing mindfulness doesn’t just lead to decreased stress and increased pleasure in parenting, but also brings profound benefits to kids. A University of California–Los Angeles study showed that parents who practiced mindfulness for one year were dramatically more satisfied and felt more successful as parents, even though they learned no new parenting-specific skills. Over the course of the year-long study, participants’ kids showed the effects of having more mindful parents. They didn’t fight as much with their siblings, and they were less aggressive and more sociable.
Here is an example of how mindfulness has worked for my family. It was the glorious start to summer, and I was on a hike with my six-year-old daughter, Macy. Ours was a perfect setting in the mountains of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, yet my daughter could not stop complaining that she was too tired to walk “all the way to the pond” and that she might get stung by a bee and that she had pebbles in her shoe, as well as every other grievance she could claim. It took every ounce of effort on my part not to say “screw it!” and return to the car, never to take her on a hike again. Somehow—and this didn’t come easily—I decided to try to take a more mindful approach. I told her that I needed her to help me with some of my work. This piqued her interest. What ensued amazed and inspired me.
When I talk to young kids about mindfulness I often talk about how we have all kinds of seeds in our brains: seeds of anger, sadness, jealousy, and disappointment. We also have seeds of peace and happiness. Just as in a real garden, the seeds that grow and flourish are the ones to which we pay attention. So, which seeds do you want to grow: seeds of peace and happiness or seeds of discontent? Like me, my daughter’s natural tendency is to pay attention to those seeds of discontent, so changing that took some effort.
I asked my daughter how we might be able to practice mindfulness (a concept with which she is familiar) on our hike. She answered, “We can practice it by paying attention to all the things around us right now.” We then took a seat on a rock and just listened to the sounds around us. We heard the river flowing, birds chirping, dogs running along the trail. Macy was certain she could even hear the sounds of butterfly wings!
We then decided to pay attention to all the things we could see. We noticed the details in the wildflowers that were blooming. We looked at the patterns of the veins in the petals, and we noticed that some flowers hung upside down and some opened to the sky to soak in the sun. We smelled the flowers. We noticed the aroma of the pine trees and the odor of wet dogs. We then started to search for rocks we could skip across the pond. We scoured every inch of the trail trying to find the perfect skipping stones.
By the end of our hike, not only had we walked twice as far as we originally intended, but a major shift had occurred in both our moods. Macy mentioned that she thought she had taken good care of her seeds of peace and happiness and that she could feel them growing inside her mind. While my intention had been to change her behavior and not to change my mood, I noticed how much more relaxed and peaceful I felt.
We’re lucky to have the wilderness at our doorstep, but mindfulness doesn’t have to come courtesy of a hike in the woods. Take a moment to appreciate the pattern of falling raindrops against the car window, pay attention to the slow rise and fall of your breath, or point out the rising or setting sun to your child and watch its brilliant ascent or descent together. Just as it did for Macy and me, the act of noticing will itself bring powerful and positive changes.
How to Use This Book
My hope in writing this book is to illuminate the myriad ways we live stressed lives, and pass those lives on to our children, and then tell you what you can do about it. The take-away is this: You have the power to make changes that will drastically affect your family’s stress level and overall happiness and literally set your child’s brain on a new course! With that in mind, there are several ways you can use this book.
I chose some of the most common and troublesome areas that affect our stress levels in modern times, from lack of sleep to too much screen time. While reading the book from cover to cover will give you the most complete picture and the widest variety of solutions, each subject has its own chapter, in case you need help in one area right now. I still recommend you read part 1 for a thorough grounding in the issue at hand and to get a primer on cognitive function before skipping to any of the later chapters. When we understand the brain, it empowers us and our children to recognize stress, how it impacts our minds and bodies, and to better recognize what we can do to minimize its effects.
After part 1, the book is organized into two sections. Part 2 focuses on external stressors, the things we can adjust and that are, to a greater extent, within our control. While this section does not provide instruction for a formal mindfulness practice, it is intended to help us eliminate common obstacles that prevent us from living mindful lives.
Part 3 gives a detailed introduction to the concept of mindfulness, dives deeper into the formal practice of mindfulness, and provides a guide to help you create a mindful family. It contains strategies for increasing yours and your kids’ resiliency to the stress that life inevitably presents. I’ve arranged the book so that adults seeking guidance with a certain issue—such as their kids’ getting too little sleep or too much screen time—can read through the first two chapters for an introduction to brain chemistry and then go straight to the chapter of interest. There you’ll find a clear description of what is happening in a child’s brain when she’s, say, chronically sleep deprived or in front of a computer four hours a day.
At the conclusion of every chapter (beginning with chapter 3), you will find dozens of solutions for you and your family. Where appropriate, I break the solutions down by age group. For pre-kindergartners (referred to as “young children”), for example, a better sleep routine might counterintuitively include inserting a little more creative playtime in their day. For teens, rechanneling their technology bug might take the form of having them put together playlists for the dinner hour or your commute. You may then revisit different sections as your children grow and their needs and issues shift and change. You may also want to visit the step-by-step guide to creating a mindful family, chapter 9, for solutions and mindfulness techniques that will work for all ages.
One final note: While I provide dozens of solutions in each chapter, my intention is not for you to try all of them. (That would be stressful!) Choose one or two that resonate with you and try those. When they become routine, add some more. All families are different, and the breadth of solutions is meant to accommodate a variety of needs. The idea is to find the solutions that can make a difference for your family.
Copyright © 2013 by Kristin Race, Ph.D.