This is Part 2 of a collection of posts used to write my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater
Several months ago Big A started going into her brother’s room to jump on his bed. She eventually started referring to it as her morning jumping, afternoon jumping, and nighttime jumping. Apparently, his bed was bouncier than hers.
But when we discovered what happened as a result of this jumping, a hole in the mattress, we ordered her to stop. The very next day she was in tears because she missed her jumping so much. We found a solution so she could keep jumping, but we also realized how this activity had become her way of self-regulating and dealing with daily stressors.
I know that to write a book on teaching kids moderation the topic of self-regulation needs to be examined. Children who cannot self-regulate are more likely to use unhealthy habits to cope with stress. I recently chatted with Dr. Stuart Shanker, self-regulation expert, CEO of the MEHRIT Centre and author of Calm, Alert and Learning. It was a pleasure to pick his brain and I learned a lot about a topic every parent should know about.
A stressed-out generation
People tend to think of stress as major events that cause hardship. While this can and does happen, looking at stress as “out-of-the-norm” events mean parents miss it not only in their children, but in their own lives. Dr. Shanker defines stress as anything that triggers a response in the brain that requires energy. In other words, every stressor a child is faced with takes up a certain amount of energy. Potential stressors might be physiological, emotional, cognitive, social, or prosocial according to Dr. Shanker. But all children react differently to life events. What causes stress in one child may not in another.
Let’s take a child who has attention issues in school. This boy, let’s call Sam, expends a tremendous amount of energy to sit and focus all day, while his neighbour next door requires much less energy to do this same task. Because much of Sam’s energy is going into sitting still and being quiet, he runs out of energy to control his impulses and gets in trouble, which only adds to his stress.
For another child, too many structured activities can be a stressor. When my daughter was seven, she tried several activities at one time and the result was not pretty (she had activities four days a week after school). She was irritable and angry much of the time, and her joy in those activities started to lessen. We eventually backed off and only had her in one, two at the most, outside-of-school activities.
While some stress is good, stress overload has been linked to excess weight and adverse eating habits. This is because the body reacts to stress with hormonal, metabolic and neural changes that can drive food intake. Although more research is needed, chronic stress has the potential to derail good eating habits in certain individuals. Not only that, it negatively affects overall health and well being.
The good news is the research is showing there’s much that can be done to help kids and parents. And it starts with learning self-regulation skills.
Dr. Shanker says that while there are over 400 definitions for self-regulation, he likes to use the original definition from the 1930s: “how effectively we deal with stress and recover from it.” He says how well we recover from these situations is key.
The Canadian government is serious about tackling the problem of childhood stress. Dr. Shanker has received 10 million dollars in grant money to test out self-regulation in schools. The money was designed for a two-part initiation: a study and small scale initiative. The study was so successful, the initiative quickly expanded to a wider range of schools. It is now being used in many parts of the world and he is hopeful that will soon include the U.S.
“There is lots of data that we have highest stressed generation than we have ever seen,” says Dr. Shanker. “Many of the stressors are hidden so parents miss it.” He hits on sugar as a hidden stressor or sign that kids may not be regulating themselves well. In one of his studies, working with kids on self-regulation strategies, he found they once they learned to self-regulate, they began choosing fruit over sugary snacks. “Not from us telling them, the brain naturally wants quality food when it’s not stressed.”
According to Dr. Shanker’s PDF Calm, Alert and Happy signs a child is over-stressed include trouble paying attention, difficulty doing simple tasks, acting crabby in the morning, feeling unhappy during the day, being argumentative, getting angry a lot (this can turn violent in some children), acting highly impulsive, becoming easily distracted, having difficulty tolerating frustration and experiencing difficulty going to bed or turning off the television/video game.
How to Teach Self Regulation
We tend to look at self-control as a strength or weakness. And if it’s a perceived weakness in children, parents and teachers try to drive it into kids using rewards and punishments, which Dr. Shanker says doesn’t work.
He explains why by bringing up that classic Harvard study called the “marshmallow test.” In this study, researchers tell a group of four-year-olds they could have one marshmallow now or wait and get two later. The kids who waited, showing more self-control, ended up being much more successful later as adults. Dr. Shanker argues that kids who have trouble with self-control, aren’t weaker at all, they simply are using up too much of their mental energy dealing with stressors. If these kids can become self-regulated, they would exhibit self-control like their less-stressed peers.
Self-regulation begins with reframing a child’s behaviour from “this is bad, I need to punish” to understanding why they are acting out. There’s a big difference between a stress behaviour and a misbehaviour. So if a child is having trouble paying attention, ignoring distracters, inhibiting impulses, controlling emotions and just not being able to stay in a calm and alert state, the potential stressors needed to be looked at.
Common stressors include family life disturbances, lack of communities, loss of parent and child connection, overexposure to screens, too little exercise, poor sleep and diets, noise, clutter, over-stimulation at school and highly structured days without enough free play.
When you identify a stressor, you can work to decrease it or help the child manage it better. I know my son has trouble with noise so we keep a quiet house, especially during homework. And too many structured activities, in addition to school, stresses my daughter out so I make an effort for free play with other kids or just going to the park. And to be honest, sometimes I sense my kids need more one-on-one time with me or their dad when they seem to be off.
The trifecta of self-care is vital to self-regulation: sleep, a balanced diet, and physical activity. Parents need to work hard to keep these a priority and help children learn these self-care skills as they get older. A well-rested and fed child that is active will always self regulate better than a child constantly missing out on one or more of these healthy behaviours.
Dr. Shanker says it’s important to help kids understand what it feels like to be in a calm and alert state versus hypo or hyper-alert. Some children have become used to having their engine running very fast, so this can take work for them to notice when they are feeling just right. According to Calm, Alert and Happy:
When children are calmly focused and alert, they are best able to modulate their emotions; pay attention; ignore distractions; inhibit their impulses; assess the consequences of an action; understand what others are thinking and feeling, and the effects of their own behaviours; or feel empathy for others.
Lastly, you want to help kids understand how to get back to a calm focused and alert state when their engine is running too fast or slow. It might be art, jumping (like my daughter), sports, free play, music or reading. It will be different for each child.
It starts with parents
When I asked Dr. Shanker about the role parents play, he said it’s imperative we go through this process first, so we can better help our kids. “Parents don’t self regulate either,” he says. “In fact, we are a dysregulated society!” He explains that kids pick up on their parent’s body language and self-regulation habits. In his upcoming book, Self Reg, he spells out how both parents and children can learn self-regulation skills.
This really got my thinking about how well I self regulate. I definitely rely on exercise to keep me calm and my sleep and diet are top priorities, too. But I also notice that clutter, too much computer time (especially at night), over-committing and not sharing my worries with others are hidden stressors for me.
So if you want to get a healthy child, in addition to getting feeding right, you need to help them (and yourself) with this thing called self-regulation. It might just change your family’s life.
How is stress affecting your family? Any stories to share?