As we come into the Christmas season and all the extra demands it brings, I thought it would a good time to look at what stress does to us so that we, in turn, can understand what stress does to our children.
Our body is a magnificent design. Last week we looked at the actual hormonal result for our children when we hug them, use encouraging words or play with them: It releases oxytocin in the brain, which leads to calm and contentment for them. It’s helpful to know that we have such a powerful weapon in our armoury because it’s a good counter to some of the stresses in their little (or big) lives.
Our children live in a busy world and they have more choices than any previous generation. This can be stressful for them. When our children are anxious their brain produces a hormone called cortisol to help them respond to difficult or threatening situations. Cortisol enables their body to release energy so they can:
Rise up and fight
It does this by flooding the muscles with glucose.
Their heart races
It’s a fabulous invention. It can even by life saving.
However, it’s intended for high stress moments, not as a way of life.
My colleague, Caroline Kelly, is a counsellor to teenagers. She has noticed in the last few years the surge in stress levels of young people, and notes “When the mind is constantly stressed it leads to the over production of cortisol. Whilst it is there to boost a person in times of need, a continual stream into the system seriously impacts health. Our children need time to relax so that cortisol can leave the body again after a stressful experience.”
As we come up to the Christmas holidays it can be helpful to think not only of all the things we need to do and the people we need to see, but also to consider making space to do nothing.
In this busy world it’s easy to lose the art of down time. If we fill all their gaps with socialising, activities and shopping and then resolve any boredom with gaming (or for the older ones, social media), the mind doesn’t get the rest it needs from busyness, from the outside world. It gets trapped in a cycle and that can be like leaving a cortisol tap permanently on.
This makes it harder for them to learn how to relax and switch off, which in turn impacts their sleep and general wellbeing. That impacts their relationships and general development and in the long term leaves them susceptible to burnout, depression and ill health.
They will learn in their formative years from us whether there is a value on rest. Sometimes it’s good to consider what we’re modelling. We’re often so good at ensuring that we send them into life with all the skills and tools they’ll need to work and play, but we can also show them the value of rest.
The armchair's waiting!