Stress Reduction for Parents and Children

“We carry within us that for which we search outside.” (William James) James revelation is not new, and few of us will deny its truth. It has been stated throughout the ages and in all cultures even up to the modern familiarity “mind over matter.” Yet, our modern world offers a beguiling assortment of quick cures and we often get sidetracked from the inward pursuit of peace, health, love and beauty. This is a world where migraines, frustration and stress are often the order of the day.

Coping with stress may seem like a losing battle – one that ravages our health; leads to premature aging, and disappoints the spirit. Whatever benefits stress may once have offered have mostly disappeared. Primitive man relied on his body’s stress system to gear up for “flight or fight” when he was threatened. His adrenal system started pumping furiously and he used every bit of the magical substance to save his hide. (Selye, 1956, page 79). But today’s anxieties are different – modern man deals mostly with emotional stresses instead of the physical ones, although his body cannot discern the difference. And social protocol makes it inappropriate to fight or run away from worrisome circumstances. So while the adrenal system keeps on pumping for our lives, our minds instruct us “to keep cool.” The effect of such a command can be devastating, if not lethal.

Physicians tell us that most people can actually trace major illness to major stresses in their lives, such as financial woes, the death of a loved one or divorce. These events are usually beyond a person’s control and in there lies the rub. Children, especially, feel out of control without the capacity or experience to reach for coping skills. Parenting in its own form can be very stress-producing, but there is a great opportunity here for parents to partner with their children as they both discover ways to reduce stress. Ultimately, if parents and children alike can learn to self-manage stress, and, therefore, become proactive instead of reactive, they will also become self-actualized. And by learning self-value, children and parents can both learn to value one another. This is a win/win situation that will not only reduce stress, but enhance thinking capacity. Stress is not an invisible enemy. It reveals itself in our health in general, in our eyes, hair, stance and even skin, including some types of teenage acne.

Yet, it is not stress itself that is destructive, but the way we respond to it. Some people lead heavily burdened lives, yet find that life’s challenges spur creativity and ultimate satisfaction. Others fall apart at the slightest provocation, regarding life as a joyless truth. This is true for both parents and children. There is a way out of this dilemma, and it is “old age” rather than “new age” For we can reach into ancient wisdom and modify relaxation techniques and stress management strategies for the 21st century.

Technique 1 – Physical Exercise
Before we begin a mental relaxation technique, it is often necessary to relax the body. Fifteen minutes of physical exercise, whether it is walking thoughtfully, paying attention to our breathing while we walk; staying focused and in tune with our body; or traditional relaxation exercises such as Yoga, Chi Gong, Tai Chi, etc. will take the edge off and settle the body down. There is also an added advantage to this kind of physical stress-reducer in that is it balances our bodies as it puts us in touch with our physical self in a very focused way. Ultimately, we realize that our body is our instrument, and we can learn to balance it and to integrate it with our minds. This is a form of meditation that leads to self-empowered responses to all kinds of situations, as it uses physical and emotional action as a way to deal with stress.

Technique 2 – Progressive Relaxation
Progressive Relaxation is an isometric exercise approach to reducing stress in the body. Play an audio tape or CD of any kind of restful music – in particular baroque music is effective for relaxation such as Bach’s “Air in G.” Play it continually through the progressive relaxation, deep breathing and meditation strategies. Next lie down on a mat on the floor on your backs, with your eyes closed and your hands at your sides with your palms up and your feet a foot apart. Now begin at your toes and mentally say to your toes, “relax” as you tense and release them 3 times. Then move to your legs, and repeat the isometric squeeze and release as you think to yourself the word “relax.” Then move to your thighs, once again repeating the isometric tense and release 3 times as you say to yourself, “relax.” Move all the way up the body until you get to the top of your head repeating the isometric squeeze and release, through the buttocks, stomach, chest, the arms, hands, the neck, the face and the head – while each time repeating to yourself, “relax.” Now check in with your body – are your feet relaxed, your legs relaxed, your thighs relaxed, your buttocks relaxed, your stomach relaxed, your chest relaxed, your arms and hands relaxed, your neck relaxed, your face relaxed, your head relaxed? Then tell your body once again to “relax”, as you begin to follow your breathing.

Technique 3 – Breathing
If you watch an infant breathe it is their stomachs that move with each breath. This is what you will notice about yourself as you stay on the mat, eyes closed, hands at your side, feet a foot apart, as you just simply follow your breath upon completing progressive relaxation. Now pay attention to your breath. Notice that when you breath in, the air is cool on your nostrils and when you breath out, the air is warm on your nostrils. For a few moments just follow that breath, noticing the cool air coming in and the warm air going out. Next, breathe out to the count of 3. Then, breathe in to the count of 3. Hold your breath, then breathe out to the count of 3. Repeat this for about a minute. Now on the out-breath, say to yourself the word, “relax” as you breathe out to the count of 3; then breathe in to the count of 3; hold your breath and breathe out to the count of 3, while saying the word, “relax.” Do this for 3 minutes. You will notice how shallow your breathing becomes as you move deeper into relaxation. Then let the breath go completely and just focus on the word, “relax” while mentally following your breath. Do this for 5 minutes. The body and the breath are your instruments, and you can call upon these breathing techniques anytime you feel stressed.

Technique 4 – Meditation
Continue breathing still listening to restful music while lying on your back with your eyes closed. Now let go of your breath completely and just think of the word “relax” as you see it in your mind’s eye, focusing on each of the out-breaths on the word “relax.” Do this for 10 minutes. This is meditation.

These techniques are meant to be used together – one to prepare for the next, as they build one on top of the other to take you more deeply into yourself. This is the real you, this peaceful state of relaxation and you can get to it anytime you wish. The entire process takes about 30 minutes. You may say, I don’t have 30 minutes and that is how you know you really need these techniques. Now, make time and space for yourself that is your own – even if it is a closet that gives you privacy for these private moments. Do them everyday – preferably twice a day. The greatest journey you will ever take, Aristotle stated, is the “interior trip.” In fact, he called it “interiorism”.

If you do these techniques with your children each day, they become a consistent part of your family time together. At the very beginning of the day is the perfect time and once again at the end of the day. This connects the family in a very intimate way, and brings you back to your own inner source together. Consistent practice really does make perfect, and the benefits of progressive relaxation, breathing and meditation are great. They reduce your blood pressure, lower your heart rate, reduce stress, increase health, and allow you to use more of your mental capacity. And children notice that these techniques enhance learning.

There are other things to do as a family for stress reduction.

Technique 5 – The Empathic Process
Listen to your family and ask them to listen to you. Meet together each day for a 10-minute conversation; preferably after your relaxation techniques where you listen to each other’s feelings with empathy and as a family, try to problem-solve while investing each member in the process. Do this in a neutral place such as the kitchen table where nurturing happens and alchemy. The kitchen is the heart of the house where cooking occurs and things are transformed. Don’t have family conversations in anyone’s power place or domain – no bedrooms, no studies, no offices. Take time to turn off phones and television. You are not an appliance, and you can turn off. Simplify your life by simplifying your relationships. Be authentic, be trustworthy, be reliable. Your mate and your children want to be able to count on you to be in their court no matter what. Children and parents really need the same things. They need their needs met; they need to be nurtured; and they need to be able to count on one another.

Mutual relationships work the best and reduce stress by opening the heart rather than contracting against it. Try not to be perfect and you won’t have to ask for perfection. Relationships are more important than things. Find a structure that works for your family and invest your whole family in the creation of that structure so there are rewards, consequences and boundaries. Boundaries are a built-in way to reduce stress. Think of nutrition, and remove all stimulants such as caffeine, and all mood changing drugs. Get a lot of rest and make sure your children have a set bedtime and study time schedule. Equally important is playtime for you and your children. Learn to say “no” for both your children and yourself. Too many activities can be very stressful. Children usually prefer less activities and more parent time. Be flexible.

People that walk through life most successfully do so by learning how to adapt to their environment. Stay in the “now.” Be present, and don’t worry about tomorrow. This can inoculate you against undo anxiety – a great cause of illness. Take time “in” rather than time “out.” Go back to basics, to your roots, to your family. This will give you a sense of control and an optimistic approach to life for you and your children. Finally, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves occasionally of what is really important – to meditate, to enjoy the beauty around us and within us.