Being a parent is one of the most magnificent things you can experience in life but, coupled with all of life’s other demands, it can also be relentless and stressful. Renowned Psychologist, Maria Ruberto, explains what stress is and how to beat it.
What is stress?
All humans experience stress and we all need a small or moderate amount of it to enable us to get the job done. Stress allows us to focus and pull our resources together to be productive. If we are “flat” where our stress energy levels are too low, we are likely to be unproductive.
Although stress is a part of life, our ability to adapt has its limits. Constant high levels of stress have significant impacts on our health. Stress affects our brain’s capacity to operate properly, which then can interfere with the development of relational interactions and learning. The brain prefers calm and consistency.
Safe-guarding your child against stress
Building an intimate and safe rapport with your child in the early years is vital as this acts as protection against mental ill-health in the longer term. Your child can only know who they are by what is reflected back to them.
For example, if we approach our child with continuous frustration, then the child learns they are frustrating; but if we approach our child with continuous touch and affection and recognition, then the child learns they are loved. This makes all the difference to how the brain develops resilience around stress.
I’m not talking about NEVER being frustrated – of course this is not normal. As parents, and as humans, we all experience a range of emotions and it is important that your child can experience all these too. However, if the child experiences ongoing patterns of negative, distant, detached or inconsistent environments, then the brain sets itself up to be sensitive to stress and respond to it as a default position.
Language is critical
The antidote to stress is quite simple: cuddles, play, laughter, recognition. Focus on your child’s strengths rather than identifying them through their deficits.
Tell your child that you can:
- See them, “I can see you are playing calmly”
- Hear them, “I can hear your beautiful words”
- Feel them. “I can feel your warm hands”
These moments of resonance with your child builds their trust and internal coping systems, so that when we do lose the plot on occasion, they [and we] are able to recover and bounce back confidently.
Strategies to beat stress
- Smile. When you smile you release endorphins in your body which nourish your brain cells. Most importantly, when you smile, your child will mirror you and receive all the lovely benefits a simple smile can give.
- Speak gently. I don’t mean quietly, I mean respectfully. Children become what you say, not what you think. Your language and the tone with which children are invited to connect to, will then reflect their self-worth.
- Feel emotion. Speak emotion. Show emotion. Speak emotionally, describe your child’s world with emotion. Demonstrate emotions and name them as you are using them.
- Teach nutrition. Teach slow, mindful eating. Teach your child how to grow vegetables. Teach conservation. Teach an appreciation of where food comes from. Our society can disconnect from this process, and children can disconnect from their eating experiences.
- Promote healthy sleep. There is not enough space for me to emphasise the critical importance of sleep on the health of the brain and it’s development. Be consistent with sleep as much as possible, but don’t let it interfere with your social life either.
- Laugh with your child. Laugh with yourself. Laugh with others. Connecting with other people in positive ways and expanding your child’s social connections will be the neural building blocks in brain that enable them to reach out, connect and live wonderfully fulfilling lives.
Maria is a psychologist with over 15 years of clinical and industry experience and the founder and director of Salutegenics Psychology.