I gave a lot of thought to kids and stress after my interview with Dr. Stuart Shanker that aired earlier this week, especially his insights related to misbehavior versus stress behavior. Kids of all ages really seem to be stressed out these days and as adults, I think we do tend to judge them as misbehaving. I’ve heard many people say that children are just little adults, which implies that they have the same mental and emotional capacity as grown-ups, which just isn’t true.
Our brain functions are forming and developing from before birth through about age 25. When we expect a teenager to be rational, like an adult, it’s just not possible. So instead of thinking of them as bad kids, perhaps it’s time to recognize that we’re expecting something from them that they simply cannot give. Think about how we’ve structured our society in this context. The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25, yet we expect them to make rational decisions about college, jobs, driving a vehicle, drinking alcohol, and voting as early as seven years before their brains are fully capable of doing so.
Recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently, with adults thinking with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This part of the brain responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain. This is where the fight/flight/freeze response is housed and which causes us to react versus respond.
The connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing in teens and not always at the same rate. When a teen makes a bad decision or responds with an “I don’t know why I did that” to a poor choice they made, it’s because they’re experiencing overwhelming emotional input, not because they’re necessarily misbehaving. They simply don’t think as much as they feel.
I’m not saying kids don’t misbehave because they certainly can. Kids are smart and figure out many clever ways to get what they want. But when we see a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum or a teenager pouting, shrugging off reprimands or simply appearing to ignore us, it’s important to remember that it’s quite possibly a matter of brain function, not intentional, diabolical behavior.
Stuart’s research included in his latest book, Reframed, is a fascinating look into the brain development of children. He discusses the major increase in stress on kids, which I find alarming frankly, because adults are also experiencing increased stress which could result in not paying attention to our children’s mental development, being too distracted with everything from our work to our own devices.
Stuart includes the signs and signals parents can look for to determine whether a child’s behavior is misbehavior or stress behavior. In the case of misbehavior, children have trouble looking you in the eyes or they adopt what Stuart calls a mask-like visage to conceal any leakage. He also says they tend to speak too much or not enough, they change the topic or go into too much detail and they may physically draw away or create a barrier, like crossing their arms.
He states that the signs of stress-behavior are glaring, provided that you listen with your eyes and ears, as well as your gut. The voice becomes higher-pitched and strained, speech rhythms may be harsh and jarring and in the case of teens, the statement may be a repeated, “I don’t care.” It’s not so much an act of defiance, but from feeling paralyzed because of being constrained as their brain can’t pause and reflect fast enough or because the teen can’t sequence thoughts in that moment. Mindfulness can help parents learn to tune into these differences and respond more appropriately to what’s going on with their children’s behavior.
One of the areas we talked about is mindfulness for kids. This is so important because they don’t have the tools to self-regulate unless we teach them. Stuart shared that he realized that if he was able to teach a child on the autistic spectrum to self-regulate, he could teach anyone and I think that’s the important point here. As witnessed by most of us, many adults can’t self-regulate these days, which is a terrible model for our children in addition to being harmful for our own self-care as well as society as a whole. So, this could be an opportunity in many households for everyone to learn together.
Teaching children mindfulness gives them the tools they need not only to self-regulate, but to build confidence and relate to challenges and uncomfortable moments. The earlier we teach them, the greater the opportunity for them to cultivate resilience and enhance their abilities to pay attention and remember information, task switch, and behave appropriately with others.
Studies show that the benefits of mindfulness for children may include increased focus, self-control, classroom participation and compassion. They also found that mindfulness improved academic performance and increased ability to resolve conflicts. Finally, there were decreased levels of stress, depression, anxiety and disruptive behaviors in children who practiced mindfulness compared to those who didn’t. So we’re really talking about increasing children’s overall well-being and habits that learned young will serve them over the rest of their lifetimes.
You can start with something as simple as exercises that encourage young kids to tune into their senses. Make games out of eating slowly and seeing how many smells, textures or tastes they can identify or have them focus on a pet and talk about all of the different feelings that come up when they stroke or play with the animal. Encourage gratitude, asking them to find three good things that happened during their day, perhaps during dinner time. It’s important to let children know that these activities are not to pretend that they don’t have upsets or that events don’t make them sad or angry. The goal is to help them learn that we can feel two things at once, grateful for good things while experiencing disappointments over other things.
Breathing exercises are an excellent way to introduce mindfulness meditation to even very young children. Show them how to breathe in through their nose and then slowly release the air through their pursed lips. Breathe with them, helping them get into the rhythm and reminding them each time they get upset to do their breathing. Once they’ve calmed their system down, it’s much easier to work through whatever the upset is about and of course, they’ll learn to do the breathwork even when you’re not with them over time.
Another technique with young children is to ask them to let you know how upset they are. Since small children can’t relate to something like “on a scale from 0 to 10, how upset are you?” instead, use your hands. Place your hands in the prayer position and then pull your hands slightly apart and ask, are you this mad? Keep spreading your hands further apart and ask again until they agree that you’re representing how mad they feel. Depending on the age, they’ll learn to show you themselves with their own hands. What this simple technique is doing is actually profound. You’re teaching them to explore their feelings, to check in, to be self-aware. A side benefit is that as they switch from pure emotion to cognitive recognition, they calm down.
With older kids and teens, you can use conversations, but it’s important to check in with yourself first. Are you automatically judging the child’s behavior as bad versus stress behavior? There’s nothing wrong with discussing the consequences of their actions, but you want to make sure that your intentions are to help your child develop, not punish them during these talks. As for stress and self-regulation, you can teach older kids many breath techniques to use as well as modeling mindful behavior yourself. You can also learn moving meditations together, such as yoga or T’ai Chi that will not only help them self-regulate but can build long-lasting bonds in your relationship with them.
Our brain functions may develop by the time we’re 25 but that doesn’t mean our brains don’t continue to learn, adapt and change over the rest of our lives. If we make mindfulness practices as normal as brushing our teeth in our homes, we’re not only supporting our children’s well-being, we’re improving our own. That’s something we’re all in need of these days, so why not plant the seed and watch how it grows throughout our world over time.