Turning Down The Hose: 4 Questions that Help Children Navigate Stress

Posted by Deborah Farmer Kris on Jan 9, 2020 1:20:08 PM

A few weeks ago, I found myself locked in a power struggle with a five-year-old. I think it involved a Lego explosion in his room. I know it involved angry voices. 

After a few minutes of rising drama, the older sister came over and whispered in my ear, “Mom, I think he’s just tired and hangry -- try giving him a snack.” She could have added, “You probably need one, too.”  

She was right. After a snack break, somehow the clean-up job wasn’t quite so onerous. 

Stress is a normal part of life, but we don’t always react well when our brain is on high alert. In the moment, stress can feel like taking a firehose to the face: it’s hard to think clearly and act reasonably.

I recently built an acronym both for my kids and for the teenagers I teach -- four questions they can ask themselves when they feel their mood dip or their anxiety rise. 

These four questions can help all of us turn down the HOSE and respond to stress with a little more wisdom.

H: Am I hungry?

O: Am I overstimulated?

S: Do I need to sleep?

E: Do I need to exercise?

Canva - Puppy Playing with Garden Hose (1)

H: Am I hungry?

Hunger affects mood. When we haven’t eaten for a while, our blood sugar dips, and this triggers the release of hormones to “raise and rebalance” blood sugar levels. These hormones include cortisol and adrenaline -- the same ones that are released during a stress response. 

According to Dr. Christine Lee of the Cleveland Clinic, “The release of cortisol can cause aggression in some people. Also, low blood sugar may interfere with higher brain functions, such as those that help us control impulses and regulate our primitive drives and behavior.” 

Researchers have even found that judges are less likely to grant parole when they are hungry. 

So if you find that your emotional regulation wanes at predictable times of day -- like the mid-afternoon -- experiment with eating a healthy snack and making time for a mindful check-in with your body.

 

O: Am I overstimulated?

It turns out that our brains can’t be on focus mode all of the time, and there is only so much stimulus we can take in at once. While we all can benefit from quiet time to recharge, introverts can be particularly sensitive to external stimuli. Mental downtime -- or “diffuse mode” -- helps the brain process the events of the day and boosts creativity. Daydreaming is good for you.

A word of caution: often we turn to electronics for down-time, but usually this is just another form of stimulation. Instead of focusing on bills and homework, we are focusing on a game or video. While pleasurable, these activities don’t make space for quiet reflecting and recharging.

So if you feel yourself on “overload,” ask yourself if you can take ten minutes to step away . . . and to jog around the block, take a warm shower, meditate or pray, engage in focused breathing, drink a cup of tea, snuggle with a pet, or sit in nature. 

 

S: Do I need to sleep?

“Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together,” says Dr. Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist. When we are sleep-deprived, we are less emotionally resilient. Sleep keeps the amygdala working properly — that’s the part of the brain that helps control our emotional responses, including fear, anger and anxiety. 

When I asked middle school students how they finished the sentence “When I don’t get enough sleep…” here were some of their responses:

  • It’s hard to focus in class; I can’t concentrate; I can’t think clearly.
  • My body starts to feel heavy; I get headaches; I feel clumsy.
  • I get so grumpy; my head spins with negative thoughts; I yell or cry for no reason; I am more sensitive; I’m impatient; my emotions are just out of whack.

Or, as one girl, summarized, “When I don’t get enough sleep, everything is harder.” 

So when you feel anger or frustration rising, one question worth asking yourself is, “Did I get enough sleep last night? If not, could that be affecting how I see this situation?” 

Even if you can’t take a nap on the spot, this awareness might be enough to prompt you take a few deep breaths and find other ways to settle the stress response. (Click here to read more about teens and sleep.)

 

E: Do I need to exercise?

We often talk about exercise as something that is good for the heart or the waistline. But that’s a limited perspective. Neuropsychologist Wendy Suzuki argues that exercise is the most transformational thing you can do for your brain because exercise boosts mood and improves focus, memory, and cognition. 

As she shared with me in this interview,

"When [kids] run around, their brains are getting a bubble bath of good neurochemicals, neurotransmitters and endorphins . . . Adults need this, too. Even though it takes time from your workday, it will give you back time. You will be more productive if you take that time off.  Even if it’s just a walk up and down the stairs or a walk around the block. That is a surefire way to make your work more productive. It’s how humans were built. We were not built to sit in front of a screen all day long. Our bodies and brains work better with regular movement. It’s better than coffee.”

These four quick “check-in” questions can help us mindfully manage our emotional reactions (instead of letting them manage us). These questions do not minimize the very real responsibilities, worries, and stresses that we face in our lives. Rather they help us notice our reactions -- without getting stuck in them -- and then make choices that are consistent with our better selves. 

From LEGO explosions to school pressures to family tension, sometimes we all need a nap and a snack to think more clearly. 

 

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