Tag Archives: stress

New Experiences

Our son got plenty of warnings and reminders that we were going out to dinner last night, whether he needed them or not. We learned a long time ago that our son (now 17) was not comfortable with transitions, often throwing tantrums at the door when we needed to go. He doesn’t do that any more … but we are well-trained. What we learned, by necessity, was that it really helped to draw a map for him, sometimes quite literally, of what was coming, where we would be in a day, or a week, and how we would get there.

Some children can change direction and speed at the drop of a hat, eagerly trying something new, and following their parents with no problem. Others settle into a place and have a mental day-planner carefully laid out (even if the only thing on the schedule is “Keep reading this comic book until I don’t want to anymore”). But all children face new experiences daily and can be easily intimidated by things that adults take for granted.

During the months of May and June, young children are hearing lots about transitions and summer plans that may be exciting and fun for parents but have no meaning for them, because they have no context for new words or new experiences. “You’re graduating!” “Next year you get to go to big kids’ school!” “We’re going to Disneyland this summer!”

By Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For parents, these all seem like good things, but children can be stressed by the sudden change in routine, the pressure of expectations, and the threat of the unknown. And actually, maybe they know more than we think they do. ‘Big kid’s school’ might sound scary until they learn that they are in fact going to be one of the ‘big kids’ and that’s why they are changing schools! And, while Disneyland might seem like a kid’s dream vacation, your child might only be thinking about the terrifying things in the forest that had to be faced before happily ever after (remember, Disney movies can be scary, so why would a child assume that Disney land is fun?). Sometimes we adults simply use new words without explanation (“graduation”, “celebration”, “vacation”, “camp”) and children generally don’t raise their hands to ask for a definition. We get to provide the definitions, and the map of what to expect. And we might have to do it more than once.

Parents can help children understand that they get to bring familiar things with them into new experiences. “There will be kids your age with you,” “you’ll bring your favorite lunch box,” “we will all be together,” “you can do this”. Dave is 48 and working on his second master’s degree, and he still gets stressed thinking about next year’s classes! Sure, he’s old enough to remind himself that when he gets there, he will have what he needs to face new challenges. But it can be very helpful to remind students (of any age), “You can do it! You have what you need to do well!”

Parents will want to remember that life can feel a lot like the forest in a Disney movie, full of mysteries and shadowy threats. We can make the journey much less stressful by helping children understand what to expect and by walking with them through new places, holding their hands and laying bread crumbs along the way. Sure there are times when our little heroes and heroines have to face things alone, but we adults are the ones who teach a child hope and trust by leading them gently into new experiences so that they learn that they can handle new things on their own.

[This post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

Scary Movies

Last weekend, we went to see Godzilla. We were excited for the afternoon date and the mindless entertainment (mindless, because we don’t have to take monster movies seriously even when they try to make a deeper point about the folly of humanity’s self-destructive love affair with advanced weaponry and technology, and attendant disregard for the delicate balance of our natural environment. Mindless fun!).


Our fun day at the movies was almost ruined however by the appearance of an entire family a few chairs over. And by family, we mean mother, father, and three very young children (aged, we guess, 8, 4, and 1). We cringed and gritted our teeth.

We were not worried about noise, although we expected it. We aren’t the kinds of people who don’t like flying or eating in restaurants with kids. We think kids are noisy and there you have it. Kids trapped indoors are perfectly free to vocalize and act out in our opinion. While it can be hard to be trapped indoors with them, we sympathize with parents who do not always have choices when they need to travel somewhere or do something difficult with kids in tow.

No, what was threatening our calm was wondering how anyone could think it was a good idea to voluntarily sit in a dark room filled with images of death and the sounds of screams and destruction with children too young to know that what they are seeing and hearing isn’t really happening.

A couple years ago, Dave took our teenage son to see Looper, a smart but very violent movie. A similarly-aged family sat behind them, and the kids, one of whom was a toddler, were not so happy to be there, and fussed and cried. The parents tried to keep them quiet (another blow—let’s put small children in a noisy, scary, dark, and constraining environment and then make them behave quietly and respectfully so that we can enjoy ourselves) and they were sort of successful. But after multiple grisly killings, Dave couldn’t stand it and turned to appeal to the father, saying, ‘This is not a good movie for your kids. It’s too violent, too scary. I don’t think they should be here!’ The father, whose English wasn’t great, apologized and seemed to think that the complaint was about the noise. They left shortly after.

This raises questions. Are parents dragging the whole family to movies because a) they think that the risk of permanent psychological scarring is outweighed by the chance to share popcorn together during a fun family outing, b) they are intentionally desensitizing their children to media violence and sex through exposure, c) they can’t afford a babysitter, or d) they lack the education or knowledge to make a wise decision?

One way or another, there are cultural differences here. We think differently than the people who would take their kids to see movies with mature themes. Maybe they were raised this way. Maybe they are thinking it through and actively making choices. Maybe our position is a position that we can afford to take.

But before we talk ourselves out of being horrified, or assume that parents should just do what feels right for their family, it’s not a bad idea to take a step back and maybe check in with someone who thinks about these things for a living.

A good starting resource is Common Sense Media, a collection of media reviews for families. On this site you’ll see a breakdown of a movie’s content in categories such as violence, sex, language, drug use, etc.. These come along with ratings by the editors, by parents, and by kids. What do the kids think about Godzilla? They rate Godzilla appropriate only for ages 11 and up.

We’re not talking here about violence in society. The editors rightly point out that the research on media violence begetting violence is not very conclusive, and most commentary on kids and violence is fraught with anxieties related to infrequent but high-visibiltiy crimes by youths. It’s too hard to say what the impact of media is in such matters when many factors come into play. But it’s clear that violence (including images of violence for the very young who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality) causes stress and stress causes a reaction (which in the very young can be impossible to talk out). At the very least, learn from your child’s ability to talk about stressful issues. If they can articulate their feelings, or tell you how they feel, then you can reflect together on something you’ve watched. But if they are not verbal enough to understand or communicate an issue of violence, then don’t expose them to it.

With our kids we really tried to learn from them what their threshold for discomfort was. Our daughter was far more bothered by intense images than her younger brother was, and in the beginning we had to judge whether a Disney movie was too scary (and when our kids were very young, they were!). We tried not to put her in a situation where she’d be exposed to something she was uncomfortable with. We remember her first movie in the theater was almost a non starter because the previews were so loud and intense—she and mom went into the lobby to wait them out. Once the feature started she was fine. Remember what it was like when you were young, listen to the experts, and don’t be in a hurry.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

On Celebrations

When families participate in important events, kids can be a real wild card. We’ve seen that the likelihood of a meltdown is proportional to the importance of the event. This is not a plot! It’s not the fault of the children. In fact, when there’s a high level of anticipation and expectation, adults communicate stress, often without being aware. When we’re anxious about something, kids pick up on it, and they often internalize the anxiety. Just think about the emotional turmoil that surrounds a birthday, for example: most of the energy is positive, of course, but it’s stressful nonetheless. These can be hard events for kids: since they don’t have the tools to manage their feelings like adults (hopefully) do, their young-but-powerful emotions erupt in ways that can be, shall we say, counterproductive.

You might think that kids should naturally love the parties we throw for them. But graduations, birthdays, mitzvahs and other celebrations often become opportunities for adults to ‘put on a show’ for ourselves, forgetting who the event is for. We invest a lot into these events, we stress about the success we hope for, and young kids feel the strain.

To help young children survive events that are meant for their benefit, here’s a few tips:

  • Remember that these events are supposed to be a blessing for the child, not for us (Simple, but it has to be said).
  • Help your young child know what to expect (“We will do X for a little bit, then we’ll do Y, and then we’ll be all done!”).
  • Give choices whenever possible (“Do you want to sit next to your aunt or next to Dad?”; “What would you like to eat first?” … “Dessert!” is an acceptable answer on certain occasions).
  • Consider their threshold for public humiliation (“You look SOOOO cute in that suit!”) and honor them without embarrassing them.
  • Direct their attention to keep their mind off their own discomfort (“Watch your sister practicing her dance moves”).
  • Don’t compare a child to others (“Look how that little boy is sitting quietly”), rather catch them doing their best and acknowledge their efforts (“Sitting still is so hard, but you’re becoming a real patient kid!”)
  • Be determined to focus your energies on enjoying your child (rather than on the success of the event), and they will feel more special and less stressed.

Keep a sense of humor while dressing up and celebrating your child, and the likelihood grows that you will all take good memories from these special events.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog