Healthy Body, Healthy Brain: Creative Ways to Help Kids Combat Stress

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Eckhart Tolle, the spiritual teacher and writer on personal growth and happiness, is my homeboy, and I like to think he lives in my head. I forget he lives there far too often, but when I remember—when I hear him whispering, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it”—I’m calmer, more attentive to good and most definitely a better mother. “Don’t engage that thought,” I remind myself when edginess or anxiety or that haunting suspicion that I overall suck at life comes sneaking in. “Let it pass through; it’s just a thought until you entertain it.” I still get edgy, I still feel anxious sometimes, I still make choices that aren’t always the best for my mental health. But self-awareness and a good handful of mindful mantras—be it Eckhart Tolle’s words or my own—have been incredibly helpful for me to feel capable and full of purpose—like I’m fulfilling my place in this world as best as I possibly can. I like that feeling.

Osmosis naturally carries the benefits of these mental mantras to our children and through our mothering. I’ve always considered my children passive recipients of this sort of thinking because the calm and compassion it yields (when I apply it, of course) naturally bleeds into my interactions with my kids. Lately though, I’m finding ways to more actively pass on these mental exercises—teaching my oldest daughter kid-friendly ways to entertain feelings and make choices about engaging in reactions. Of course a six-year-old, in the middle of a morning meltdown over a sock seam that doesn’t line up (it’s always the darn socks), is going to need something more digestible than the Tolle quote “ Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you have chosen it.” But if you added a little Mr. Rogers to Eckhart Tolle—slap a cardigan and some sneakers on his quotes—you can find some creative ways to teach mental exercises and meditative routines to your kids to help them deal with kid stress—you know, sock seams that don’t line up, sippy cups that aren’t pink, sisters who dump the entire container of Rainbow Loom rubber bands on the floor. We’re talking big life problems.

We recently discovered a great way to deal with some of these thought strategies after a discussion on personal health. Particularly enthused about healthy choices right now after a wellness unit at school, my daughter’s been asking if foods she likes are “good for you,” accompanied by a heightened attentiveness to brushing her teeth, washing her hands and going outside for exercise. Somehow, these conversations have turned to other ways we keep ourselves healthy, including making good choices for brain health. “We have to feed our brains too,” I told her, “and make sure we’re choosing good things to put in them—reading good books, talking to people who make us happy, listening to music that makes us smile or want to dance, doing things that make us feel relaxed and peaceful, taking care of others.” It clicked for her—the fact that taking care of our brains is just as important as taking care of our bodies and involves conscious choices to weed out bad things and create a steady flow of good.

We took the brain health cue one step further with our daughter this week when the announcement that the beach store where we usually stop after sunset was closed triggered a dramatic response. I caught it about ten seconds in.

“We can’t change that the store is closed,” I told her, “and you can be disappointed about that, but think about making a good choice for a healthy brain. How long do you want to spend letting your brain be mad about this? All night? Do you think that’s a good choice for a healthy brain? Or how about we start putting some good stuff in your brain so it chills out a little bit?”

Naturally, kids are going to get upset about little things, and they deserve to have space—just like we do—for disappointment and expressing their feelings. But I can tell there’s new awareness developing for my daughter that her reactions to situations involve choices and some are better than others. A certain satisfaction has surfaced for her with this “take care of your brain too” perspective. She likes the control she possesses, and whether or not she chooses the Tolle method, I love the emotional awareness that’s evolving for her and the fact that she’s learning a great truth—we might not be able to control our thoughts, but we can control our reaction to them.

Now if only we had a little Mr. Rogers jingle to help us all remember that.

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