More control equals less stress for kids
Authors of 'The Self-Driven Child' share wisdom on helping kids find their inner drive
Last updated 10/30/2019 at 3:42pm | View PDF
If parents want kids to be healthier, live longer and experience more success, they need to lower their stress levels by giving them more control of their lives.
That's the opinion of Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of "The Self-Driven Child" and presenters at the Oct. 22 Community Speaker Series sponsored by Hinsdale High School District 86 and Community Consolidated Elementary District 181.
"We knew that a low sense of control is probably the most stressful thing you can experience," Stixrud told his Community House audience.
When kids feel in control, the prefrontal cortex regulates the rest of the brain. When things feel out of control and stress levels rise, the amygdala - which processes emotions - takes over and floods the body with cortisol, Stixrud explained. Rational thinking is out and the "fight or flight" response kicks in.
The key is not avoiding stress, Johnson said, but learning how to manage it.
"What we know is that the experience of dealing with stressful situations helps you be able to deal with stressful situations in the future," he related.
Kids who encounter tolerable stress and learn to manage it likely will be higher performers than those who avoid stress altogether. Think of a basketball team, Johnson offered. Players are at their best when facing an evenly matched opponent.
"If the stress is zero, usually the performance is too," he said. "If the other team is too good, they won't come close to doing their best."
Helping kids discover internal motivation is one way to lower stress. External motivation - such as desire to earn a certain grade or secure approval from a parent or teacher - is accompanied by stress.
"Give kids a sense of control so they can challenge themselves as much as they can without feeling overwhelmed," Johnson said.
Kids develop internal motivation when they discover something they are passionate about, Stixrud said, even if it has nothing to do with academics.
After struggling through high school with a 2.8 grade point average, Stixrud went on to earn a PhD and became a neuropsychologist, applying the drive he once felt about music to his graduate work.
"I just didn't care very much about school. I was a passionate rock and roll guy," he said. "Once I discovered something I wanted to learn about, study, I could go pedal to the metal."
Parents can help kids develop internal motivation by allowing them to manage their own responsibilities, the two said, using fights about doing homework as an illustration.
"I want kids to have an accurate sense of who is responsible for what," Stixrud said.
He advised parents to tell their kids, "I don't want to weaken you by making you think someone other than you is responsible for it."
Parents should act more as consultants, offering their help without forcing it on their children.
"It's so empowering to simply say, 'I've got an idea. I've got an opinion about that. Would you like to hear it? Is there a way that I can help?' " Stixrud said.
Parents who move to this approach are likely to hit some road bumps, Johnson noted. He and his wife did when they altered their interactions with their son around homework.
"It was not perfect. He would get a 52 on a history quiz because he was studying the wrong chapter," he said.
But the time for kids to make mistakes is when they are younger and the stakes are lower, such as late elementary school and middle school, he said. And the approach will pay other dividends as well, such as the foundation for an improved relationship in which kids seek out the advice of their parents.
"I know that now is when I'm crafting the relationship I'm going to have with this character for the rest of my life," Johnson said.
The two also stressed the importance of providing a safe place for kids to retreat after they have gone out and challenged themselves in the real world.
Radical down time (such as daydreaming), meditation and adequate sleep all help kids control their stress levels. Parents can help by making it a priority to truly enjoy their children - and to make sure they feel loved.
"That is probably the biggest antidote in the world to stress," Johnson said.