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Protecting Childhood and Mental Health
By: Wellness Committee Co-Chair Melanie Boon
With our sophisticated, fast-paced culture, too many choices and too little time, we are unknowingly creating the perfect breeding ground for the development of mental health issues in our children. Society has entered a unique period in which parents no longer struggle to provide enough but are unable to resist the temptation of providing too much. Several months ago, after reading Simplicity Parenting by John Payne, the prevailing message from this book continued to resonate in my mind. If we take a child with normal personality quirks and combine this with too much, we may catapult a child into a “realm of disorder.” More specifically, a child who is systematic may be forced into obsessive compulsive behavior or a creative and dreamy child might lose the ability to focus.
Payne, an educator, counselor and researcher, studied the lives of children he treated throughout his career. Early on, he volunteered in refugee camps in Jakarta where there was war and society was vulnerable to political instability. Children in this community were victims of illness, fear and constant danger. Families suffered great loss, and as a result, these children were clearly diagnosable with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They were described as being jumpy, nervous and fearful of anything new. Many of these children adopted extensive rituals around everyday tasks which they somehow believed would help keep them safe (symptoms consistent with obsessive compulsive behavior). These children were also noted to be distrustful of new relationships and a significant number exhibited volatile tempers.
After living in Asia, Payne then moved to London where he spent time at an affluent school working as a private counselor. During this time, he became very familiar with the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, attention hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. Although these children were not victims of war or political instability, many exhibited the same behaviors as the children living in Jakarta. He also found the treatment plans used for children living in Jakarta were working well for his young patients in London. He concluded these children were also exhibiting signs of PTSD. As he continued his work, he looked more closely at the lives of both groups of children and realized a common theme in both groups: the sanctity of childhood had been violated. Adult life, ambitions and chaos were taking over and creating havoc within their lives. Although the children in London did not suffer a major traumatic life event, Payne described the small consistent baseline of stressors and insecurity as enough to create a stress reaction in their lives. He explains this as a cumulative stress reaction in which a consistent pattern of stress accumulates into a PTSD-type scenario.
Payne does not suggest that stress should or could be eliminated from a child’s life. In fact he emphasizes the importance and necessity of stress for learning and teaching proper coping skills. When normal life event stressors occur, we become resilient and grow stronger, a process necessary for maturation. Problems occur when the stressors are constant, frequent and impair a child’s ability to rebound (as in the case of having too many choices, too much stuff, too much information and too much hurriedness). When children are overwhelmed by these things, they lose downtime necessary to play and release tension. This consistent low level stress detracts from a child’s emerging sense of self which is needed during normal childhood development. The purpose of childhood exists for a real reason, to protect and develop young minds and help them grow into healthy happy adults.
Payne demonstrated through treatment of his patients that by simplifying a child’s life, some of the stresses will be lessened, creating calmness as a baseline and thus providing healing. In turn, children will develop into the adults they were designed to become. He encourages changes in specific areas of a child’s life.
First, start by simplifying a child’s home environment. Decrease the amount of toys, books and clutter. Also, consider decreasing light, sounds and general sensory overload. Second, establish rhythm and rituals. Children require rhythm, predictability and intervals of calmness in their life. Too many scheduled activities can limit self-motivation and the ability to direct themselves. They need free time, unstructured time to do “nothing.” Countless activities and endless commitments are in actuality overwhelming our children despite our best intentions.
Finally, filtering out the adult world helps simplify a child’s life as well. Manage screen time and limit adult information and too much stimulation from their world. Be careful when sharing too much adult information with a child. Children deserve the security of not being bogged down with adult worries and concerns if possible. Respect the boundaries of your adult world. Consider watching the news after your children go to sleep. They have their entire lives to be adults and deal with the complexities of adult life. As parents, it is our job to protect our children and to be perceptive when they are showing signs of too much stress. Remember it is OK to say no to an extra practice, birthday party or a play date. Unstructured play helps boost creativity and by allowing regular downtime. We provide calmness and solace in their otherwise chaotic world.