We live in a culture that encourages rat-race living with intense pressures all around, propelling us to fill our children’s time with loads of activities, extra-murals and all-around busyness. In this month’s blog, we think about what might be driving this intense activity, and how we can empower our kids to step out of the intensity, recalibrate and really centre themselves from time to time.

Where things stand

Kids’ lives today are very full. Most children don’t have time for fun and time-out because they have school, extra-murals, swimming lessons and tons of other structured activities. To make sure that kids take advantage of every possible opportunity, we start to add in more and more lessons leaving them overscheduled and without enough time to do anything else. Like, think or play. The trouble is that if kids have too many things to do, they might get worried and angry, they might throw more tantrums, have trouble focusing at school or at home, or even battle to sleep. But it can be hard to get your kids to slow down and focus on the present. A natural inclination may be to take their minds off their anxiety by putting them on a screen or adding in yet another activity,  but this actually can lead to even more anxiety and uncontained feelings.

What is all this activity inhibiting?

We need space to process things. The way kids naturally process their emotions is not through talking, but rather through playing. Kids metabolise big feelings through imaginative play. For example, imagine the little boy crashing his cars together and making explosion sounds. This child may be expressing angry “crashing” feelings which are safely being acted out with his cars, rather than with you or his little brother. Or what about the toddler who builds a big tower and then bashes it down, then rebuilds and repeats this activity? This child is working out that she can break down and crumple inside, but then build herself back up. She may be imagining what it’s like to really feel her feelings which leaves her “in pieces”, but then she finds the capacity to rebuild somewhere inside herself. Or she may be experimenting with her aggression, and figuring out the limits of what she can get away with before it all comes crashing down. Remember how during Lockdown, so many kids were playing doctor, making tents and playing the floor is lava? These kids were working out how to solve enormous grown-up problems (like the doctors were doing), figuring out where they could feel safe (away from covid-y lava) and where they could just hide out (like in tents) from the harsh realities of COVID.

So when we remove the opportunity to play by over-scheduling or sticking our kids in front of a screen, we also eliminate the possibility of creatively working through a problem that they probably don’t even know they are grappling with. The beauty of childhood play is that a child will instinctively work through unconscious challenges without even thinking about it. As adults that task is much harder because we have to find words in therapy to name our internal struggles. So while our kids have the luxury of being young, the more they can play and express themselves in this way, the better.

How can I get my kid to slow down?

The first thing to do is get them to do less. Avoid some of that extra-curricular activity, encourage play dates in the week, and restrict screen time. This includes TV time where content and ideas are served to your child in a non-challenging way, telling them what to think and when. 

Now you may find yourself thinking, well that sounds like a lot of work for me? Or my child doesn’t know how to play and so I will have to play with them which doesn’t sound so fun. What you may, at the heart of it, be really worried about, is that when your child plays, they feel a lot, and this could mean you then have to metabolise lots of big feelings for them. This can feel like a very daunting task for parents and the first step here is recognizing that when our kids feel a lot, we in turn have to do something inside ourselves to simmer things down. This may mean we even want to avoid this hefty task (especially when we have so much of our own stuff going on!). So a screen or extra mural might help reduce the emotional load and this might also explain why we pile the activity list so high. 

Now for the hard part: If you want your child to feel that it is really safe enough to slow down, you should also show them that you can do it too. Tell them you’re taking a break, shutting off your technology, and being still for a moment because it helps you relax and cool down. As a parent, it’s so important to make room for yourself to feel big feelings too. The more you are in touch with your own stuff, the less daunting your children’s emotions will feel. This is hard work and will take a lot of practice. But with the right help, you can succeed.

The bottom line

Busyness is a sign of the times, but it is also a way to avoid difficult feelings in ourselves and in our kids. The trouble is that feelings are meant to be felt. The more we avoid them, the more they will re-root to underground places, manifesting in anxiety or concentration troubles, to name a few. Fortunately, kids have a built-in instinct to play where they can work through their worries, and emerge stronger, healthier and more robust to manage the world. Which is far more useful than yet another school activity or mastering another level of Fortnite.

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