It seems like more and more parents are struggling to deal with children who range from “sensitive” to autistic. These children are unable to cope with stressful situations and sometimes those stressful situations can be something as simple as a trip to the grocery store.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to us though, since adults are also struggling to deal with unprecedented amounts of stress in their lives. Modern living, with it’s huge emphasis on external stimuli, puts us all in the unique position of constantly dealing with low levels of stress. For some, especially children, it can become too much very quickly.
Senses, especially that of touch, are more significant to children than they are to adults. Infants place every thing in their mouths, young children touch and grab whatever they lay their eyes on, and older children seek vaguely physically dangerous thrills in their play.
So what happens when their world is overcome with stuff?
When there is too much stimuli, their senses become overloaded. Just as having the TV on while you’re trying to get dinner ready and dealing with two fussy children can make you pull your hair out, too much stuff takes away children’s ability to experience anything in depth. They are simply overwhelmed. To add to this problem is the fact that children do not distinguish as clearly as we do between ritual and reality.
According to Kim John Payne, “Toys are ritual objects with powerful meaning and resonance. To a child, a mountain of toys is more than something to trip over. It’s a topographical map of their emerging worldview.” In this light it is easy to see how many things can become overwhelming and even physically exhausting to a child. It is the same as having a large pile of papers sitting on your desk, waiting to be addressed. Often adults simply can’t figure out where to even begin. In this perspective you can see how a child with a room full of toys can still constantly complain of boredom.
So what to do?
Get rid of your toys. Well, not all of them. For most children living in the United States, the general rule should be children should only have access to the amount of toys it would take them five minutes to clean up. You can give the toys away, or put them away in storage and rotate them every month or so.
To replace the toys, give your child free, unstructured time. Don’t worry about playing with them, or creating scenarios for them to play, or trying to introduce educational games. Give them time to do what they want. Play is a way for children to learn, but it is also a way for them to decompress. They use play much in the same way scientists think we use dreams; as a safe place to play out the feelings and emotions and thoughts that have occurred during the day.
Create rituals in your house. There is a reason that so many ancient religions focus on rituals. It’s because it is calming to humans. Although the seasons change every year, they continue in the same pattern as they always have; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. We still get excited about decorating Christmas trees, even though we’ve done it every year since we were born. Daily rituals help create a sense of reliability to a child. Just as you would be worried if summer followed fall, children also worry when some days Mommy eats breakfast with them and some days she doesn’t. Don’t think every thing in your daily schedule has to follow a pattern (although for some extra sensitive children it does) but instead choose a few rituals to do during the day and stick to them. Many people choose reading at bedtime, Dad driving the kids to school, or everyone sitting at the table even after they’ve finished to chat a bit. These things are small but essential. I always get a bit sad when people say their days are too hectic to do this, because the busier you are the more important these rituals are to children.
Help your child plan for their day. Just like creating rituals, this also helps children release stress and tension that is created from uncertainty. For sensitive children, parents usually can tell that surprise stops at the grocery store when we’re supposed to go home cause deep distress. For more typical children it’s not as obvious.
Parents experience this too. Just think back to when you had your evening all planned out and then your neighbor calls to say your dog is loose and you spend the rest of the evening searching for him. A bit of your annoyance is at your dog but most of it comes from your plans being spoiled.
Now imagine if you were a child and your entire day was spent this way. You always were unsure what was going to happen next, and how long you would be able to do what is in your mental plan before someone forces your plans to change? Simply letting your children know the daily plan and give them a “heads up” when plans change will help their stress level enormously.
Adults tend to value our consumer choices. In fact, in large ways we allow them to define us. Think about the terms “Hipster,” or “Basic.” Most of what would make someone fit into those categories are what they consume. Hipsters like things ironically because they are uncool and Basics like trendy things. Our choices become an important part of who we are. However, in childhood many choices are a distraction. Children cannot make identity defining choices because they have no identity. That is, they are still in the development of who they are. Too many choices does not become an identifier, it becomes confusing, not just to their basic senses, but to their sense of self. Soon the only identifier of their choices is the demand, “More!”
The same is true for activities. Doing too much, even if it’s fun, can quickly become just as overwhelming as the large pile of toys. Not only that, but like the inability to enjoy any one thing in a room of toys, too many activities can leave a child not particularly interested in any. Having down time of free unstructured play is much like the room suddenly being cleared of clutter. Children are able to focus on themselves, their desires and likes, much better than trying out many different activities would.
Over-stimulation of possessions and of time can create a false high for children. Their desire for more, for new and different things, can become much like an addiction. After awhile what they have will no longer please so they seek out more. After all, a common definition of addiction is, “an increasing and compulsive tendency to avoid pain or boredom and replace inner development with outer stimulation.” This is exactly what many children are doing when they lack the mind clearing benefits of free space and free time in which to develop themselves.
We even go so far as to over stimulate our children’s hearing with loud and catchy music, and their taste with bold, intense flavors (think about all the snack products advertising “Extreme” flavors.)
It shouldn’t be surprising that so many children are always on the verge of a meltdown. They can hardly handle the constant stream of stimuli they receive.
Although peace, quiet, and unstructured time are important, do not assume that more peace, quiet, and unstructured time would be better. Children need stimuli, they need frustration, they need difficult situations. Too often we try to take difficult situations away from our children, like losing a sports game, which would be a valuable experience, and instead fill the void with “stuff,” whether that be toys, food, or meaningless activities.
The main goal for parents shouldn’t be sugar-coating your children’s life, but instead give them a firm base to return to. They should be able to experience difficult periods and return to the balancing calm of home. Just as you enjoy coming home from a long or particularly difficult day, so too should your children find relaxing calm and peace at the end of the day, not a room full of clutter or a surprise trip to the store or a sugar laden meal.