The more I observe children today, the more I see a need for them to be given space. But what does “space” mean for a child and how do you give it to them? Studies suggest that children today have less “unstructured time” — time to simply think — than any previous generation. The times that today’s adults may have spent during childhood being “bored,” or simply alone and quiet, have been replaced with myriad electronic devices marketed for children in today’s world. One study found that, on average, children between the ages of 5 and 16 spend about 6.5 hours a day in front of a screen; over twice as much as they had two decades ago. While screen time can be beneficial in many ways for children, too much of it can lead to feelings of anxiety depression and stress.
Here are 5 ways to give kids space:
Develop Simple Routines
Children crave routine and while it is not always possible to develop a daily habit, adding some structures can help kids feel less anxious. As adults, we have the ability to set our own routines, but the day of a child is typically dictated by parents and educators. Parents are in a position to help children develop healthy habits at an early age, and you probably already have done this in other ways: washing hands before eating, brushing teeth before bed, etc.
Even if your child lives in more than one home, you can still develop some simple routines to keep them feeling comfortable and secure in their environments. Try singing a specific song around bedtimes together or giving the same series of hugs and kisses or handshakes at goodbyes. Little moments of “I know what happens next” can give children a real sense of calm
Let Them Show You How They Feel
Melt down in aisle 3? Try keeping paper and a crayon available when a tantrum erupts. Asking “can you show me how you feel?” is a great way to calm an outburst or redirect one that is developing. After your child shows you how they feel, ask why and continue to seek the source of their frustration. Psychology teaches us that anger is usually a secondary emotion, and other more primary emotions — usually fear or sadness – are what precipitate someone losing their temper. Talking about the underlying feelings in a constructive way can help your child feel both understood and cared for. One way to do this, for older children, is to ask them to share a song with that resonates with how they are feeling and talk through the emotions that are present.
Children, particularly younger children, often feel as though they have no voice as they are told what to do and how to do it by the adults around them. Imagine your daughter is upset and crying because she wants to wear her favorite dress, but it’s dirty. You have just 5 minutes to get her out the door, a pair of pants and a skirt. Sometimes, just giving her a choice — “You can either wear the pants or you can wear the skirt, which one would you like to wear?”— can help give them a sense of control over their day, something we as adults often take for granted. Not always a winning technique as some children become fixated on objects (like the dirty dress) but definitely worth a try.
For older children, develop some ground rules and discuss them in detail. When your child pushes the boundaries of the rules you set, be open to having a conversation about why the rules were created. Perhaps ask them for their input to develop alternatives or “choices;” always be open for negotiation.
Let Them Play Outside
No agenda, no helicoptering above them, just let them play outside. While playing outside with them is an awesome thing to do, also allow for them to learn how to entertain themselves without a device or your undivided attention. This is a win-win. Not only can parents reduce their stress and anxiety by learning to become comfortable with their children “being bored,” but children learn the valuable skill of being able to entertain themselves. Avoid feeling guilty for not filling that boredom and not spending every moment alongside them. Just let them play outside!
For older children, push their independence by sending them on outdoor adventures. One of the coolest families that I ever met, I met in the Grand Canyon. A 15 year old and a 12 year old who were ahead of parents who allowed them to walk ahead at their own pace, amazed my group with their knowledge, curiosity and overall well-being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I met their parents, they too had those same characteristics. Take them outside and ask them to figure out how to get where you are going.
Give Them Time for Inner Space
Developing a meditation routine is hard enough for yourself, let alone your child, but it can be done if you are open to giving it a try. Again, most parents already establish several healthy routines for their children, and there are even some apps out there that can help too!
Another option is to just ask your child to join you as you both close your eyes and count your inhales and exhales. Sounds are a great way to encourage mindfulness and I recommend trying a singing bowl, chime or app. Also, sign up for alerts for an upcoming project of mine called “Your Chime” a mindfulness tool and book for children.