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Yoga for Kids 02

How Are Emotions and Focus Connected?

As we’ve seen, in order for your child to improve his focus skills (and many other desirable traits), it’s essential that he is able to access his prefrontal cortex. While many of the practices that we talk about in this book will help the Thoughtful Brain become stronger and more active in your child, there are many life circumstances that reinforce the natural advantage of the Protective Brain. Under conditions of stress, the Protective Brain is more likely to take control, and no amount of talking, begging, rationalizing, or demanding on your part will help your child transition to using his prefrontal cortex. You can help strengthen the Thoughtful Brain of your child by helping him feel safe, calm, secure, and unconditionally accepted.

Kids Brain
Kids Brain

What Causes Stress in Children?

Stress is an epidemic in our society, and our children are not spared its impact. Kids themselves will often talk about feeling “stressed,” but when we dig a little deeper into what they mean, what we often find is that stress is being used as a way to describe many different challenges and emotions. Described here are some common causes of stress in children, but there are many more, and if you tune in to your own child you will certainly find that he has his own unique combination of concerns that cause him stress.

Stressed kids
Stressed kids 

Worry and Anxiety: Kids are often burdened with a tremendous amount of anxiety and little capacity to make meaningful changes to the things that cause the anxiety. Children are exposed to much of life’s unpleasantness. For example, they are very aware of tensions between their parents, and they hear about violence and war on the news, yet often adults choose not to discuss these types of things with their kids, leaving children with no opportunity for perspective or capacity to ask questions. Some of the things that children worry about the most include concerns about their home and family, school success, social anxiety (Muris et al. 1998), fear of personal harm (Silverman, La Greca, and Wasserstein 1995), and not having enough time to get everything done.

Exhaustion: Our kids are chronically tired, and being tired leads to feeling overwhelmed. According to the 2004 Sleep in America poll, more then two-thirds of American children experience frequent problems getting enough sleep. Fatigue increases our sensitivity to negative emotions, reduces our tolerance of other people, and makes all of the things we need to do seem a little bit harder and a little more overwhelming. Even among children who get enough sleep, sensory overload can bring on a feeling of exhaustion. We live in a world that, from an evolutionary perspective, is filled with danger signs. Particularly in urban environments, children are exposed to near-constant bright lights, loud noises, and generally chaotic situations. The amount of stimuli that bombards our children at all times can become overwhelming to their nervous system, causing them to feel like they are always “on” and can’t get any rest.

Feeling Disconnected: Human beings have a very high need for attachment. In children, this need is primary, and feeling lonely, disconnected, or not understood can have powerful consequences. The most important person for your child to feel connected to is you! When parents are tuned in to their children—connected to their emotions, sympathetic to their concerns, and responsive to their bids for affection—and create an environment where their child knows undoubtedly that he is loved and accepted regardless of his behavior, they create a foundation of safety and emotional stability that gives the child much greater resilience (Maté 2000). It’s important to remember that you can love your child very much and still be so busy, distracted, or stressed out yourself that you don’t provide him with the full strength of your attention.

Even before you begin the practices in this Article, you can work to reduce the causes of stress in your child’s life. Spend time engaging with your child fully and completely. Listen more attentively and proactively. Encourage him to talk with you about worries or concerns. Pay attention to his physical needs and be an advocate for getting him more rest, better nourishment, and opportunities to relax and restore. If you are your child’s protector (not just of his body, but of his emotions and his sense of self), then the Protective Brain can take a break and the Thoughtful Brain will get stronger.

Emotional Intelligence

While nothing can eliminate all stress from anyone’s life, learning to recognize the causes of stress, relating to emotions in a more productive way, and learning to work with your body to release stress can all help reduce its impact. In subsequent chapters we will discuss specific practices to reduce the impact of stress on the body and mind, and improve emotional intelligence.

In his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman described emotional intelligence as “being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and to delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think.” I think of emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize and make sense of how you are feeling, so that your emotions don’t become overwhelming and cause your Protective Brain to take over. When you understand how interrelated our emotions are with our focus and self-regulation skills, it becomes clear that emotional intelligence is crucial to the capacity to pay attention and learn.

Learning to Notice Your Mind

Supporting the development of your child’s emotional intelligence will give her Thoughtful Brain support and strength. Calming and bringing balance to her emotions will allow the Protective Brain to relax its control. But keeping the Thoughtful Brain in charge also involves self-awareness skills that children can learn and practice. Improving the capacity to focus means learning to recognize when your mind is wandering and bring it back; and it means developing the capacity to filter irrelevant environmental stimuli and to let go of intrusive thoughts. These are skills that will be explored in the Next articls and that get easier with practice.

What Is My Child Experiencing?

While we’ve seen how challenging it can be for any child to remain focused and emotionally balanced and aware, for some—especially those struggling with ADHD, anxiety, or other diagnosed disorders, or those experiencing a particularly intense life event (such as a move, a new baby in the family, or a divorce)—that challenge can become substantially more difficult.

For children in these situations, life can be very confusing and overwhelming. The primary experience may be one of intense emotions, often with a limited self-understanding of where those emotions even came from. The impulsive and unpredictable behavior that is so common when the protective brain takes over can be intensely frustrating to parents, teachers, and even other children, causing the child to repeatedly feel isolated and misunderstood. 

These children often find themselves locked into the role of the troublemaker at school, with teachers mistakenly believing that the child is choosing when to focus and when to misbehave in some sort of deliberate action.
Because the Protective Brain of the child with a serious attention problem is often working at full strength, it is seeking all information that may signal danger or threat. This means the child is likely to be easily overstimulated and his sympathetic nervous system overactivated, with every noise, smell, and passing sight demanding attention, often in direct conflict with a parent or teacher talking. Filtering the tremendous amount of irrelevant stimuli that are a normal part of life—so that focus can be maintained on a single task, thought, or conversation—becomes a Herculean task.

These children are also typically exhausted, both physically and emotionally. The effort to relax is a constant struggle, as it is often only in doing and moving that they can find any degree of self-satisfaction. The intensity of their experiences and emotions is draining, and their exhaustion makes self-regulation even more difficult.

When a particularly sensitive child is raised in a stressful environment, the Protective Brain is called upon over and over again to defend the child from those stresses. Remember, the Protective Brain is already stronger and more dominant in childhood, and in a sensitive child it is even more responsive. The sensitive child doesn’t need stress to be particularly traumatic or extreme in order to trigger the Protective Brain to take charge. And, when even a moderate level of stress is chronic, the brain gets trained to operate in the protective mode. Once the child’s brain becomes hardwired in this way, the Protective Brain often exerts control even when there is no apparent stressor at the moment. This makes it much more difficult to access the Thoughtful Brain, and the symptoms of attention problems and impulsive behavior emerge. Changing these patterns of the brain is difficult, but possible.

What about ADHD?

ADHD is a developmental challenge that has caused a lot of controversy in the medical and education communities. There are three main features of ADHD, two of which are needed for a clinical diagnosis: poor attention skills, deficient impulse control, and hyperactivity. The hard part of diagnosing ADHD is that these traits exist in all of us, children and adults. Determining when the manifestation of these traits becomes a disorder needing treatment is a matter of degree and perspective.

What is undeniable is that there is a point for some children and adults when the challenges to daily life caused by these traits become substantial, and intervention becomes necessary in order to live a fulfilling, productive, and happy life. Gabor Maté, a noted physician and author of Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It, describes ADHD not as a “fixed, inherited brain disorder but as a physiological consequence of life in a particular environment, in a particular culture” (2000, 7), yet he also strongly supports the idea that ADHD is a very real physical manifestation of those consequences in the brain. From Dr. Maté’s perspective (and I find his to be among the most thoughtful, carefully considered, and useful of the perspectives out there on the topic), ADHD develops in individuals when a combination of factors cause the structure of the brain to develop in a particular way. Human brains are unique in that they are relatively underdeveloped when we are born, and the majority of their growth happens during our lives, mainly during our childhood. This means that our life experiences have a direct impact on the shape of that growth. In children with serious attention difficulties, their life experiences have had the effect of essentially supercharging their Protective Brains.

What is it that determines if the traits of ADHD that are so common in our society become more seriously pronounced in one child and not another? According to Dr. Maté, it is the combination of a person that is particularly sensitive to stimulation (both sensory and emotional) and a chronically stressful infancy and childhood. Dr. Maté describes the latent potential to develop ADHD as similar to an allergy, but instead of the nervous system being hypersensitive to peanuts or bee stings, it’s sensitive to overstimulation and stress (although children with ADHD are also more prone to colds, respiratory infections, ear infections, and allergies, lending support to the idea that their systems are more reactive in general). It’s important to remember that this increased sensitivity is not a choice, it’s a feature of the child’s nervous system, and, in some ways, sensitivity is a positive thing, making the child more creative and capable of accessing the full range of human emotions.

What Can Help?

In the following articls we will discuss how yoga and mindfulness practices can support children in the development of their Thoughtful Brain strength, and how these practices can work to restore emotional balance, increase focus, and generally support a more meaningful and fulfilling way of life. But even before you try a single activity in this book, remember that by helping your child reduce stress, making her feel unconditionally accepted and loved, and working to reduce your own anxiety and reactivity, you will be soothing her Protective Brain, creating space for her Thoughtful Brain to grow and working toward a greater capacity for self-regulation.

Also, on your most frustrating days, remember that your child is doing the best she can. And so are you. Be kind to yourself, be compassionate toward your child, and step by step, work to create a home environment that will let you both become the best versions of yourselves.