In part 3 of this series I spoke about the ways our survival depends on a radical shift in our vision of health away from a one-size-fits-all medicine that defines us by our diseases, towards a more whole-hearted embrace of our diverse adaptive powers. This is most important when it comes to raising healthy children. Once we know who our child is, we will know exactly what he needs to be resilient in the world and find long-lasting health.
From preoccupied to occupied
Our children’s environment is constantly challenging their lives. They are bombarded with potential toxins everywhere. Overstimulation seems to rule the day; excess sugar and artificial additives keep them addicted to poor quality food while the excess assault on their senses keeps them addicted to poor quality media and violent videogames. But our preoccupation with toxic exposures can be toxic too, leaving us feeling like powerless victims of circumstances. Freedom does not mean living in a bubble. To truly empower our children, here are some basic ways we can help them find recovery in every minute.
Take a breath
The most fundamental way to occupy our life is to breathe. With each inhalation, we meet ourselves. We are literally being inspired by the world. With each exhalation, we let go. In my work with children, I find this one exercise a simple yet effective way for a child to calm the unconscious fight/flight reactions that stem from living in such an overstimulated world. As a child learns to breathe more naturally (belly-breathing), she stimulates her parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Resting and digesting help the immune system regulate the information coming in more effectively without over or under-reacting. This eliminates many of the common physical complaints children often have. Focusing on breathing out gives a child a chance to let go of excessive stress and refresh her mind and body. In this way she reconnects with the basic rhythm of life.
Eat, sleep, let it go
Like breathing, eating and sleeping are basic ways a child can cultivate resilience. Eating mindfully means paying attention to what we eat, the quality of the food, the preparation of a meal and the company we keep while eating. A study done at the UCSF Osher Center last year demonstrated that eating mindfully works at the level of our genes to significantly reduce stress and weight gain.[i] Food is information. We take it in, keep some, and let the rest go. The quality of that information matters. Becoming more aware of when we are hungry or full is an essential practice that helps regulate our impulses and emotions. When we as parents take the opportunity to practice mindful eating, we become role models for our children. Remember, the dinner table is the first classroom. If your children can’t pay attention there, how are they going to pay attention in school?
Sleep is just as important in allowing the body time to recover from the day’s stresses. Sleep gives the nervous system, the immune system and the digestive system time to integrate the information taken in during the day. Numerous sleep studies have shown the connection between sleep and the quality of attention. Sleep allows us time to let go of the stress that occupied our day in order to refresh our body-mind to better deal with the next day’s challenges. When parents ask me how they can boost their child’s immune system, I tell them to start by making sure he’s getting enough sleep.
Ultimately the secret of life is having a good bowel movement. It is the most basic way we let go. I get so many calls from parents of young babies about their child’s poop but for some reason once she is toilet-trained suddenly letting go is no longer as important as taking in. But when there’s no time to process what we’re taking in, we get backed up. A constipated body reflects a constipated mind. An inflamed gut reflects an inflamed mind. Our physical and emotional resilience is linked to how well we let go of the toxic material we carry around in our body-mind. Just like breathing out, having a good bowel movement changes our mood and reconnects us to the basic rhythms of life.
A Sensory Makeover
In the same way that mindful eating opens our child’s awareness to the present moment, each of our senses deserves a makeover. Smelling, tasting, touching, looking and listening can each be specifically exercised to reinvigorate your child’s life. Researchers at the Max Plank Institute have shown that dancing and singing help stimulate the immune system and reduce stress.[ii] As children are drawn into the digitalized world at younger and younger ages, their senses become less flexible. Making a daily practice of reawakening each of your child’s senses can have a powerful effect on her health and wellbeing. Take the time to point out a sunset. Smell the roses. In sharing these sensory experiences together, your family becomes more cohesive and secure. This coherence enhances memory and cognitive skills. As your child finds a safe haven to feel the world in a relaxed way, she can release the stresses of her day and be refreshed for another day of discovery.
The power of play
David Elkind PhD has done extensive research on the importance of play in stimulating both mental and physical wellbeing.[iii] In the 21st century, play is being coopted by the world of media that is controlled by the 1 %. According to a recent survey by the National Institute of Media and Family, 92% of American children aged 2-17 years use videogames as their dominant form of play and over 70% of fourth grade boys list violent videogames as their favorite games.[iv] When our children’s play is defined by the 1 %, they surrender their freedom to explore the world in creative imaginative ways. Play with your children for as long as you can. It’s never too late. It is one of the simplest low cost ways to ensure his emotional and physical health.
Occupy this minute
In my new book Fire Child Water Child I discuss simple ways to develop each child’s natural adaptive style without having to resort to quick fixes and emergency treatments. Holistic parenting begins by taking a look at the big picture of your child’s life. Ultimately, empowering your child means encouraging her to feel that she is part of something bigger than her small self. This kind of self-reflection brings out Big Hearted emotions that are the key to academic, social and economic success. By practicing every day with your child, you will discover that she is always recovering. This is the secret to occupying each minute fully. To truly occupy medicine, we must occupy our health.
[i] Changes in stress, eating, and metabolic factors are related to changes in telomerase activity in a randomized mindfulness intervention pilot study. Daubenmier J, Lin J, Blackburn E, Hecht FM, Kristeller J, Maninger N, Kuwata M, Bacchetti P, Havel PJ, Epel E. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2011 Dec 12
[ii] A method for continuously assessing the autonomic response to music-induced emotions through HRV analysis. Michele Orini, Raquel Bailón, Ronny Enk, Stefan Koelsch, Luca Mainardi, Pablo Laguna Medical & biological engineering & computing. 03/2010; 48(5):423-33.
[iii] The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children, David Elkind, Da Capo Press; 1 edition (December 25, 2006)