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Some days you just know that one more quibble or raised voice will lead to a family blow-up. How do you diffuse the stress with the minimum amount of fuss? 'Operation Happy Household' to the rescue.
As I write this, my daughter is grumping in the next room about tomorrow’s English test, my husband is scouring my desk for a missing phone bill, the bathroom tap is audibly leaking, and my computer is insisting that I have mail, I have mail, I have mail. It is, in other words, a normal day in a normal home, where most things are shared – including the stress.
Research has shown that children mirror our stress, and these days, what with tighter-than-ever schedules, school pressures, and exposure to media of every kind 24/7, kids can end up nearly as anxiety-ridden as grown-ups.
Hoping to find some creative and proven stress-busting strategies we turned to a few parents, who happen to belong to some of the coolest (and most cool-headed) families we know. Read on to discover their brilliantly simple ideas for restoring calm in a stressed-out world.
1. Get out and about
Easiest relaxation technique of all? Just find a green space and walk. That’s what Carolyn Lis and her son Jonathan, 7, do to engage in what she calls ‘walking meditation’. “I’m always amazed at how cluttered my mind is as I start our walk, and how, after about 10 minutes, I hear the birds singing.”
Researchers are starting to unravel the science behind the stress-busting power of the great outdoors – after all, we evolved with nature, so it makes sense that our brain is highly attuned to it. Some say we even breathe differently when we’re outdoors.
The Kaahanui family have discovered another easy method of harnessing this natural high. “When our family gets stressed out from being cooped up in the house we go outside and fly our kites,” says mum Amanda.
2. Make time for people and pets
Simply spending time with friends or animals has the power to whittle away stress.
The Pirocchis get together with a small group of friends every second week, sharing a slap-up meal and conversation. “We play catch-up and discuss problems and solutions, which helps ease everyday pressures,” says Gina Pirocchi.
For the Snow family, stress literally takes wing when they let their pet birds, Sugar and Kiwi, out of their cages, working on teaching them a new trick or two as a family.
And the Blacks make the most of their people time by helping others. On free Saturdays, for example, they gather the clan and spend the day mowing and weeding at the kids’ grandparents and elder relatives. There’s a science behind their method, too: giving a hand to others has actually been proved to produce a rush of happy chemicals, informally referred to as ‘helper’s high’.
3. Get the heart pumping
Exercise can cause a shift in brain chemistry, with a good workout flooding your body with feel-good chemicals, including endorphins; at the same time, it helps override stress chemicals, such as cortisol.
And that explains why, when the Albertson family is feeling “complainy,” they break out of it with an impromptu after-dinner dance party. “After a few upbeat songs, we’re all usually giggling again,” says mum Sarah.
To banish the pressures of the day, the Gillespies indulge in some outside-the-box exercise like clearing out the dining room and “iceskating” on the polished floor with paper towels. Hey, whatever works!
4. Slow it do-o-o-wn
Deep breathing can stimulate the body’s calming system and kids’ yoga is a perfect way to calm frazzled nerves, as Michael Thornton and his son Max, 6, have found. The family schedules a 20-minute yoga session at least once a week – with the aid of a yoga DVD, they do simple stretches that help calm the mind (and, more often than not, induce giggles!). Visit stretchnow.com.au for kids yoga DVDs, books and games.
5. Ritualise and relax
Whitney Pruitt and her husband, Scott, came up with a small ritual that pays off big-time when it comes to easing family stress. “Whenever someone is feeling defeated by a challenging situation, another family member will ask, ‘But what are the three good things?’” explains Whitney. It’s not always easy to recognise what good might come from an unfortunate situation, she says, but “it teaches my kids to look at the bright side of life.”
In addition to the lessons they can offer, rituals provide a sense of safety and structure. That was an unexpected bonus when Jennifer Tankersley started serving her kids afternoon tea just to get them through the difficult hour right after school. “We found ourselves chatting and laughing together, and feeling relaxed and settled,” says Jennifer. “And knowing that teatime is part of our day gives my kids a real sense of security.”
6. Talk it up
Real communication – the kind in which every person’s opinion counts – not only relieves stress, but can also prevent it. That’s the principle behind the family meetings at the Lake household: several times a month the family gathers for 15 minutes to go over their schedules and discuss upcoming events that might be particularly stressful. Mum Shelly says, “We work as a team so we help each other reduce stress.”
7. Remember to play
We’re talking about real play: the kind that’s spontaneous, unscripted, and has no purpose other than pure enjoyment. It disconnects you from tasks and responsibilities, and that can be a potent stress reliever.
For the Doremus family, play can be as simple as blowing bubbles. “The deep breathing in and out to blow the bubbles calms your body down physically,” says Penny Doremus.
And the Moreheads take a handful of chalk to their carport, then draw and doodle until the concrete floor is covered with art. By the time they’re done, the family of four is ready to face the world with a renewed sense of calm.