We’ve all heard it in the news, maybe even experienced it on some level ourselves – the rampant opioid issue the US is facing. I was not surprised to hear it is present in my daughter’s middle school as well. It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere. How do we teach our kids (and ourselves) how to cope with stress. i.e. turn toward a natural high vs. an artificial one?
Harvey Milkman, a professor of psychology, was recently interviewed on NPR’s Here & Now, a show I frequently tune into (yes, I’m a total NPR junky), about a study he lead in Iceland. His book, Project Self Discovery: Artistic Alternatives for High Risk Youth, shows how art, dance, music and mindfulness drastically reduced Iceland’s substance abuse and other behavioral problems. By drastic, I really mean astonishing: “In youth it went from drunk in the past 30 days — 42 percent of the 16-year-olds were doing that — and it went down to 7 percent. And in terms of daily smoking it went from 23 percent to 3 percent. In terms of using cannabis in the past year it went from 17 percent to 5 percent.” Remarkable. The key was that everyone bought into the program – parents, schools, government, etc. – everyone was on board.
Having a range of recreational activities available for kids was also critical – not just if they were into basketball, but also offering things like ping-pong, drumming, etc. In addition, kids were taught mindfulness – how to manage their own thinking. That’s how the natural high program for at-risk youth was founded: offering youth healthy ways to change their brain chemistry. When you think about it, this is common sense: giving kids healthy ‘natural high’ alternatives to chemical ones works, and it works brilliantly.
Let’s face it, stress facing our younger generation is not getting any less or any better. Who is teaching our kids how to cope? How to handle it all? Yes, stress is part of life, but what’s hitting kids is not just regular ol’ stress but toxic stress. “Toxic stress occurs when life’s demands consistently outpace our ability to cope with those demands” says MindfulSchools.org. This is the dangerous mix that our kids are forced to navigate every single day: social media, readily availability of drugs, technology overload, maxed out schedules, pressure to get into X ivy league college (often starting in pre-school). Just earlier today I overhead a 12 year old girl leaving class say to her Dad, “When we get home I have to wash and straighten my hair right away. I’m so stressed. I don’t have time for dinner because I need to be back in an hour for tonight’s show.” If I hadn’t seen with my own eyes that she was a child, I would have thought she was an adult – and she looked very serious, stressed, and down-cast when saying it! When did we turn our kids into mini adults? And to what purpose?
This can’t maintain. As a society we need to start giving our kids (and ourselves) a toolbox of options as to how to manage the stresses that are coming at them. To start, parents and schools need to begin to invest time and finances into teaching kids ways to handle stress. The financial expense is small compared with what it costs when a kid requires addiction treatment, probation, incarceration, etc. Empowering our youth with opportunities and choices like yoga, art, dance, music, fitness (healthy recreational activities), and mindfulness is critical to our kids well being, health, and our world. Kids are the future. Let’s help them find a natural high in life. The pay-off is well worth the investment.