“Who’s ever heard of meditation?”
Two students raised their hands.
“It’s when you get angry, then you go back to being happy again,” one said.
It’s a little more nuanced than that, Kim Jones explained. Although, at the same time, that transition from one state of being to another was essentially what she came to the meetinghouse of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton to discuss last Friday, February 23.
Jones, a prevention aid with the Alternatives Counseling Center in Southampton, led a program called “Stress Busters,” geared toward children ages 7 to 12, as part of the UUs’ annual Holistic Health Clinic. Down the hall from acupuncturists, massage therapists and Reiki healers, she stood before a crowd of six antsy elementary school students and gave them tools to deal with their stress.
But, you ask — free from mortgage payments, student loans and mounting health bills — what possible stresses does a 7-year-old face?
According to Aiyana Smith-Williams, the prevention coordinator for the Alternatives Counseling Center, stress is very much a part a young people’s lives. In fact, she added, it was identified by the Southampton Town Youth Bureau as being the number-one concern for local youths in Southampton.
“Every time we bring up stress, we get a big reaction from students,” Smith-Williams explained. “Stress Busters” is part of a larger program called “Too Good for Violence,” which she and Jones have brought to several different school districts on the East End, though Sag Harbor has yet to participate.
Smith-Williams went on to say that recently the economy has been a huge factor in this.
“Kids are stressed out because they’re scared their parents aren’t really telling them what’s going on with their finances,” she said. “They can tell when something’s wrong.”
Jones added, “Even for me, as a parent, I may expose my kids to too much too fast.”
In addition to the economy, Jones said current events, particularly emotional and violent incidents, like war, can have an indirect impact on kids.
“Everything that affects us is going to affect our kids, too.”
Before her captivated young audience, Jones proceeded to discuss the emotions and behaviors the children associated with stress — “upset,” “mad,” “tired,” “your heart beats real fast,” “let it go and move on,” “cry,” “stomp to my room and close the door” — before arming them with several strategies for coping with it.
“You’re going to inhale as much air as you possibly can, hold it, and breathe out slowly,” Jones instructed. “Then hiss.”
The group of students alternated hissy breaths with short spurts of laughter, clearly enjoying the silliness of this stress-relieving exercise.
“What happens to your muscles when you do that?” she asked when they were through.
“It relaxes them!” one girl exclaimed.
That’s exactly the point, Jones continued. By taking a few seconds to concentrate on their breath, Jones said the students effectively spent a few seconds not focusing on everything else — including anything that may have been bothering them. While Jones was sure to caution the kids not to hiss in the middle of their classrooms if they felt an onslaught of stress, she told the kids that a viable quiet alternative is blowing cool air on the palm of one of their hands while they’re sitting at their desks.
“A lot of kids get stressed, then they develop a lot of anger, and that’s when they act out,” Jones added. “And that’s when they get labeled as having anger management issues. But, really, they just have to come down a couple levels.”
She continued to tell knock-knock jokes to emphasize the importance of laughter, and then led the kids through a series of stretches to highlight the benefits of physical activity.
In the end, she left the kids with a few parting gifts, including small figurines, bubbles and a squeezable foam ball.
“A lot of the time,” Smith-Williams continued, “the kids already know these things. This is just a reminder for them to put these things into practice.”