Martial arts has a reputation for helping kids with behavioral issues learn self-control, so parents will often come to our school seeking help. Over the past 25+ years, I have seen kids enrolled to help deal with a variety of issues. These include trouble with anger and/or fear, being bullied, difficulty concentrating in school, disrespectful behavior and even help with medical diagnoses, such as ADD/ADHD, sensory disorders and autism spectrum disorder.
It is amazing how many of these parents, in addition to their primary concerns around their children’s behavior, also describe their kids as “high-energy.” I am told that these prospective students bounce off the walls and are out of control.
High-energy (or variations) is a term that I have heard from scores, perhaps hundreds, of parents over the years to describe their children. I want to share with you a couple of common things I have seen among these kids.
First, and perhaps most surprising, none of them has ever struck me as having more “energy” than the other kids.
Kids have a lot of energy. A lot! They are hard-wired to play and explore constantly until they crash from exhaustion. As adults, we have much more limited energy, and we feel it. The contrast for a lot of new parents between them and their child in this regard can be startling and a bit overwhelming. Often, the less energy we have as adults, the less-well equipped we are to manage our child’s seemingly boundless energy reserves. And thus, kids get labelled “high-energy.”
But once I get these kids on the training floor with other children their age, I find that their level of energy is the same as the rest of their class.
What I do see is a difference in behavior. And this is the other thing that I have noticed. These children have issues not with having too much energy, but in having not enough skill in behavior self-management and impulse control.
I think it is fair to say that most people recognize that parenting is a lot of work, and that “good” parenting is a lot more work. I think people are less aware of the fact that parenting is a skillset. Parenting is something that is learned, practiced and refined.
I have believed since before I was a teacher that if a student fails, it is the teacher’s responsibility. Somehow, the teacher failed in his or her efforts to inspire and teach. Of course, the student is responsible for their own actions. But a teacher is, by definition, more experienced and skilled in the area they teach. There are in a position to serve as a guide for the student and provide the best possible learning experience.
I feel the same around parenting. The goal of parenting is to raise the adult that the child will become, seeking for that adult to have the skills and emotional/physical well-being to be happy, healthy and self-sufficient.
This perspective makes the role of parent more complex and nuanced, and serves to raise the bar for gauging what it means to be successful as a parent.
Most of the behavioral issues I see with children that come to martial arts begin with parenting choices and style. I write this fully believing and appreciating that these parents love their children just as much as any of the other parents I meet.
Their challenges lie not in their commitment or emotional investment. It is simply that their skills need improvement.
And this is often the underlying issue I see with “high-energy” kids. For example, I frequently see parents of these children adopt the strategy of simply having their kids burn off the energy. It makes sense. The kid has a lot of energy. Let’s wear her out and then she will be able to calm down. Additionally, if she is burning off that energy on the playground or with a similar self-directed activity, the parent gets a break.
Although this makes sense at first glance, let us take a look at it objectively and see how the strategy holds up. First, as parents, we can assume that our child is not necessarily high-energy compared to other children.
Instead, it is more likely that our child is not skillful at managing their behavior and impulses. Having them run around crazy is fun, but it does nothing to improve these skills.
Furthermore, if we wear them out, they will be even less capable of self-regulation. Tired kids are fussy and irrational. Our school is next door to an indoor inflatable playground, and every day we see exhausted kids having meltdowns as their parents drag them across the parking lot to leave.
Of course, kids do need to burn off their excess energy. They need to run, climb and play. What I am talking about is using it has a behavior management strategy. As a strategy, this is based on poor assumptions (my kid has unusually high levels of energy) and counterproductive outcomes (tired, fussy children who have learned nothing about managing their behavior).
Furthermore, this child is learning something unexpected. She is learning that if she is feeling energetic she has to burn it off. This is not going to help her deal with sitting still in a classroom or doing something boring like chores and homework.
What she needs to learn is to evaluate context and then make a choice about what to do with her energy.
If we imagine the adult she will become, what does this skill look like in adulthood? For me, I can remember what it was like working in an office. Sitting still at a desk all day had the potential to drive me nuts. I constantly craved movement, especially when I was working on something that was particularly difficult or boring. Of course, those were the times that I most needed to sit still and focus. If I was unable to manage those impulses, I would never be able to get my work done and would have been fired.
So how does one teach a child this skill?
The first step is to acknowledge that it is a skill, not simply a trait that children are born with. Then, evaluate where the child is towards this skill being adult-level. For many, this will be a new skill. For others, this will be fairly well-developed and simply needs refinement.
A very basic-level exercise is to use something that we do in every kids’ class at Traditional Martial Arts Academy. Skills improve through increasingly challenging application of the skill. We recognize this, so we begin and end every class with meditation.
Before class, kids are playing or reviewing curriculum. Either way, they are engaging in a hyperkinetic activity. So the first thing we do when class begins is sit down and do a simple meditation. It is often difficult for kids to make this transition. As we are meditating, you can see kids wiggle and squirm. But as they progress through the belts, children are increasingly skillful in calming themselves and settling into the meditation.
When we finish class, we typically end with a game or sparring before lining up and doing the closing meditation. So again, kids are pretty amped up when we have them sit still at the end. As with the opening meditation, we see children improve how they handle this transition as they get more experience.
You can look for opportunities for your child to practice stillness, as we do with meditation in class. You can also look to challenge your child a bit by having the stillness be part of a transition into, or out of, a high-energy activity.
Another important parenting strategy is to teach your child context for their energetic expression. If they are on a playground, they can go nuts. But if they are in school, a restaurant or the library, they need to be able to contain that energy. Establish situations where your child’s behavior is expected to be more reserved and hold them to it.
For instance, my wife and I let our daughter experiment with behavior at the dinner table when it is just the three of us. For example, she went through a period having fun blowing bubbles in her water with a straw. We told her each time that it was okay that she did that with us, but if we had guests or were at someone else’s house or at a restaurant, it would not be okay. And we hold her to it with the understanding that if she cannot make the adjustment when the context changes, we will have to start restricting her experimentation at home.
A final thought. When working on teaching your child the skills of containing and redirecting their energy, as well as identifying context-appropriate expressions for that energy, do not overdo it. Though we are raising the adults they will become, they are still kids right now. Help teach your child these skills, but also give them the chance to run around and be a crazy, spazzy kid. Finding the balance can be tricky, but it makes for a happier, healthier child!