IMG_0077I had never heard of the word “childism” before reading Claudia M. Gold’s review of the book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children by the late author Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.

Young-Breuhl, an analyst, political theorist and biographer, calls attention to the way human rights of children are threatened in America today. Childism is defined as “a prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property and can (or even should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs.”

These are strong words, hard to apply to the parents I know. Yet when she cites the growing epidemic of ADHD and now bipolar disorder among our nation’s children, and the way that children are routinely medicated into acquiescent behavior, Young-Breuhl can’t help but wonder if children are being properly represented in our society.

She also wonders why children and families are not given more support in our society. The scarcity of social services for kids (and the fact that pediatricians, pediatric child-care workers and school teachers are among the lowest paid professionals in America) are contributing factors to childism.

Not to mention that in other developed countries, there are much lower rates of child abuse and neglect, a phenomenon that Young-Bruehl attributes to the widely available social services available to help troubled children and troubled families. In many other developed countries, she writes, “children have a range of preventative and development-oriented services: universal health care, health services, and parent support services in homes after the birth of a child; maternal and parental leaves for infant care; developmental preschool programs; after-school programs; and economic supports of various kinds.”

While I had never thought of America as being prejudiced against children (on the contrary, I thought of us as being a child-centered society), no one can dispute that parents in this country are pretty much on their own when it comes to raising their kids, even when both parents work outside the home, and even when single mothers earn the living and care for their children at the same time.

As Dr. Gold points out, childism in America is a societal problem, not a failing of most parents. “Most individual parents, given the opportunity to be heard and supported, are not childist,” writes Dr. Gold. “They long to help their children, not merely control them.” Yet when behavioral problems arise, parents are left with few choices.

The problem can be summed up in one sentence of Young-Breuhl’s, that “children whose development is not being supported cannot be protected.” As the great social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass observed, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

There are, of course, a wide range of causes of health problems in children, such as poor diet, genetics and toxic stress. Toxic stress is defined by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child as “severe, uncontrollable, chronic adversity.” Experiencing toxic stress while in the womb or during early childhood can be a major cause of mental and physical illness later in life—and even is thought to disrupt the architecture of the brain. As research on the developing child continues to grow, organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) are pushing for a fundamental change in America’s early childhood policies and services to help prevent the effects of toxic stress on children.

Until that happens, families can take a big step in preventing both everyday stress and toxic stress by learning stress-reduction methods such as the Transcendental Meditation technique. Children are sensitive to a mother’s stress and reportedly have higher stress themselves when the mother is overworked, anxious or depressed. So moms who practice the TM technique twice a day can help reduce stress in themselves and their children.

The Transcendental Meditation technique is easy to learn and effortless to practice, and parents find it’s a powerfully effective stress buster. Research reveals that TM practice produces a state of profound relaxation, much deeper than ordinary rest and accompanied by increased alertness and orderly brain function. Regular practice results in decreased anxiety and depression, reduced insomnia and hypertension.

And for your average kid who may not be suffering from toxic stress, TM is a gentle way to lessen the everyday stress caused by peer pressure, academic competition and family stress. When children meditate, their grades improve without more effort. It makes sense—when your mind is more calm, you can learn without struggle.

TM is also a proven way to reduce ADHD without harmful side effects. Recent studies found that students with ADHD who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique showed significant reduction of ADHD symptoms within three to six months. And girls with ADHD need help just as much as boys. Girls often go undiagnosed and untreated because ADHD symptoms in girls manifest more as a quieter inability to focus rather than the more obvious disruptive behavior typically found in boys with ADHD.

Cognitive learning expert Sarina Grosswald, EdD, has led pioneering research on ADHD and meditation. Dr. Grosswald explains that Transcendental Meditation works very differently from how the drugs work. “Meditation is not a quick fix. But, over time, TM allows the brain to create the neural connections that correct the underlying problem. The drug is an immediate fix because it’s an amphetamine, but when it wears off, the problem remains—the lack of brain integration.”

The TM technique is a cost-effective approach that can be a lifelong tool for managing ADHD and it’s many challenges while improving IQ, academic achievement, and better relationships between children and their peers, family members and teachers. Best of all, unlike medication, the TM technique has no negative side effects.

Other learning disabilities can also be helped through TM, such as dyslexia. Having struggled with severe dyslexia since childhood, Dana Farley, now a college graduate, says, “I had a lot of insecurities when it came to school. Since starting TM in high school, I’m not putting myself down all the time. The negative thoughts just don’t appear. Instead of thinking, ‘I can’t do this’ I’m thinking ‘Why not?’”

Learning the Transcendental Meditation technique is a way to empower children of all ages from within—and that is the opposite of childism.

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Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, May 5, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

Photo by Linda Egenes



William Stixrud, Ph.D.a clinical neuropsychologist focusing on Stress ManagementWilliam Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of William Stixrud & Associates in Silver Spring, Maryland, a group practice specializing in learning, attention, and emotional disorders. Dr. Stixrud is an adjunct faculty member at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Enlightenment: What is stress?

Dr. Stixrud: Stress is anything that disturbs the body’s homeostasis and causes it to go into the fight or flight response. Certain things happen to the mind and body when you have to respond to a stressor—you get a surge of adrenaline, your muscles get stronger, your senses heighten, and you can do amazing things, like a mother lifting a car when her child is in danger.

However, if the stress response continues to occur, the adrenal steroid cortisol continues to flood the system. The great challenge of modern life is that stress is so prevalent that many people maintain a chronic stress response, which means that they stay in the fight or flight response mode for a long time. Chronic stress is always bad for you.

How does stress affect mental healthEnlightenment: What does stress do to the brain?

It is also true that chronic stress—or being stressed for a long time—actually ends up killing brain cells and shrinking parts of the brain that are extremely important for thinking and learning. For example, people who have been depressed or have had PTSD symptoms for many years usually have a smaller hippocampus, the brain’s major center for creating memories, and this places them at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia. You also see shrinkage in the prefrontal cortex resulting from chronic stress, whereas the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects threat, starts working overtime and actually gets bigger. Thus, the more anxious and stressed you are, the more anxious you become.

Enlightenment: How does stress affect mental health?

Dr. Stixrud: In the development of anxiety disorders and depression, the major cause is experience rather than genetics, and the main aspect of experience that creates these mental health problems is stress. Rats show symptoms of depression if they are simply injected with stress hormones. In humans, if you use an MRI scanner to look at the brains of adolescents or adults with an anxiety disorder or depression, the thing that shows up most consistently is a hyperactive amygdala, which indicates that these individuals are highly stressed. Because these problems are stress-related, they can be prevented to a significant extent. Prevention is hugely important because the onset of anxiety problems and depression is occurring earlier and earlier in children. Researchers think depression scars the developing brain, causing increased susceptibility to further bouts of depression. So the top priority is to reduce scarring of the brain by reducing stress-related problems.

Enlightenment: How can we keep stress from having an adverse effect on us?

Dr. Stixrud: A healthy stress response is when your stress hormones spike dramatically to help you respond to a real stressor, but then go back to normal quickly. In people who are frequently stressed, it’s the opposite—stress levels stay relatively high, go up slowly in an emergency, and take a long time to go down.

Practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique normalizes the stress response, which means that stress hormone levels are typically low, spike rapidly in response to threat, and then go down quickly. We want a healthy response to stress, but what we don’t want is a chronic stress response. We want the body to help us do what we have to do when we are threatened, but we don’t want the stress response to remain turned on.

With stressed kids, the level of mental efficiency is so low that it’s hard for them to function. Research shows that kids who meditate do well in school because their brains are working at higher levels of efficiency.

Enlightenment: How can we prevent stress in children and adults?

Dr. Stixrud: Sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress. It does things to the brain and body that other stressors do. And Americans are chronically sleep deprived, sleeping 20% to 25% less than they did 100 years ago, before the advent of electricity.

You can prevent and alleviate stress by getting enough rest. This means sleeping until you wake up without an alarm clock—that’s how you know you’re getting enough sleep. Evidence also shows that daily physical exercise, such as walking, helps alleviate stress in the body and brain.

The role of the Transcendental Meditation technique is to provide deep rest to the nervous system, deeper than sleep. It provides this deep rest while making the mind more alert. It’s this combination that creates more resilience under stress.

The TM® technique is really good for the developing brain. Teenagers can do it really easily. They have a center, a core of peacefulness and happiness inside themselves that they can access. The more they do it, the more they find they are less reactive to stress. And if they do get stressed, it goes away faster. They generally sleep better, find it easier to eat normally, and are better able to successfully handle the hassles of life. These kids simply need antidotes to the stressors in life, which may include drugs and alcohol and sleep deprivation.

The TM program also significantly reduces the risk for type 2 diabetes. By de-stressing kids, I think we also significantly reduce the risk for heart-related and obesity-related problems. There is good evidence that the TM technique, by providing a tool for systematically de-stressing, allows the heart to work better, and if the heart works better, the brain works better. It makes kids less at risk for all manner of physical and stress-related problems.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 7. Reprinted with permission.)