Stress and Our Kids – Part 1 (of 5)

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Times have changed a lot since we were growing up, and for most kids today, stress is a fact of life.  Expectations are greater, the pressure to grow up is more intense, parents are often less available to provide guidance, time is over-scheduled, and the competition for success and even necessities is fierce.  More and more kids live in single parent or conflict-ridden homes, attend overcrowded and even dangerous schools, and grow up in a society where kids seem to make their own rules but are not always valued.

The effects of this incredibly complex and ever-changing world on our children can be devastating – often beyond the coping abilities of their minds and bodies.  The stress in a child’s life can create or exacerbate a host of illnesses and disorders – headaches, tics, nervousness, allergies, bed-wetting, temper tantrums, stuttering, just to name a few.  Just as important, childhood stress can pave the way for future heart attacks, ulcers and other serious syndromes; it’s a little known but crucial fact that  adult stress disease has its roots in childhood.

The good news is that healthy stress management can also begin in childhood.  Kids who learn to identify and control their stress at a young age will not only be better equipped to grow up happy and healthy, they will also be less likely to experience the debilitating results of stress disease as adults.  They will have the skills to turn the unavoidable stresses of life to positive advantage.  This topic is so critical to the health of our future generations that I’ve decided to develop this subject over five weekly blogs in the hopes that this series will equip parents and other concerned adults to “stress-proof” their kids.  Initially, I will be focusing on understanding stress and how it affects children, then we’ll look at practical strategies to help kids manage stress.

Before we proceed, let me remind you your child is not at the mercy of a stressful world.  While high stress levels are a given in today’s society, you CAN CHOOSE to minimize or even prevent the damage it does to your kids. Some of the information I give at the beginning of this series will be sobering, but I think it will give us strong motivation to take this topic seriously and take steps to mitigate the stress in our kids’ lives.

Throughout this series, I will be focusing on parents as well as kids; that’s because parents (or other caregivers) play a vital role in the way stress affects children.  First of all, parents can actually CAUSE excess stress to their children through neglect and ignorance, but even through wanting the best for their kids and pushing them too hard.  I want to approach this problem of stress with our kids honestly – my goal isn’t to add to your stress as parents or to make you feel guilty but to help you understand that you, too, can be a part of the problem, with the good news being that you can be a part of the solution.

Second of all, stressed out parents almost inevitably pass it along to their children – you probably know from experience that when you’re under stress, you’re more likely to lash out at your children or simply not “be there” for them.  You’ve probably noticed that an atmosphere of tension in the home can make it a source of stress rather than the refuge it was intended to be.

Finally, and most importantly, parents who understand stress and learn to manage it effectively will MODEL good stress management for their children.  When you handle your own stress in a healthy way, you will not only be better able to protect your kids from too much stress, you will also be teaching them the skills they need to manage their own challenges.

Let’s now take a closer look at childhood stress and the impact on our kids:  day by day, the world of our kids has become more threatening and more conflicted.  The stress produced by our rapidly changing social and cultural environment isn’t friendly to children; it makes growing up much more complex.  It also produces much more wear and tear on their bodies that will show up in later life, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers, diabetes, colitis, headaches, backaches, skin disorders, depression, anxiety, and lowered immune systems.   It can also interfere with the way their brains develop, and can impact their attention, memory and cognitive functioning.

So what are some of the factors that make stress such a problem for today’s kids?

TOO MUCH TOO SOON – One of the things I’ve observed as a clinical psychologist is how much earlier in life children are being subjected to stressful pressures and how much earlier they are showing the signs of stress disease.  Depression and anxiety seem to be occurring earlier in kids than ever before; younger and younger kids are attempting suicide; and cardiovascular degeneration is being seen in younger and younger children.  So what’s happening?  Kids are being exposed to major life pressures at earlier and earlier ages.

For example, kids encounter drugs at much younger ages than before, sexual experimentation begins earlier these days, so is the risk for teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, and AIDS; kids are being exposed to violent crime and death at earlier ages, school brawls are more violent with the large arsenal of weapons; and kids are exposed to a lot of violence and negative situations through the computer and media; parents are getting more afraid and are warning their kids of the dangers all around them, so from a very early age, kids are well aware of the reality of abuse, kidnapping, crimes, and murder that happen every day, and that the victims are often young.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING – It’s not only the negative and painful forms of stress that are stressing out today’s kids at earlier and earlier ages; kids also feel the increasing pressure of too much stimulation, too much challenge, too much choice and too much opportunity.

The media offers a smorgasbord of exciting and stimulating entertainment (not all of which is appropriate for kids) 24 hours a day; malls offer a vast array of consumer goods to kids, who then feel pressured by their peers to keep up with the latest goodies; and the internet (where you now have access to limitless amounts of information) provides more details to sort through, more things to digest, and more possibilities to consider.

The pressure to do well in school is stronger than ever before; college or university is touted as the only route to a good life, especially as well-paying, unskilled jobs are drying up.  At the same time, the cost of education is soaring, and loans and grants are harder to find.  As a result, many young students are acutely aware that their present grades may determine their future.  Even the well-meaning parental desire for kids to be well-rounded create a stressful environment for many kids today.  Today’s kids are busier than ever before:  between after-school activities, sports, church activities, dance and music lessons, their days tend to be full and their nights late.

Parents are increasingly anxious about their kids missing out or falling behind or not being competitive in today’s world.  They want their kids to have the best education, the best extra-curricular activities, to be the best at everything they do, and so unfortunately, this places increasing pressure on our kids to perform, to meet our expectations, to “succeed” in their future – at least in the way we think they should.  So we are seeing in our office an increase in kids struggling with performance anxiety and perfectionism.  We’re also seeing an increase in kids cheating or lying to avoid failure or to avoid disappointing their parents.  We’re seeing kids disengage from school because they’ve given up and figured they’ll never be able to succeed so why bother.

NOT ENOUGH FAMILY – To make things even more complicated, kids are experiencing a double jeopardy in their young lives:  too much stress, not enough family.  We can’t escape the reality that family life is changing dramatically in our society – research shows that childhood today has been transformed primarily because the family has changed,  and with those changes, come corresponding changes in our communities, schools and societal standards.  In the past, home used to be a place of sanctuary and security – kids could rely on it to provide encouragement, protection and to give them a stable place where they can develop coping and life skills.

But today’s kids are experiencing not only MORE stress, they’re experiencing LESS support from their families (who are also stressed out and dealing with a lot of pressures themselves). More and more kids are growing up in single-parent families or are raised in families where both parents work full-time.   Without going into details about the actual statistics, we are probably all well aware of the changing face of our families with the soaring divorce rates, which has had a significant impact on the stress level of our kids.

Now I want to make a very important point here:  my reasons for pointing out these statistics isn’t to blame or condemn parents who have experienced some of what I’ve just mentioned – I know full well that there are often lots of reasons why families break down.  However, it’s very important that we face into reality with our eyes WIDE OPEN so that we can actually deal with it; denial or minimizing of problems doesn’t help.  And the reality is that there is absolutely NO WAY to avoid the negative impact of separation or divorce on kids as well as the stresses of blending new families and adjusting to new living situations.

Bottom line is that especially in the early stages of childhood, kids need a parent close at hand who’s involved and a source of security for them.  Research has shown that this is the number one source of resilience for our kids.  If you’re interested in learning more about how to create a secure attachment with your children and how to nurture them so that they have the resiliency to handle the ups and downs of life, you can check out my CD series, Life-Proofing Your Kids.

I know that the information I’ve presented is sobering, but it will hopefully be a wake-up call for us as parents, caregivers, teachers and leaders to do everything we can to mitigate against the reality of stress and work together to do everything in our power to provide our kids with the support, tools and encourage they need to thrive in today’s world.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some additional information about stress on our kids, what happens in their bodies, and what steps we can take to help them be resilient.  So stay tuned!


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