'Kidstress': Is the Daily Grind Stressing Children Out?

"How are you, honey?" I recently asked my friend's daughter, Allie, 9, who replied, "I'm stressed to the max. I have a ton of homework. I have this huge science project due next week and I'm trying to learn a new piano piece before our recital." Her scrunchied blonde hair bobbing, she added, only slightly melodramatically: "I could be the poster child for stress." "Our children are taking on our own hectic lifestyles, and the stress we're under is filtering down to them. Kids think that the constant rat race is just the way life is supposed to be," says David Marks, M.D., father of three, former medical director of the New England Center for Headache in Stamford, Conn., medical reporter for WNBC's "Today In New York", and the author of Raising Stable Kids in An Unstable World. Although our youngsters have certainly been affected by the unsettling conditions in the world over the past few years, Dr. Marks believes that many of the factors leading to childhood stress originate much closer to home. He contends many parents are guilty of "efficiency parenting" — directing every moment of a child's day toward some pre-determined goal. Because we are living in a competitive world, pressure to succeed starts early, and parents, wanting only the best for their children, can inadvertently increase the stress on their kids by providing them with too many activities or enhancement programs. Infants are exposed to "music appreciation" in utero; toddlers are drilled on shapes, colors and numbers in preparation for preschool "interviews"; and 6-year-olds have soccer practice two or three times a week. There is too much time spent jumping in and out of taxis, rushing from one place to another. Youngsters today have too little time to daydream, to lie on their backs and watch the clouds drift across the sky, or to walk slowly down the street and observe the flowers, birds and skyscrapers which are part of the city landscape. "Trucking here and there, which stresses out parents and children, is not quality time," Dr. Marks says. Particularly in Manhattan, where, says Dr. Marks, "the world always spins very fast", there's intense competition to get children into the ‘right’ nursery school or the most prestigious private school. Parents often engage in the ‘mini-me’ syndrome and the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ complex, wanting to raise ‘trophy children’ they can show off proudly and who they hope will make up for their own shortcomings or unfulfilled dreams. " It's difficult, but parents need to get honest with themselves about their real motivation for pushing their kids," Dr. Marks adds. Sometimes children become overwhelmed even if they have parents who are careful not to exert excessive pressure on them. Mariel Schlesinger, 11, of Little Neck, Queens, says she worries about getting good grades because she wants her parents to be proud of her. "Sometimes I feel stressed because things get too much for me to handle, like when I have a project due for school and I get nervous that I won't be able to finish it in time. I'm afraid that my teacher or my mom will be disappointed if I don't do it perfectly." Mariel, who's starting middle school next year, also worries about being popular and about making friends in her new school. Her mother Alicia Schlesinger, a school nurse, says, "Children worry about meeting the expectations, both real and imagined, of their parents. Children also experience stress if there's illness in the family or if there is excessive parental conflict. It's particularly difficult for them if they're given the message that they're not supposed to talk about these things. Parents should know that providing a safe place for children to express their feelings is a very important way of decreasing their stress level."

Most of us think we know a lot about the kinds of issues and problems that cause stress for our children. However, a study conducted several years ago by Georgia Witkin, Ph.D. (a prominent clinical psychologist; assistant professor in the department of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Science at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine; and author of several books, including Kidstress), revealed a great deal of discrepancy between parents' perception of what upsets their children and the kids’ actual worries. Dr. Witkin polled more than 700 children under 12 and more than 600 parents, and found that the parents underestimate how much children worry and feel alone, how often their children are afraid to talk to them about their feelings, how much insomnia kids experience when they're stressed, how much school stresses them, and how much parental behavior — fighting, getting angry, losing control emotionally or physically — upsets and frightens them. The kids surveyed said their top stressors were school (worry about tests, grades, flunking, teachers), followed by concerns about family and parents (health, money, moods, possibility of divorce), peer pressures (not being popular, dealing with bullies, gangs or teasing), and world concerns (safe air and water, nuclear war, injustices). Overall, she discovered that only 12 percent of the youngsters said they didn't worry very often, while 53 percent said they worried sometimes, and a full 31 percent said they worried a lot. Dr. Witkin found that the majority of children (65 percent) want to be alone when they're upset, but only one in three parents surveyed was aware of this. She also found that parents missed many stress symptoms, understanding that headaches, stomachaches and insomnia are some of the ways that children manifest stress, but generally missing shaky hands, nausea, and lightheadedness. What are the symptoms of ‘kidstress’? According to Dr. Marks, one out of three American children suffers from illnesses that are either caused by stress or exacerbated by it. Along with the symptoms listed above, Dr. Marks mentions recurrent abdominal pain, chronic muscle or joint pain (typically seen in tweens), phantom chest pains or other aches, and wheezing. "Sleep problems are one of the most common manifestations of stress in children, along with an increased susceptibility to colds and viruses," he says. Symptoms of stress can also show up as behavioral changes. Children under stress may appear angry, irritable, withdrawn or depressed. According to Dr. Marks, children in various age groups often have different ways of indicating stress, although there is certainly a great deal of overlap. Toddlers and preschoolers may develop nervous habits (such as tics, nail biting, excessive blinking, hair twirling), may appear fearful or clingy, may show signs of regression, may become aggressive or have frequent tantrums, and may experience chronic diarrhea, belly pain or frequent colds. School-age children might experience unexplained aches and pains (including stomachaches and headaches), changes in eating or sleeping habits, nightmares, anxiety or nervous habits, refusal to go to school, a drop in grades, or decreased desire to be with friends. Helping Our Youngsters The good news, Dr. Witkin says, is that with a little more attention to the problem, the stress level of most children can be dramatically reduced. Parents first need to recognize that children do experience stress, although they may express it in different ways than we do. The second step is to be attuned to the myriad of physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms of childhood stress. And, of course, Dr. Witkin points out, it's crucial that we help children deal with the stresses by providing understanding, support, reassurance and lots of affection; that we are careful not to apply unreasonable pressures which only add to the problem; and that we model problem solving to show the ways in which, in our own lives, stress is surmountable. Parents also need to remember that children have their own styles of dealing with stress, and that coping strategies that work for one youngster will not necessarily work for the next. And, she says, parents can help to set up their kids' lives so that there is a manageable balance — with children having enough choices so they feel some personal power, yet with enough structure provided that they can usually predict what's coming next. "It's very important for parents to have a fair degree of self-awareness, and to be happy in their own skin," Dr. Marks says. "If we don't feel good about ourselves, we often put too much pressure on our children, who will pay the price of our own emotional distress." Parents also need to limit the amount of activities their youngsters engage in, he points out. For a child under age 3, one activity once or twice a week is enough, whereas the 4- to 6-year-old child can have a couple of "low pressure activities" limited to three hours per week. Dr. Marks also emphasizes the importance of family time, saying, "It's not so much what you do with your kids as much as the fact that you do it on a consistent basis." It's paramount that parents carve out time to be with their children, engaging in structured activities such as board games along with unstructured time spent listening to music together, throwing a ball around or going out for a soda and conversation, he says. Parents can help lower their children's stress level by making sure youngsters eat well and get enough sleep. (Recent studies have shown that the majority of children today are suffering from serious sleep deprivation). We can also help by teaching our children some of the stress management/relaxation skills that have helped us (such as deep breathing or meditation), by helping them prioritize, and by allowing them to vent when they are frustrated or upset. Celebrating their successes, providing comfort during trying times, and letting our youngsters know that we love them for who they are, and not for what they do, are other important ways of reducing childhood stress. Most important, Dr. Marks urges, it is important to keep the lines of communication open.

—————————————————— In these stressful times, raising children who are happy, secure and self-confident is even more important than before. And if your child does happen to go through a particularly stressful period, remember that hugs, compassion and liberal doses of affection can be the best medicine of all.

When you fight in front of your kids ... see article, page xx


photo caption, for main story, page 7: “kidstress” (vertical) photo

“Kids think that the constant rat race is just the way life is supposed to be," says David Marks, M.D., author of ‘Raising Stable Kids in An Unstable World’. ——————————————————————————————————————

pull quote for page 7 —————————————————— Dr. Marks contends many parents are guilty of "efficiency parenting" — directing every moment of a child's day toward some pre-determined goal. ————————————————

All Work and Not Enough Play: Avoiding Burnout in After-School Activities

By Carolyn Campbell

My kids could never catch up with my friend Margaret’s kids. Her children were always enrolled in at least one music lesson and one art lesson, along with playing two sports and participating in Scouts and church activities. My kids seemed content with one lesson each and several afternoons of TV and Nintendo. Looking back at her childhood, clinical psychologist Valerie Hale, Ph.D, says she preferred participating in many activities because she didn’t want to be home alone while her mother worked. Yet today, in counseling children, she often recommends no more than one or two after-school activities a week, and she suggests that less is more. While choosing a child’s activities is certainly an individual choice, what guidelines do professionals suggest parents consider to avoid burnout and keep activity participation stress-free?

Allow children to help choose their activities "Asking a child to help select his activities gives him the feeling of, ‘I’m driving this bus –– not my parents,’" says Dr. Hale, adding that parents may occasionally want their child to pursue an interest that is actually theirs rather than the child’s. "There is a subset of parents who meet their own self-esteem needs through the accomplishment of their children, and feel guilty if they see their child digging in the dirt with a stick. I would suggest parents listen to kids’ opinions and not be frightened to hear what their real interests are." Cheryl Wright, associate professor and director of the Child and Family Development Center at the University of Utah, adds: "Parents can ask the child what plans he has for when he is not participating in an activity, and realize that a child can develop lifelong habits or a valuable hobby or enjoy reading in unscheduled time." Clinical psychologist Nan Klein and her son decided that his activities would meet one of two criteria –– they would either develop a skill he wanted to learn, such as playing the piano, or allow him to interact with other kids, such as sports and Scouts.

Boredom isn’t all bad Dr. Hale feels that boredom is underrated, and can actually lead to creativity and inventiveness. "With kids today, there’s a sense of ‘bring on the next act — I’m bored," she says, which may lead to the feeling that parents then have to stimulate the child. She explains that taking time to decide which activity comes next helps allow the child to determine his genuine interests. "If a child has an activity every day, where is the opportunity to focus on an individual activity and explore the depth of it?" asks Dr. Hale.

Watch for physical signs of burnout A child who is overscheduled in too many activities may become irritable, have trouble sleeping, change his eating habits and stop wanting to continue attending an activity, says Professor Wright. "If there are disruptions in any of the above areas, parents can get clues that their child has too much going on."

Structured time has a down side Dr. Hale cites an Atlantic Monthly survey that studied children who were born between 1979 and 1982. The survey considered these children as the first generation of kids who had real ‘play dates’ and lots of structured time. Studying these children’s lives in May 2001, the survey determined that they were "not risk-takers and were very compliant," says Dr. Hale. She adds that such children weren’t as creative, needed a lot of structure, and chose to schedule time to be with their friends as opposed to spontaneous ‘hanging out’. "As a parent, I wonder about all of these structured activities. I find it troubling that too many structured activities are scheduled after a structured day at school," Dr. Hale points out. "Too, with schools adding increasing amounts of homework, sometimes the last thing a child needs is another structured task that requires more mental and emotional energy."

Remember that leisure time is valuable time Professor Wright explains that time for reflection and time to just sit is very undervalued in our competitive, rushed society. "We don’t value just gearing down as much as we should," she says. "Letting children play, particularly young children, is the antidote to their stress. We need to value the time when children just play, entertain themselves or play with their friends." She adds that children need to learn how to manage and allot unscheduled time just as adults do. Allowing them to have unscheduled time helps them develop this skill.

Allow activities to end When a child says, "I want to quit," parents may ask themselves if they should allow the child to give up on a commitment, says Dr. Hale. "But like adults, kids should be allowed to say, ‘I hate this,’ or ‘These lessons aren’t what I expected.’ If a child has made a short-term commitment to other people — such as playing on a basketball team one year and wants to quit mid-season, I would probably encourage him to finish the year and not sign up again," says Dr. Hale. "But if a 14-year-old child has played piano for four years and now wants to play trumpet, I wouldn’t continue forcing him into something he’s had time to decide he doesn’t want to do."

The source of your child’s most important activities Professor Wright says that the most important times that children are going to spend are quality times with their parents and their families. "The most important aspect of development is emotional health, and no class is going to be better than family time, when the most important lessons will be learned," she says. "Remember to enjoy your children, and remind yourself that parents who don’t sit down and play games or basketball with their kids are the ones who will regret when their kids are out of the house." She says that many parents who look back say they would spend more time just listening and asking their children what their opinions are. "Family activities, like fishing and playing basketball, are a great way to get to know your child better — that’s when they open up and start talking."

CAROLYN CAMPBELL is the author of three books, most recently ‘Reunited: True Stories Of Long Lost Siblings Who Find Each Other Again' (Penguin-Putnam).