Calming Anxious Lives

A Holistic Approach to Parenting

In all, Skylar reports, she is a happy kid. “But sometimes, if I’m super stressed, I’ll go cry in my room,” she confesses. “I sometimes just wish there wasn’t so much pressure.”

Such a statement from a child is particularly chilling. But, according to a growing body of research and legions of concerned child development experts, Skylar is not alone.

Troubling Trends

According to a study by the California-based Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, up to 70 percent of parents report that their 9- to 13-year-old children experience moderate to high levels of stress. In a recent poll of high school students by Stanford University, 65 percent admitted they were often or always stressed out. According to the National Mental Health Information Center, anxiety disorders affect 13 out of every 100 children ages 9 to 17.

Nationwide, healthcare providers report an increase in stress-related health problems like stomach aches, teeth grinding, sleep disorders and behavioral problems in children as young as preschool age. Some anxiety can be attributed to trouble at home, such as abuse or personal tragedy. But a more insidious culprit appears to have emerged: a culture of hyper-parenting, in which kids are overscheduled and academically overloaded, and adult role models—concerned about everything from terrorism to pandemics and the economy—are more stressed than ever.

“We have stumbled into a unique moment in the history of childhood, a cocktail of cultural and historical trends that have intersected to create a perfect storm,” says Carl Honoré, a 41-year-old father of two and author of Under Pressure: Rescuing our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.

He notes how anxious parents are feeling the need to prepare their kids for a tough job market. They have money to afford extracurricular activities, and because they are becoming parents later in life and raising fewer children, they have a tendency to dote on them and expect great things. “Children are the target of more adult anxiety and intervention today than at any time in history,” says Honore.

Most troubling is the realization that too much childhood stress can have lifelong health consequences. According to a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control, chronic or severe childhood stress can disrupt the development of fragile brain circuitry, resulting in a “low threshold for stress,” throughout life. Excess stress hormones, like cortisol, can also damage the brain region responsible for learning and memory and impair the immune system, leaving kids vulnerable to asthma, allergies and other illness.

The good news: Parents who take care to shield their children from excess stress and help them deal with inevitable stressors in a healthy way, can set them up for better long-term mental and physical health.

“In a very real way, Mother Nature expects parents to be good parents,” says psychology professor Chris Coe, Ph.D., an immunology researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It helps to guide a child’s biology in the right direction.”

What Parents Can Do

The first key step, experts say, is for parents to learn to recognize when their kids are stressed out, and it can happen far earlier than many assume.

“It starts to kick in around their first or second birthday,” says psychologist Charles Fay, Ph.D., president of the Golden, Colorado-based parenting organization, the Love and Logic Institute.

Fay says toddlerhood (12 to 30 months) is particularly stressful, as kids go through potty training and learning to walk. For older preschoolers, changing schools, older siblings moving away or parents divorcing can all be stressful.

While some stress can be beneficial, adults need to be vigilant about looking for signs that a child is experiencing too much stress, particularly if the child is too young to verbalize his or her feelings. Common signs include regression, temper tantrums, withdrawal and tummy, head or muscle aches.

Hyperactivity Can Signal Stress

“We see a lot of kids and families who are in a perpetual state of fight or flight and sadly, the kids get wrongly diagnosed with learning and behavior disorders, such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder),” says Fay.

Another tip:  Check your own stress level. “Kids take their emotional cues from the adults around them,” advises Fay. “A lot of high-achieving, perfectionist kids think mistakes are the end of the world, because they see their parents reacting that way.” 

He counsels parents to model positive reactions to stress. Take a moment to tell the kids a funny story about how you spilled coffee in your lap and had to run home to change—and the lesson learned. Instead of freaking out as you rush around the house looking for the car keys, say, “Oh well. It’s not the end of the world if I am a few minutes late.”

Experts say overscheduling is another chronic source of stress, with many parents shuttling junior from story time to baby yoga to playdates. According to a 2001 study by University of Michigan researchers, children ages 3 to 5 have eight fewer hours per week of free play time than they did in 1981. Kids ages 6 to 8 enjoy 13 fewer hours of free time.

An easy solution: “Remind yourself that it is okay for kids to be bored,” says Fay, noting that boredom fosters creativity and prepares kids for a “real life” that is not always action-packed.

If you find yourself often eating in the car en route to endless pursuits, your child throws a fit or falls asleep on the way to a practice or he or she doesn’t talk much about an activity (a sign of genuine interest), it could be a wake-up call. Ask your child to make a list of his or her favorite interests, in order of priority, Fay suggests, and trim off the bottom.

On the flip side, Fay counsels that too little structure at home can be stressful for kids; they look to their parents to demonstrate assertiveness and provide the boundaries that make them feel safe. “If you have anxious kids, one question to ask is, ‘Am I setting enough limits and sticking to those limits?’”

School-age Solutions

By far, the most common cause of school-age anxiety (particularly amid middle-to-upper-income suburban kids) is academic stress. Numerous studies show that adolescents place schoolwork above friend problems, bullying and trouble at home when ranking stressors.

One recent Stanford University poll of 496 high school students in California’s Bay Area found that when students were asked to list what causes the most stress in their lives, 68 percent cited schoolwork. Nearly 78 percent reported having experienced stress-related physical problems like headaches, weight gain, insomnia or stomach problems. In some cases, excess stress turns to depression and tragedy can strike.

“Kids are more stressed than in the past for a whole host of reasons, and it is a big problem,” confirms education researcher and Stanford lecturer, Denise Pope. “There is more emphasis on testing, and kids feel the pressure from their teachers. Homework levels have gone up significantly. They feel like they are the hope for the future, and the pressure is on.”

Research supports Pope’s conclusion, including a 2004 University of Michigan survey of more than 2,900 students that found the time it takes kids to complete their homework has increased 51 percent since 1981.

In response, Pope, a mother of three, founded the Stressed Out Students Project (now called Challenge Success) in 2007. The national organization teaches parents and teachers how to minimize academic stress.

The first step, she says, is for parents to clearly define their own vision of “success” for their child. Is it really attendance at an Ivy League school? Or, is it participating in an enjoyable college environment that enriches their life?

“People have this vision that their child has to get straight As and involve themselves in every extracurricular activity in order to get into a good college: Not true,” states Pope. “There is a college out there for every student who wants to go to college.”

If a parent gets the sense that their child’s homework levels are excessive, they need to be proactive and call the teacher, says Pope. As a general rule, kids should have no more than 10 minutes of homework per grade level (10 minutes for first-graders, 30 for third-graders, two hours for high school seniors, etc.). Pope asks her child’s teachers to send work home in advance in weekly packets, so they can distribute it over the week around other commitments.

“I know kids who do different, multiple sports each season after school, then come home every day, eat dinner and start in on homework at 8 or 9. We are asking them to put in longer days than most adults do,” Pope remarks.

Let Kids Be Kids

Honoré, a London author who has made a living writing books about how to slow down and lead a less frenzied life, says he too, found himself falling into the “hyper-parenting” trap. When his son’s art instructor suggested his 7-year-old might have a gift for art, he found himself sifting through catalogues, looking for just the right afterschool course or summer class to nurture his budding Picasso’s special talent. When his son got the news, he looked at his father, dumfounded, and asked, “Why do grownups have to take over everything?”

“I realized I had lost my bearings as a parent,” Honoré says. He backed off and ended up writing a book about it. He now takes care to ask himself what his motives are before guiding his son toward an activity: Is it for me, or is it for him?

Meanwhile, this grassroots researcher is optimistic that “The pendulum is beginning to swing back,” and that a backlash against hyper-parents and stressed-out kids is upon us.

In 2008, Toronto became one of the first jurisdictions in North America to crack down on excess homework, all but eliminating it in elementary grades and banning it during weekends and holidays. Meanwhile, communities across the United States have begun to host “Ready, Set, Relax” days, where all homework and extracurricular activities are canceled.

On a smaller scale, experts say the revolution toward less stressed-out kids can begin when parents look at their kids in a new light. As Pope puts it: “We need to love the kid before us, not the kid we want them to be.”

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Lisa Marshall is a freelance writer and mother of four in Colorado.

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