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Karen and Matt Mitguard often think back fondly on their own childhoods -- full of bike-riding, ball games with the neighboring kids, carefree summers spent outdoors -- and wish their own children's lives could be so stress free.
"They've just got so much more on their plates," says Karen, 45, a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "I don't remember ever being under as much pressure."
Her son Cole, 16, has so many school assignments to juggle -- in addition to year-round workouts for the football team -- that he needs a handheld computer to keep track of them all. Sophia, 13, hits the books for up to four hours a night when she isn't pursuing soccer, track, or karate, or practicing the saxophone. Skyler, 9, spends his days commuting to and from sports practice and his nights grappling with math homework. Even 2-year-old Saori can't avoid life's pressures altogether; she spends several days a week at preschool, where she has to adjust to different caregivers and learn to get along with a group of fellow toddlers.
"I don't want to discourage them from being active and doing well in school, but I'm really concerned about them suffering from burnout," says Matt, 48, who also works as an EPA regulator. "And I don't want them to miss out on us spending time together as a family." Karen worries that her children's lifestyle leaves too little room for imagination and curiosity, let alone fun. "When we were kids, we'd pick up a rock and wonder why it looked the way it did," she says. "Nobody has the time to do that now -- unless they're in geology camp."
Their dilemma is pretty much the American norm, just as parents everywhere are realizing that stress has become a major risk for our nation's children. Today's adolescents and teens are overtaxed and overburdened to a degree that was once seen only in child psychiatric patients, according to a 2000 analysis of research spanning five decades by Jean Twenge, PhD, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. In a 1999 poll of 724 adolescents, ages 9 to 12, by Georgia Witkin, PhD, director of The Stress Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, close to one-third said they "worried a lot" about school, family, and world events, and nearly half had trouble sleeping due to stress.
Now, a certain amount of stress can be a good thing. The occasional surge of cortisol and adrenaline, the chemicals the body produces in response to stress, can give kids an extra push to master physical challenges and new skills. But living in a constant state of tension is a major health problem. The Surgeon General has reported that 13 percent of children suffer from stress-related anxiety disorders. Those numbers may be just the tip of a vastly underreported iceberg, say experts, who believe that stress contributes to such physical problems as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and more. And there's speculation that chronic exposure can cause changes that impair the brain's prefrontal cortex, which summons memories and controls behavior; the result, says Dr. Twenge, may be a lifetime predisposition toward anxiety and depression. The threat is so serious that some experts want to see stress-management programs, already offered in some schools, taught from elementary through high school. But they also emphasize that the only real solution may be for parents to make major changes in their kids' lifestyles -- and their own.
Why are our children more stressed out than kids of previous generations? Part of the reason is that they're coming of age in a world that has grown increasingly dangerous.
"I have kids coming into my office who've watched, over and over again, those planes hit the World Trade Center, and those astronauts getting blown up on the space shuttle," says Edward Christophersen, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. "It's important for kids to know about wars and terrorism and disasters, but there isn't any value to bombarding them with these images."
Indeed, a study by University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center psychiatrist Betty Pfefferbaum, MD, of 3,200 high-school students in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing found a direct correlation between the amount of post-traumatic stress the teens experienced and the amount of TV news coverage they had watched.
America's children, however, are also victims of a contemporary culture where there's too much artificial stimulation and too little interaction with parents and siblings, and where adults force kids into a 24-7 lifestyle that precludes any rest or relaxation.
While kids often turn to electronic diversions to help them de-stress, playing frenetic computer games and watching action movies end up overstimulating them even more, an effect that's amplified because they are usually solitary pursuits.
"Unless kids are in an organized or family activity, they're doing these things alone," says Dr. Witkin. "The human connectedness that used to mediate stress isn't there anymore."
Parents who themselves are running on empty only worsen the problem. "They don't get to spend as much time with their kids, and when they do, the kids never get to see their parents relax," says Dr. Witkin. "The result is that children don't have good role models for de-stressing." What's more, overloaded moms and dads are also prone to arguing, which can have a deleterious effect on the kids. A 1994 study at Auburn University, in Alabama, found that children whose parents argued frequently experienced higher heart rates than their peers when they watched simulated arguments between adults.
For children, the pressure starts sooner than one might imagine. Many infants, who are likelier these days to have babysitters, find it stressful to cope with different caretakers. Once children start daycare or preschool, "they're continually having to adjust to different adults, and their different rules and expectations," says Mary McMullen, PhD, associate professor of early childhood education at Indiana University in Bloomington. "But they have a limited ability at that age to express what they need, and not all of the adults know them well enough to read their verbal and behavioral clues. The result is that kids become anxious and frustrated."
Second, toddlers are often overstimulated or frustrated by well-intentioned parents who want to teach them as much as possible. "We're making them listen to Mozart and trying to turn them into geniuses," says Dr. McMullen. "But they can't handle it."
The stress is even greater in grade school, where the pressure to perform well academically is greater than ever, in part because of government-mandated standardized testing. Various studies suggest that at least a quarter of all children suffer from test-related anxiety serious enough to make them physically sick.
The afternoon bell doesn't provide much of a respite, since the amount of homework done by 6- to 9-year-olds has more than doubled since 1981, according to University of Michigan researchers. What's more, studying has to be squeezed in with after-school activities and sports, which are themselves becoming more competitive and demanding. There was a time when kids played basketball or hockey for a few months a year, and many youthful athletes were stars in several sports; today, children concentrate year-round on a single sport and spend hours in the off-season working out in the weight room, attending camps, and playing in summer leagues. So it's little wonder that a study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior in 2002 reported that by 10th grade, more than 90 percent of high-school sophomores had dropped out of an organized sport they'd started.
By the teen years, 43 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds say they feel stressed every single day; by ages 15 to 17, the number rises to 59 percent, according to a 2003 survey conducted by Liberty Mutual and Students Against Destructive Decisions/Drunk Driving. Teens have to cope with all sorts of new challenges, such as puberty, driving, and after-school jobs, but most of them -- 83 percent -- say they're stressed about homework and the pressure to excel; 57 percent cite their relationships with parents, and 54 percent feel anxiety about their appearance and weight.
The warning signs that your child might be cracking under all the pressure vary with age. Infants may resist eating, toddlers may have intense temper tantrums, and kindergarten and grade-school kids develop insomnia.
There are other physical consequences: Based on research at Mount Sinai, Dr. Witkin blames stress for the earlier onset of headaches among children, some as young as 3. A 2000 study of pediatric asthma patients in Finland, published in the medical journal The Lancet, found that children were more likely to suffer asthma attacks in the wake of stressful events. And children who showed greater sensitivity to stress developed respiratory ailments when under pressure more often than did kids who were more emotionally resilient, according to a 1995 study at the University of California at San Francisco.
Research also suggests that stress, which causes the body to produce chemicals that lead to cravings for sugar and fat, can exacerbate diabetes and put children at greater risk for becoming overweight. The percentage of overweight American children has risen from 5 to 15 percent in the past three decades, and health experts suspect it's more than a coincidence that kids have become more stressed during the same time.
In high school, the challenges are even more daunting. A 2000 National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study suggests that kids with stress-induced high cortisol levels are likelier to abuse liquor when they get older. Beyond those behaviors is the most frightening extreme of all: suicide. According to a 2001 Department of Health and Human Services report, the suicide rate among teenagers has increased 30 percent since 1970.
But we may not see the worst consequences until the future; a 2003 study of 649 college students by sociologists Heather Turner and Melissa Butler at the University of New Hampshire found that childhood stress was a significant factor in young-adult depression, and other research has confirmed the link. Sharon Post, a family therapist in San Jose, California, worries that today's stressed-out kids will turn into a generation of emotionally damaged adults. Kids who've grown up being pressured to overachieve grow into confused, alienated young adults, says Post. "Their sense of worth will come from what they do, rather than who they are. They won't know who they really are."
Fortunately, there is help for our kids -- if we know where to look. Linda Balog, PhD, executive director of the Child and Adolescent Stress Management Institute at the State University of New York College at Brockport, has developed stress management programs that can be taught to children of all ages. She starts with breathing techniques that help relax muscles and release tension, then suggests a few remedies.
"Exercise is one of the best -- as long as the goal is to have fun and provide a healthy outlet for all that adrenaline," she says. "We also encourage kids to discuss the importance of making time to relax. It's surprising how many of them don't allow themselves that because of all the pressure from parents, teachers, or within."
But experts also say it's crucial for parents to change the whole family's lifestyle. When Dr. Witkin separately surveyed children and parents about the causes of kids' stress, she got very different sets of responses. Parents said the biggest culprit was too many activities and pressure to get good grades; in contrast, children said their real problem was their parents' stress and how it was passed on to them. "The kids are hearing, 'What do you mean, you don't feel like going to soccer today? I paid the money for you to register and rushed home from work to drive you there,'" she says. "Meanwhile, the parents don't have any time for themselves and their own needs -- or just to enjoy what time they do have with their kids. And that trickles down."
Yvonne Gustafson, PhD, a parent educator for Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, urges moms and dads to start helping their kids by working on their own de-stressing routine, such as listening to quiet music or simply enjoying silence on the drive home from work, so they'll be better equipped to put the day's worries aside when they greet their children. They can develop rituals that help the whole family relax during evenings and weekends, whether it's a group walk with the dog before dinner, playing a board game together, or reserving time to talk to one another. "You can help your kids by giving yourself time to see who they are," says Sharon Post. "If they're not involved in every available activity, that's okay. It's more important for you just to be with them."
The Mitguards have taken that sort of wisdom to heart. Matt says they've reinstituted family dinner, where he, Karen, and the kids each get time to talk about their days. He and his wife also reserve after-dinner time for the kids, whether it's reading to young Saori or helping Cole tackle science homework. The children have also taken a cue from their parents and now make priority lists to help them manage their time. They're so aware of the need to de-stress that Sophia chose it as the topic of her seventh-grade science fair project by creating a survey to measure and compare the various stressors in her classmates' lives. She even asked her coach if she could skip an off-season soccer workout so she could have time to relax. "It was a sign she was learning to take care of herself, to balance her commitments and her own needs," says Karen. "That's what we want all our kids to do."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, June 2004.