Today's Overscheduled Kids
The New Super Kid
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.