Today's Overscheduled Kids
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.