Today's Overscheduled Kids
Kids Under Pressure
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.