Kids and Stress—February, 2019

Kids and Stress

A recent WebMD survey found that 72% of children have negative behaviors that are linked to stress. 62% have physical symptoms that indicate stress (headaches, stomachaches, etc.). Additionally, one indicator of extreme stress, suicide, has been going up the past few years. From 2000 to 2016, suicide rates for youth ages 10-24 increased as shown below. (These data come from the Centers for Disease Control.)

What are some of the stressors that school-age children have? According to the WebMD study, they include:

Faster child development. Thirty years ago, kindergarten was for finger painting, blocks and naps; state and federal standards across the nation have changed that. Time spent on early literacy in kindergarten has increased by 25% since 1998, while time spent on art, music, and physical education has dropped dramatically. This can lead to:

Academic pressures and high-stakes testing. According to Marian Earls, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in North Carolina, “I’ve seen third-graders coming in for help because their parents are noticing sleep problems, tearfulness, and reluctance to go to school because of all the hype on performance and testing.”

Over-stuffed schedules. Activities like sports or art or music should help relieve stress, not add to it. As adults, we need to take our cures from our kids. If they are feeling overwhelmed after starting a new sport or music lessons, it may be too much.

Fewer healthy outlets for stress. Since 2008, 20% of school systems have shortened recess time by an average of 50 minutes per week.

Media saturation and viewing adult content. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and constant connectivity, kids are exposed at a much younger age to terrifying news stories. Additionally, today’s young people see more than their share of violence and adult sexuality packaged as entertainment, often without their parents present, thanks to smartphones and tablets.

Bullying and teasing. Before the Internet, if a kid wasn’t invited to a birthday party, he or she heard about it, but didn’t have to see pictures of the missed fun on Instagram and Facebook. Yesterday’s nasty notes passed from hand to hand are today’s bullying texts, which can go viral with one click.

Not enough sleep. School pressures and the lure of social media chip away at the all-important stress reliever: sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about one-third of parents say homework and after-school activities get in the way of their child’s sleep. And nearly 3 in 4 children ages 6 to 17 have at least one electronic device in the bedroom, which can cut a night’s sleep down by almost an hour. Even slight sleep loss affects memory, judgment, and mood.

Chronic illness. Ongoing illnesses in children more than doubled between 1994 and 2006, from 12.8% to 26.6%, with asthma, obesity, and behavioral and learning problems topping the list. Missing school and play activities for doctor’s appointments, side effects from treatment, and not being able to do some things that other children do can also be very stressful.

Family disruption. Family issues like parental illness, deployment, or divorce take their toll. The divorce rate has remained fairly stable over the past decade or so, but few children of the 1980s and 1990s endured the anxiety of prolonged and frequent parental deployments. Today, more than 2 million American children have had a parent deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. Studies show that children from military families of all ages have more stress and anxiety than other children do.

Parental stress. The family is a child’s stress buffer. But when a family struggles and can’t play that role, a child feels even more tension. It’s easy for a parent to get in a zone of, ‘I need to do the next 20 things.’ Spending some unstructured time with our children can decrease stress and help us find energy for the next task.

So…what helps?

  • Stay connected with your kids. Make sure there’s time every day when everybody puts away their devices and talks to each other.
  • Take it easy. Don’t just run from one thing to another. Kids need regular, unstructured time at home to play, rest, read, etc.
  • Identify what stress is. Explain to kids how their bodies respond to stress, how to recognize the signs and how to deal with it.
  • Be healthful. Good nutrition and regular bedtimes are important.
  • Seek professional guidance. A counselor or pediatrician may help.
  • Take care of yourself. Easing your own stress will benefit your children.

We know that some stress is just part of life. However, the choices we make matter. Good choices help us minimize stress, deal with stress and teach our kids how to deal with it as well.




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