Stress and anxiety in Children: How Much Can We Force Our Kids To Do?
Most adults believe that children lead idyllic, stress-free lives. Remembering their own childhoods with nostalgia, they say, “I remember when I was a kid, and I could just play all day. There were no worries about my job, health insurance, or paying the bills. Kids have it so easy.”
Unfortunately, this is a fantasy. Children do experience stress, and it’s increasingly common for them to experience a lot of it. In fact, there’s a good chance that your child is just as stressed as you are – and maybe even more so.
Consider the devastating recent rash of high-school suicides in Palo Alto. (link) Kids with bright futures became overwhelmed by stress, and simply couldn’t imagine continuing like this. Clearly, these kids are not experiencing an idyllic, worry-free childhood. Younger children, too, are experiencing stress-related health problems in increasing numbers. (link)
Causes of stress in kids
Without jobs and mortgages, what do children have to be stressed about? The list is long, but here are a few of the most common causes of stress for children.
Parents using technology
Because children are so vulnerable and dependent on their parents, it makes sense that they’ve adapted to be extremely sensitive to any interruption in the relationship with a parent. Studies have shown that quality, face-to-face, uninterrupted time with parents is crucial for children’s well-being.(link) However, spending real, quality time with your kids, is becoming increasingly harder to do. Most parents, particularly those with busy tech jobs, spend a great deal of time on their phones and laptops. Children notice this, and it makes them feel unimportant. Research has found, heartbreakingly, that well over half of children state that they feel that they’re less important to their parents than are the parents’ smartphones. What’s worse, is that children can’t tell their parents how they feel, because the parents dismiss their feelings and continue with the behavior. (link)
Parents know that education is important, and they’re certainly right about that. However, many modern parents seem to believe that more homework equals more learning.
Educational scholars disagree. In fact, a large number of studies have shown that extra homework doesn’t actually improve learning, particularly in the elementary school years. (link) Unfortunately, a recent study also showed that children in that age group are currently receiving three times as much homework as is recommended based on the best research. (link) Teachers state that they’re responding to parental pressure. School often increase the homework load in order to convince parents that their kids are being well-educated.
That study also revealed that stress for all members of the family increases as the amount of homework increases. Children find it stressful to be asked to perform constantly, and they also feel stressed by the lack unstructured play time. Actually, this unstructured time is crucial for learning, and it’s being sacrificed in favor of extra homework, which doesn’t actually provide any benefit for learning.
Too many activities
It’s wonderful to think that your child has so many opportunities available to learn how to do interesting things. Most parents want to ensure that their children take full advantage of these opportunities – partly to ensure that they don’t fall behind their peers who are doing soccer, karate, violin, and dancing.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with doing any one of these activities. The problem with over-scheduling is that, when a child does too many activities, there’s a lack of unstructured time for play and exploration. (link)
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, free play is necessary for healthy brain development, and it has even been recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental right of every child. (link) During free play, children learn important social skills, including negotiation and conflict resolution. They practice adult roles, and explore their own interests so that they can discover how they want to contribute to the world. They face their fears and discover ways to overcome them. They develop their creativity and imaginative skills. These will all continue to be important throughout the child’s life, and are necessary for a healthy and successful adulthood.
Unfortunately, many modern parents schedule the entire afternoon with activities, leaving no free time to play. Children then fail to learn how to play with others, unless the activity is driven by an adult. This lack of social skill development can have significant consequences throughout the child’s life. They also fail to develop their own inner resources, meaning that they become more fragile adults whose mental and physical health are at risk.
It’s very important to consider how the child views the activity. Was it something the child chose, and is excited about? Or is it something the parent chose, which the child does with reluctance? Children find it stressful when they’re forced into activities they’re not interested in, but which their parents believe they should do to build a better resume. As the stress builds, children become more and more tired, and eventually collapse. They may refuse to continue with the activities, which often results in a power struggle, with parents becoming increasingly frustrated at the child’s refusal. Further, the child’s health may be impacted, as chronic stress is damaging to the body and brain.
How do you know if your child is stressed?
Children usually can’t express their feelings in the same way that adults can. The concept of “feeling stressed” is often too abstract for a child to articulate, and they are usually not introspective enough to recognize this feeling in themselves. Instead, when a child is experiencing stress, they may experience a variety of symptoms. (link)
Children who are stressed may show physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. They may have a loss of appetite or suffer indigestion. Physical symptoms may indicate a physical illness, but if no physical cause can be found for the symptoms, stress should be strongly suspected. In addition, because chronic stress damages the immune system, children may experience infections like colds more frequently when they’re stressed.
Sleep is also often disrupted in children who are stressed. They may have trouble sleeping, which may manifest as resistance to bedtime. They may also have frequent nightmares, or begin wetting the bed after having been night-trained. As a result of their poor sleep, children may also appear to be uncoordinated or “accident-prone.”
A stressed child may also show emotional symptoms. Stress can cause children to become irritable, with frequent anger outbursts. They may show aggressive behaviors like hitting and kicking, or have fights with friends or siblings. Habits like fingernail biting and teeth grinding are also common.
When stress is chronic, it may cause children to become lethargic. They may lose interest in things they previously enjoyed. They may appear to be lazy and detached. A decline in school achievement related to this lethargy may also occur. Parents may feel that they should increase the consequences for skipping schoolwork in order to motivate the child, when in fact, this may actually make the problem worse by further increasing stress on the child.
What can you do to reduce stress in your child's life?
If you believe that your child is stressed, there are steps you can take to help.
A child derives great comfort from a close relationship with a parent, and is stressed when that relationship is disrupted. Repairing and strengthening your relationship with your child is crucial for him or her to have a healthy emotional life. It’s very important to spend time with your child without the distraction of devices – for either of you. Hearing children describe how their parents pay more attention to their phones than the children themselves is disturbing. (link)
Use of your phone while interacting with your child not only disrupts your connection with your child in the moment but it also gives the child mixed messages and can damage their trust. Almost all parents are telling their children that too much use of electronic devices is bad for them and isn’t good for their brains. What is the child supposed to think when one minute they’re hearing about how bad it is and the next minute they see you doing it?
If you have more than one child, try to give each one some one-on-one time every week, even if it’s only an hour. One hour of your focused attention will be far more beneficial to the child than several hours of attention split between multiple children (and also your phone).
Carefully evaluate your child’s schedule, and make sure that unstructured time for free play is included regularly. If you find that your child doesn’t have enough of this, reduce your child’s activity burden. Notice which activities your child is excited about, and which ones he or she does only with reluctance. Drop the activities the child isn’t enjoying. Don’t worry; colleges don’t ask for a list of elementary school activities on an application.
If the homework burden is high at your child’s school, talk with your child’s teacher, or the school administrators. A commonly-used rule of thumb is no more than ten minutes of homework per night per grade level (i.e., twenty minutes for second grade, thirty minutes for third grade, etc.). (link) Again, extra homework is not beneficial for learning, so why would schools or parents want to increase stress on kids for no benefit?
Above all, remember that the best remedy for stress in children is love. Your kids need to know that you care about how they feel, and that your relationship with them is more important to you than other things. Nearly every parent would say that this is true. If it’s not reflected in your actions toward your child, you should carefully consider your priorities. You only get one chance to bond with your child during their early years, and to set your child up for a lifetime of emotional health.