Childhood is a relatively new invention, basically unheard of until the early 20th century. At that point, child labor laws placed age restrictions on factory workers, public schools became more common, and kids began to experience free time that they had not had before. TV shows from the mid-20th century portray childhood as an idyll, a time of discovery and play and little responsibility.
Fast forward to the early 21st century. Kids now are under more stress than ever.
In addition to watching their parents struggle through the recession of 2008, kids born in the U.S. in the year 2000 have experienced two wars, multiple deadly school shootings, and three bitter political contests. And that’s just the start! At school, the pressure to perform has increased exponentially, with waiting lists for competitive preschools and high schools pushing Advanced Placement (AP) classes for college credit in the ninth grade.
The results of increased academic and societal pressures on kids are troubling: over three-fourths of people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) suffer their first episode before age 22, and teens with anxiety are at increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse and risky sexual behavior.
So how can we help kids manage their stress levels to minimize the risk for developing anxiety and other stress-related illness?
Don’t over schedule
Kids these days run from school to extracurricular activities to play dates to lessons to homework to bed. Limit the number of activities that your kids can participate in so that they can enjoy each one more fully.
Make room for play and downtime
Kids need time to rest their bodies and explore their imaginations. Unstructured free time, even if it comes with complaints of, “I’m bored!’ helps kids to stretch their creative muscles. If they need structure within the lack of structure, sit down with them and make a list of things they can do. Make sure to keep TV time and screens off the list!
Limit screen time
Stress is not just caused by pressures at school. The world can be a scary place for kids, and watching TV and freely surfing the web can be overwhelming and stressful. Limit the amount of time that kids can hang out online, monitor their social media sites, and think about using the parental controls that come with your cable and internet. You don’t need to keep your kids in the dark, but you can help them deal with bad news in a more moderate way.
Kids need 60 minutes of exercise daily. Go take a walk, play with the dog, create an obstacle course inside when it’s rainy: the possibilities are endless. Exercise can be broken up into 30-minute chunks to make it more manageable and can include things like dancing and playing tag!
Make time for sleep
Kids need a lot more sleep than adults, and their requirements change as they age. Make sure that a bedtime routine is consistent and that the winding down starts early in the evening, especially if your kid has difficulty falling asleep.
Some kids need more predictable routines. Support this by developing bedtime routines, morning routines, and routines for any type of transition during the day (e.g., from school to home). This can be as small as packing lunches for the next day right after dinner, changing into play clothes after school, or singing a special song for breakfast.
Help kids learn how to deal with stress
Stress is a fact of life, and some of that stress comes from worrying about making a mistake or being wrong. Remind your kids as they get older that making mistakes is part of life, and the more important part is how they recover from their mistakes. Teach them to take responsibility for what they can change next time and to move on from the things they have no control over.
Watch the amount of pressure you put on your older kids
Do they really need to take five AP classes a semester? Practice tennis for four hours a day? Study until the wee hours of the morning? Life is about balance. Yes, some kids are naturally driven and will thrive under the pressure, but most are not and will eventually crack. There is a difference between working hard for a personal goal and pushing your kids to their limit. Learn to distinguish between the two, and let your kids tell you when it’s too much.
Deal well with your own stress
Your kids are watching you more than they are listening to you, especially as they get older. Do you deal well with stress, or do you explode? If you have trouble dealing with your own stress, work on developing your own coping skills, and let your kids watch you get better at it. Make sure that you are getting enough sleep and exercise, too!
With a little time and attention, you can help your kids release excess stress and also teach them how to cope with the demands of daily life.
What stress-busting strategies work for your family?
Image by Scott Creswell via Flickr