It Isn't Only Grown-Ups Who Get Ground Down by Stress—Your Kids May Be Hurting Too
07/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
The symptoms are all too familiar: migraine headaches, churning stomachs, clenched teeth and sleepless nights. They are the products of stress, the bane of hard-pressed executives and overextended housewives alike. Now researchers are finding that children too can be victims of pressure. Child psychologist Antoinette Saunders first became aware of the problem 10 years ago while teaching at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. "In those days we weren't thinking about depression in kids, much less stress," she recalls. "Those were adult problems, and suicidal gestures involving children were seen as accidents."
No more. Since 1980, when Saunders founded the Stress Education Clinic for Children and Their Families, in Evanston, Ill., more than 250 children, aged 6 to 17, have attended her workshops. She presents her findings in The Stress-Proof Child (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $14.95), a handbook for parents co-authored with writer Bonnie Remsberg. Saunders, 37, discussed some of her conclusions with correspondent Civia Tamarkin.
Are the stresses on kids greater today than in the past?
Definitely. There is the difficulty of dealing with the high divorce rate, coming home to empty houses because both parents work, even the threat of nuclear war. The world is a far more chaotic and violent place in which to grow up. For example, Halloween used to be a wonderful experience, but now everyone is concerned about what is in the treat bags.
What situations do children find most stressful?
Children of all ages say the most stressful experience is hearing their parents argue. Their first thought is that the arguing will lead to divorce and the loss of their family. Younger children talk about stress in terms of separation from their parents, being able to adjust to nursery school or kindergarten and being accepted by other kids.
What are the major stresses on older children?
For children aged 10 to 13, they are the normal stresses of growing up, such as peer pressure and the need to conform and be liked. They also have to deal with their bodies changing and with being exposed to drugs, alcohol, dating and sex. Kids have more freedom to experiment than ever before, and a lot of children feel that they are expected to be intimate when they are really not ready.
How can parents tell if their child is feeling stressed?
The signs are the same we see in adults. Kids get stomachaches and headaches. They become moody, irritable and easily distracted. They have trouble eating and sleeping, and they may get sick frequently. They do poorly in school when they are capable of doing better. Some withdraw; others become belligerent.
Why do some kids seem so resilient despite difficult home lives while others from stable families develop problems?
Some kids are just lucky because they are born with a certain personality chemistry that makes it easier for them to deal with the stresses in life. I've learned from observing infants in a hospital nursery that from birth, some are very easy to comfort while others are very difficult to console. Some are more high-strung, while others are more flexible and adapt to changes better. We are certainly not doomed by how we enter this world, but there is no question that there are certain personalities for whom living is easier.
Why do today's kids seem to have more trouble coping than those who grew up during difficult times such as the Depression?
Our children are far more isolated than in the past. The family unit is not as stable. By 1990 more than one-quarter of children under 18 in the U.S. will be living with only one parent. Perhaps seven million are latchkey kids who do not have the supervision kids had in the past. Families are also much more mobile today, and kids don't have as many adults—grandparents, aunts and uncles—that they can count on for support. Children today have a much more lonely experience.
Do kids today see the world as a more threatening place than their parents did as children?
Children are more aware of violence than ever before. They hear about it, watch it on TV and they are even entertained with violent music. Another factor is that crimes against children—kidnapping, sex abuse—are on the rise, and that is very scary for kids. They see the faces of missing kids on milk cartons and grocery bags and they become frightened. They are taught to be on their guard and to be less trusting of adults. They no longer have the luxury of innocent, magical childhoods.
Is there any relationship between diet and stress?
As a source of stress, a poor diet is second only to emotional pressures. In my opinion there are five principal villains in our diet—sugar, caffeine, salt, chemical additives and junk food. They have been linked to numerous mental and physical difficulties, including hypertension, hypoglycemia, heart disease, obesity and hyperactivity. Refined sugar, for example, has no nutritional value yet makes up 20 to 25 percent of the average American diet.
How can parents eliminate stress in their children's lives?
The issue is how we handle it. Placing any kind of expectation on a child—the expectation to learn, to participate, to share—is stressful, although it may be necessary for development. Even positive things like going to a party or on a vacation are stressful. A parent's main job is to help children manage the stress in their lives so they can become what I call "capable kids" as opposed to "vulnerable kids."
Can you describe the capable kid?
He is a child who handles stress and makes it work for him. Capable kids have direction, goals and ambitions. They like themselves and are very comfortable with their emotions. When they are angry, they share their anger and it is over. A vulnerable kid doesn't. He holds on to his anger because he is afraid of expressing it and being misunderstood or rejected. Instead he internalizes his anger and withdraws, feeling unloved. A vulnerable kid may use that anger to destroy something or someone or even to hurt himself.
What else characterizes the vulnerable child?
He has poor eye contact, is suspicious about being touched and uncomfortable about saying "I love you" or being told that he is lovable. This is a child with poor self-esteem who is insecure, shy, secretive or who acts out in some way, such as by stealing. He is not handling stress well. Most kids are a mix of capable and vulnerable characteristics. The problem is when the vulnerable traits outnumber the others.
What can parents do to help their children become capable kids?
Parents shouldn't underestimate the stresses in their children's lives. They shouldn't shrug off a child's stress by saying it's merely a phase or something the child will outgrow. If parents recognize symptoms of stress in their child, they should try to give the child an opportunity to talk about what is going on in his life. It's amazing how powerful listening, talking and sharing feelings can be.
Are children affected by the way their parents deal with stress?
Absolutely. Parents set the tone for family life. If they are easily flappable, their kids will become that way. Take a typical scenario: The family is around the breakfast table. One kid spills his juice on the father. The father screams, the kid cries, another kid gets up and leaves the table and the mother yells, "I quit. I can't take it anymore."
Can physical exercise help kids manage stress?
Exercise is a great stress reducer. It helps release tension and provides a way for the child to get his mind off what's bothering him. Also, by being active, a child learns how to get involved in life rather than withdraw.
What are the biggest mistakes parents make?
Overprotecting children is one of the worst, because children begin to feel they are incapable of taking care of themselves or making decisions. It handicaps the child and prevents him from taking risks and experiencing successes on his own. Being critical also undermines a child's self-confidence. We are constantly calling children names in our society, saying things like "That was dumb" or "You're stupid to do that." Children internalize that message and think, "I must be dumb if my mom says I am."
What other pitfalls should parents avoid?
Being demanding or disengaged. The demanding parent says, "Do this because I say so." The parent barks orders like a drill sergeant. "Cut your hair. Change your shirt." There is no respect. Instead, the parent should say, "Your hair is getting long. What are your plans for cutting it?" The disengaged parent is one who is unavailable to a child. The child wants to have a relationship but the parent says, "Not now," or makes promises that are not kept.
Do today's parents put too much pressure on kids to succeed?
Parents should have expectations for their children, but realistic ones. Today there are a far greater number of highly educated, professional parents than in the past. This is the first generation of children who have experienced the stress of worrying that they might not be as successful as their parents. It's difficult to be more successful than your father who is a corporate executive or your mother who is a doctor or lawyer.
What guidelines can you offer these parents to ease the stress on their kids?
Validate your children by listening to them, by taking them seriously. Children need to feel they are worthy of their parents' time, love and attention. Most important, parents should enjoy their children. There is nothing that makes you feel more valuable than to be with someone who is enjoying your company, giggling with you and asking what you think. A child who has a good self-image, who likes himself and knows he is valued by the adults in his life can handle stress.