Reducing Stress in Our Children

A recent newspaper article reported that over the past several years there has been a 33% increase in injuries to “Boomers” (ages 35-54) from working out and playing sports. Now you may wonder why this is the lead for an article on reducing stress in children. Follow me please. The article acknowledged that it could simply reflect a much higher commitment to being healthy and active. But there was a sense that it also reflected people who are pushing themselves too hard. Does the phrase, No pain, no gain.” ring a bell? Yet any trainer will tell you that hurting your body is neither required nor recommended for improving one’s health. It appears that for many Boomers, exercise becomes an obsession, even a competition with their peers. It also can become a significant time commitment tacked on to lives that are already over-committed.

These boomers are most of today’s parents. It’s a very sophisticated group. These parents often tell me that they only ask their children to give it their best try and don’t criticize them about their achievements unless the parents believe their children are slacking off. Do I hear that dreaded word “underachiever” buried in that “parentspeak”? How do we know what our children are actually capable of? Even more important, MANY children do not show their capacity for achievement until they get out of school and into the real world where many of their interests and personal strengths find a niche.

But the Boomers are a very driven group. Regardless of what they say to their children what they model is very different. Children typically respond more to what you do as a parent than what you say. So the parent who says getting top grades is not the most important thing but then leads a life of being driven to achieve the max is conveying that very model to their children. That’s where the connection to the rise in injuries comes in. Boomers have a history of pushing themselves to extremes – run a little faster, lift more weight. This striving is engrained into their parenting styles. It results in everything from early and chronic worries about their children being as successful as possible to overbooking children into so many activities that no ones around to play with after school!

These concerns are not new to parenting. But for the Boomers, the first generation of parents who are predominately college-educated and who have created a few decades of exceptional achievement, these parenting concerns are pandemic. Remember that parents tend to want their children’s lives to be better than their own. But that becomes more difficult to do with each succeeding generation. Not surprisingly, for such an educated group, there is a special obsession with college and grades. Often the reason for pushing children into extracurricular activities is to build their resume for their college applications.

There is a pervasive myth that the better the college, the better the life outcomes.

These parental anxieties, about personal goals and children’s goals, are transmitted in many ways to the children who, in turn, have become an increasingly stressed out generation. Although there’s no formal data to confirm this, the impression of those who work with children is that the levels of anxiety and depression have increased significantly. The sad thing is that much of this is unnecessary. The problem is that parents have their stated values correct but their behaviors misplaced. Ask parents what is most important to them and virtually all will say, “Family.” But less and less time is being spent nurturing marital and parent-child relationships.

Research on the importance of secure attachments, i.e., intimate, trusting relationships, is clearly demonstrating that having such attachments is the core basis for a happy, healthy, and successful life. For example, we now have data that shows happily married couples are physically healthier and actually live longer. We also know that couples in high conflict have a significant negative impact on their children. In addition, we have strong data indicating that young children who have more secure attachments to their caretakers are less anxious and more independent. Yes, healthy dependence/intimacy gives young children (and adults) more confidence to be independent.

There is also a growing amount of research showing that the best inoculation against serious adolescent problems is a psychologically intimate relationship with at least one parent. Similarly, studies on resilience in children consistently point to the presence of a secure relationship with an adult figure as the key. For example, Israeli children who were least affected by the trauma of the SCUD bombing during the war with Iraq had the most secure parent-child relationships.

As we start another school year and parents everywhere gear up for challenges about grades, homework, athletic and artistic achievement – about creating “adult children” – the real challenge is to keep ones’ priorities straight. It’s the relationships that count the most. You can reduce your children’s stress significantly (and your own) by enjoying your children regardless of their level of achievement or how they compare to their peers. Don’t focus on how they are going to turn out because life is not linear and your children will take circular paths, not straight lines to their adult lives. Spend more time getting to know your child, and allowing her to get to know you. This means planning ways to be alone with your child and being prepared to give him your undivided attention when he reaches out to you. Doing this instead of making sure the homework is done and the room is clean will result in your being a more positive influence on your children’s lives and having less stressed out children.