Michael Cowan's schedule would overwhelm anyone. As a fourth-grader last year, the 10-year-old from Kensington, Md., played soccer and baseball, with two practices each during the week and a game with each team on weekends. He took trumpet lessons and tried to practice every day. Although he had only an hour of homework on a typical night, his advanced math and reading classes often assigned big projects. He rarely had time to hang out with friends.
His mother, Kathy, a marketing specialist, says her usually happy son last March started showing signs the exhausting regimen was getting to him. He became disorganized. He forgot to bring home assignments. "He was telling me: `I just feel like I am worried about something, that there is something I haven't done, but I don't know what it is,"' she says. Realizing that Michael badly needed time to just chill out, she nixed a before-school foreign-language class, and in the fall he'll be playing on a soccer team that practices only once a week. On some Sundays, she lets him skip church so he can enjoy a day with nothing on the agenda.
Unfortunately, Michael has a lot of company in the stress department. A survey released in 1999 of 724 kids between 9 and 12 by Georgia Witkin, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, found that 31% of them "worried a lot" and 47% had insomnia. And a study made public last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that about 19% of kids visiting pediatricians had psychological problems related to their social environment, triple the percentage of nearly two decades earlier.
FAST FOOD. In today's achievement-oriented society, reading starts in kindergarten, not in first grade as it did in the past. Some kids are squeezing in violin lessons, karate classes, and a couple of sports practices in a typical week, and they chow down their meals in the car as they rush to the next activity. "The social environment is very tough," says John Dacey, a psychology professor at Boston College. "Parents, teachers, and coaches are putting more pressure on children to excel in all areas." Parents' own frenetic schedules add to the stress their kids feel.
As a result, school psychologists, therapists, and academics say more kids are suffering from chronic stress at younger ages than ever. Among the symptoms: headaches, insomnia, irritability, and stomach pains. Extreme shyness and changes in behavior often mask anxiety. "A child who used to play nicely starts pushing kids, or a kid who once liked school doesn't want to go," says Jane Annunziata, a child psychologist in McLean, Va.
While you can't get rid of all the anxiety your children feel, you can help reduce some of the pressure. More important, you can teach them to manage unavoidable everyday stress--which over time can take a big toll on psychological health. The key is to help them gain a sense of control.
First, ease up on your expectations. "Parents need to send the message: `I want you to make your best effort, but not at the expense of your emotional and physical well-being,"' says Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists. Let your child choose an activity that builds confidence. If Junior is clumsy, don't force him to play baseball.
FOOL AROUND. Make sure your kids have ample downtime. The breathing space will give them a chance to recharge their batteries. With younger children, the imaginary play can help them work out their problems. "Children need time without structure--to think, be creative, and use their imagination," says Sheila Ribordy, professor of child psychology at DePaul University in Chicago.
Of course, cutting back on after-school activities will help a great deal. Child-development experts suggest that parents limit extracurricular activities to two a week unless your child shows she can easily handle more. To get a better sense of the pressures your child faces and can deal with, stay in touch with her teachers or maybe even the school psychologist. They can help you organize school commitments and pinpoint unimportant ones.
Examine your own schedule. Getting home from work late and rushing dinner can turn up the tension at a time when the family should be winding down. Child psychologists say a parent should spend quiet time with a child every day, even if it's only 15 minutes. Play Monopoly with your son or work on a puzzle together. That will be more meaningful to him than a frenzied hour of PlayStation. In fact, child experts say many video and computer games actually induce stress.
Get your child talking. Mt. Sinai's Witkin suggests this tactic: "At bedtime, scratch your child's back and ask about the best and worst parts of the day." To avoid getting such monosyllabic answers as "good" or "fine," ask specific, open-ended questions: `What happened in science?' `Who did you play with at recess?'
Laura Brophy and her husband, Scott, of Geneva, N.Y., are determined to keep down stress levels for their two children. If it has been a difficult day at work, the parents talk by phone before reaching home--to get the anxieties out of their system. The family has dinner together almost every night, giving Willy, 9, and Nora, 11, a chance to chat about their day. "They are both really good at telling us what they need," Brophy says.
Just as important as trying to make your home a stress-free zone is teaching your children problem-solving skills. Bettie Youngs, author of Stress and Your Child: Helping Kids Cope with the Strains and Pressures of Life (table), says that parents can help children "assign less power to stress" by having them recall a setback, then pointing out that they recovered and the world did not come to an end. Youngs also suggests that parents rehearse a stressful situation with a child. For instance, if your fifth-grader is having trouble managing his time, brainstorm with him so he can come up with ways to meet the deadline for his science report. "Children don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," she says. "They need to be able to learn how to come up with alternative ways to resolve their problems."
Remember, your children must see you practicing what you preach. So let them observe you reading a book and relaxing. Take them along on leisurely walks. It will do wonders for their stress levels, as well as for yours.
By Susan B. Garland