This Ain’t Your Mama’s Childhood
Are your kids stressed out? Could it be that you’re contributing, despite your best intentions? If you answered yes to either question, read on.
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The idea of family has changed. The nuclear family model that prevailed into the 1970s is now the exception. Kids today may live in single-parent homes. They may live with grandparents, in a blended family or in two blended families. They may live with foster parents, adoptive parents, gay or lesbian parents. Or they may spend time in both parents’ homes, like Adeola.
Says psychologist Stephanie Traynor, executive director of Supporting KIDDS, which provides counseling to grieving children, “juggling two homes, two sets of rules and two routines” can create stress.
The world changes. Wars continue. Recessions drag on. Just watching the evening news can be an assault on the psyche.
Pediatrician Joe DiSanto has seen “a huge increase in the number of kids who are anxious and depressed” over the past 15 years. “They see their parents worrying about things on the news and they get stressed out.”
Technology has changed. Gone are the days of dancing to the hi-fi. Now everyone is surfing via Wi-Fi. Toddlers play computer games, parents buy computer-learning sessions for preschoolers, and middle and high school kids have their own laptops, iPads and smart phones. Technology exposes children to imagery and ideas they may not be mature enough to process.
“Children are really dealing with a lot more at an earlier age—things that we used to encounter for the first time in college—and I think it causes a lot of confusion,” says Mary Brent Whipple, a counselor in the Wellness Centers at Cab Calloway School of the Arts and Wilmington Charter School.
Another issue with the wired life: It can hamper socialization. “In my opinion, kids today are lacking emotional intelligence,” says psychologist Julius Mullen, clinical director for Children & Families First of Delaware. Research shows that emotionally intelligent people have better interpersonal skills, better problem-solving skills, better stress-management skills, and more motivation. That means they’re more adaptable, which in general makes them more optimistic and happier.
By playing video games and watching TV to excess instead of playing with other children, kids are “losing their ability to socialize,” Mullen says. Learning to read emotions, nonverbal language and social cues, and learning to respond appropriately, can be difficult when kids have too much Facebook and not enough face time. “They have to learn to share, to be nice, to work out conflict, and all of those areas are integrated into EI,” Mullen says.
Too much electronic play can also result in physical issues. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the percentage of obese children tripled between 1980 and 2008—and that’s just the start of more health problems, like heart disease and adult-onset diabetes, later in life.
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As the nature of play has changed, so have parents’ fears about safety. Kids used to play outside until they were exhausted, injured, cold or hungry. Now we make play dates.
Could it be that we’re limiting learning experiences by worrying too much? “A little bit,” says Alan Kleban, a psychologist for the Smyrna School District. “Some worry or caution is needed to keep our kids safe, but kids need to feel a little bit of fear so that they can learn to make decisions on their own about whether a situation is good or bad.
“There’s a balance we all need to find.”
Splitting time between Katie’s home and his father’s is the only life Adeola has ever known. He says that’s OK.
“It’s unpredictable and hard to make plans because I don’t know where I’m going to be from week to week,” Adeola says. “It’s kind of weird, going back and forth from house to house, but you just learn how to be in each one. It’s just life.”
Katie is fortunate to have a flexible work schedule now—which was almost unheard of among the previous generation of working parents—and that has allowed her to be home with Adeola for dinner and homework. Experts say such adjustment is important.
Routines and rituals, such as having dinner together, help to build resiliency in kids by strengthening communication and relationships. At the dinner table, a ’tween or teen may grunt a one-word reply to questions about the day, “but at least you have that routine built in for when there is something they want or need to say,” Traynor says.
Professor Bob Hampel of the College of Education at the University of Delaware calls such rituals and routines “protective factors.” Connections to family and school are especially important.
Yet simply being home together isn’t enough. During a visit to one family’s home, psychologist Mullen found each member speaking on a cell phone, playing a video game, watching TV or using the computer. There was no interaction. “It was so symbolic of the times that everybody was connected to a piece of technology,” says Mullen.
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