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.
He’s a good student in the demanding International Baccalaureate program at Mount Pleasant High School. He runs cross country and track, studies karate and takes guitar lessons. He likes YouTube, his PlayStation and his iPod. He lives with his mother in Claymont, but spends several days a week at his dad’s, depending on his dad’s work schedule.
In other words, he’s a typical 15-year-old.
And if his teen years remind you of yours in some ways, there are some major differences.
From generation to generation, politics, economics, science, technology and other factors change what kids do, when they do it and how. Since our day, the Internet and other media have transformed the way children learn, play, communicate and experience relationships. Life moves faster. And the number of nuclear families has decreased as other family types have emerged.
Toss in increased pressure to succeed in a more complex world and a parent’s best intention to give their kids every opportunity, you get kids who are often over-scheduled and stressed out.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways to impart values, communicate and be together that can help any kid stay focused and happy.
Katie West, 52, is Adeola’s Mom. When she was a child, her mother stayed home with the three youngsters while their father worked. Katie was allowed to watch the family’s black-and-white television one hour a week. “I played outside for hours,” she says, “and my parents didn’t know where I was.” At 16 she went to New York City to study dance for the summer. She regularly rode the subway alone. “I was pretty independent.”
That was a different time. Today Katie works, like most parents, so when Adeola was younger, she put him in aftercare until she finished her day. He is as likely to play with electronics as he is outdoors, if not more so. And his safety is a concern for Katie in a way that is different from her parents concern for hers. “If Adeola went to the city and rode the subway by himself now, I’d be anxious about it,” she says. “I insist that he has his cell phone with him, and I need to be able to reach him. If he doesn’t answer when I call him, I get worried.”
So what has changed between the time of Katie’s youth and now?
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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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He spends three to four hours a day using electronics for fun. That fits with a study by the Centers for Disease Control that shows kids ages 8 to 18 spend more than three hours a day watching TV, videos, DVDs and movies.
Adeola is in good shape. He stayed fit by running on the spring track and fall cross-country teams at school. Yet that had a downside—a packed schedule of two-hour practices every day and meets on Saturdays, sometimes two hours away. “It disrupted my weekends,” Adeola says. “I was used to doing karate every Saturday, but to be tired from karate class, then travel to a meet to run a 5K was too much.”
Then there’s school—and Adeola does feel some pressure from his parents to get good grades. “Being in the [International Baccalaureate] program isn’t easy,” he says. “I get a lot of homework that takes about two hours a day.” That’s in addition to group projects, but because his classmates all have their own activities and schedules, it’s difficult to get together.
West realized that having too many commitments was raising Adeola’s stress and that he was losing focus on homework. “My feeling is that the schoolwork has to come first,” she says, “so we talked about it and decided he needed to cut back.”
And if some electronic play helps him manage his stress, Katie understands, even if she thinks it’s too much. (She jokes about her minor Facebook addiction.)
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Not having enough down time to relax can definitely stress a kid out. Well-intentioned parents may want to give their kids every opportunity, ones that perhaps they didn’t have, but before they know it, there’s an activity every day of the week—and everyone gets stretched too thin. Where do you draw the line?
The Kinney brothers, Gabe and Lucas, both middle school students at Cab Calloway, recognize when enough is enough. Their activities include music lessons, Scouts, aikido classes, theater workshops and more. Their parents, Allison Mack and Tony Kinney, aren’t concerned. The boys, like their parents, appreciate the need for unstructured time, so they have learned to slow down.
Even with the boys’ activities and two working parents, the family sits down to dinner together at least three times a week. When life starts to get hectic, Gabe or Lucas will say, “Hey, where’s the chill time?”
Since Adeola cut back on his extracurricular activities, he says “life feels more manageable.” His grades are better, too. The one thing he held on to was karate at Gentle Palm.
“Master [Crawley] Berry is very influential over my behavior,” he says. “He has high expectations, but he helps you get there because he believes in you. Later on I’ll think about what he said in class and I’ll see how it affects my life. I was too young when I started, but now I understand.”
“I did read all of the books, and talked to other parents,” Katie says, “but you have to find the right way that works best for you and your child.
“I have probably taken a lot from my parents, because I think they did a pretty good job. I always felt that they trusted me. Rather than being authoritative, they encouraged me to think for myself, and I’ve done that with Adeola. I’ve allowed him to make his own choices, within limits.”
And limits are good—for children and parents. Malina Spirito, a psychologist at Supporting KIDDS, makes an interesting observation: As academic and athletic activities become more structured, home life has become more unstructured.
So as childhood changes, ways of parenting evolve. DiSanto describes earlier methods as “trial-and-error.” That’s very different than the emerging styles. “Parents today feel like there’s one right way to raise their child,” he says, “and if they don’t get it right, they’ll look back and find their kid is scarred for life.”
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Whipple believes parents today feel unsteady in their parenting. “They don’t trust themselves enough.”
One result, Spirito believes, is that basic rules of obedience are falling by the wayside. “We’re seeing a lot more debate between parent and child where there wasn’t years ago.”
Psychologist Frankie Klaff agrees.
“Families are more egalitarian,” Klaff says. “We need to remember that hierarchies exist in all forms of life.”
So how can you tell when your kid has maxed out? Professionals agree on clear signs. Children can become agitated or indifferent. They may withdraw from family and friends. They may seem sad or get physically ill. Their appetites or sleep patterns may change. They may lose interest in activities they enjoy or fall behind in school. They may begin to make uncharacteristically negative comments.
“These are red flags in general and could indicate various problems, such as depression, eating disorders, or a medical illness,” Traynor says. “Changes in behavior, and multiple symptoms or symptoms across multiple settings, warrant a closer evaluation.”
You can help kids avoid or cope with stress. Parents are a child’s first source of information, and because kids typically do what their parents do, parents must model good behavior by effectively managing their own stress and anxiety, Mullen says. That means, in part, avoiding stress by not over-scheduling everyone.
“The word that comes to my mind is ‘balance,’ as defined by that specific family, parent and child,” he says. “Parents must coordinate family schedules where children have time to simply chill and lounge without major stimulation.”
When possible, give kids control over of some aspects of the schedule, Traynor says. A limited number of choices helps a child feel more in control, but too many choices can feel overwhelming. “Keep routines as consistent as possible,” Traynor says. “Once a child is involved in an activity, try to minimize disruptions.”
Also respect a child’s sense of responsibility or obligation. A child may feel anxious, upset, or guilty about not being able to attend an important game because of illness or a family schedule conflict, Traynor says.
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On the other hand, give a child permission to say no. Time off from an activity can sometimes help reduce stress. And when it comes to activities, try to make sure they’re fun. If the schedule is busy, be sure there is a balance of work and play.
“Think about the values you project and live what you want them to learn,” Klaff says. “Focus less on things and more on shared experiences.”
Above all, talk with your kids.
Communication must be open and honest between parents and children. It is a skill, so it sometimes requires practice. “Listen, listen and listen,” Mullen says, “even if it is not what you want to hear.” Learn to “hear and accept what the child is telling you and not telling you. Children often give parents silent or indirect messages that are important to recognize and bring out in the open.”
Then encourage your child to make independent decisions. Express your feelings as a parent, but allowing autonomous decisions can make a lasting positive impact.
Then give your support. “Your child needs to know that he is not alone and that others are interested in what he is doing,” Traynor says. “Be his cheerleader. Praise success.”
Finally, “Go to the park,” she says. “Have game night, even if it’s only once a month. And laugh together. Because the reality is, life is so fast-paced that, if you don’t make time for it, it just won’t happen.”