Children Are Stressed Out Too

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Stress-related problems pose the biggest threat to our children’s wellbeing, often laying the foundation for a troubled adulthood.

There is a disconnect between an adult’s perception of children’s emotional life and a child’s actual experience of it. Childhood is not all that care free. An overwhelming majority of children are given to worrying. They worry about a lot of things, including the future, their environment, and about how to save the planet Earth. Many adults often pay a lip service to or kid about the "Green revolution" but kids are serious about such matters.

Psychologist Georgia Witkin recently surveyed 700 children and their parents to find out what they say about children stress. She found that parent-stress is the biggest stress children experience. Children report the most stress when parents fight or lose control. How much do parents know about the stress they cause their children through their behavior at home? Very little.

Witkin writes, "Perhaps the biggest wake-up call for parents is what kids say ‘scares’ them. More than being home alone, more than the dark, more than a frightening movie, the kids in the poll tell us that their parents’ behavior is scary. Children report the most stress when parents fight, get angry or lose control…"

Couples in marital therapy often say that their children are not affected by the conflict between them because they don’t fight in front of them. As an after thought, they may perhaps add, "except for a time or two." However, further inquiry may reveal that what they mean by "not fighting in front of children" is that they fight only when children are "sleeping" in their bed, "busy" watching TV or playing.

Do we really think that children don’t know what’s going on? The fact is that they are not just tense about what is going on, they are scared. However, children don’t often tell what is bothering them and nobody asks them specific questions to find out.

In Witkin’s suvey, about 75 % of children have nightmares but only 37% of parents know about them. About one third of the children reported that they "worried a lot" about a number of things.

Children have many other stresses of which adults have little understanding. Adults tend to think that peer pressure is the number one stressor for children. Wrong. In Witkin’s survey, peer pressure, such as "friends not liking them," or "kids making fun of them," came in a distant third. Kids big worry items are, grades, tests, homework, flunking, project deadlines, final exams and teachers, in that order.

We all like to have a somewhat romantic view of childhood. Except those who experienced abuse or neglect, most adults look at their childhood with a feeling of nostalgia. That’s how human memory works. We remember the fun we had and forget the pain of the past. So we tend to view childhood as a time for eating and playing and having fun without having to worry about such mundane matters as housing, money, job, or other so called realities of the adult world. Wrong again. Children do worry about these matters and often their worries may be exaggerated and unrealistic.

Children worry about the health of their parents and other family members. They worry if parents are worried or upset about something. They worry about the family’s financial situation. They worry if the relationship between parents is strained. Why woundn’t they? They are biologically programmed to worry. Before the present social system came into being, a child’s existence and survival depended on his or her parents’ survival.

Peer pressure comes next to school and family worries. Among the peer-related stressors, the major ones are bullies, gangs, popularity contests, fickle friends, and teasing.

Many adults trend to lose their emotional capacity to respond to the ills of the world. It is because they tend to feel it’s futile to worry about these matters. As they grow, they perhaps come to a sad realization such as, "I can’t change the world. I have to accept things as they are." Children still have a relatively intact capacity to emotionally respond to the plight of others. They get genuinely upset about such matters as inequality, injustice, and cruelty. Yes, they do worry about safe water, clean air and nuclear war, by and large, more than we adult do.

Therefore, we adults should realize that an overwhelming majority of children experience considerable stress. We should listen to them and ask them pertinent questions and allow them to expound on their views and concerns. We tend to stop children from talking about such matters because we worry that, if we let them talk about it, their stress will get out of control. On the contrary, this will help to alleviate the stress. Their view may be very one-sided. To balance things out, let them see the positive side also. Above all, control your temper and your "mood." Seek help, if you have trouble doing that.


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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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