Seems like wherever you go, people are stressed, including children. The fact that I left being a counselor at a high-needs, low-income school doesn’t mean I don’t have to help students with their problems and stress anymore. The problems and stress at a predominately white, middle class school are sometimes just different from the problems poor children experience.
We know the students are stressed because the other counselor and I surveyed the students at one large Knox county school. Making the most of the few guidance classes we have with them, we wanted to teach them what they want to learn. And, the top topic according to these 8-11 year olds is managing stress and disappointment, definitely a more affluent problem to have. But, it’s a stressor nevertheless.
So, I had my first round of guidance classes Monday. The 4th and 5th grade classes, especially, were eye-opening to me. Students started with a giant list of potential typical stressors that kids might experience. They could circle as many as applied, and during roll-call, they shared at least one ‘worry’ they had. Many students wanted to share more so I added another couple minutes of time to share at their tables because they had so many stressors on their list, in addition to writing in their own.
What was interesting is noticing many common themes in this very homogenous school. Included on their list were:
- Making good grades (C’s aren’t good enough)
- Doing well on tests
- My weight
- Disappointing my parents
- The way I look
- My parents dying
- Living up to family expectations
The students were serious and acted genuinely stressed when sharing, yet much lighter afterwards. Remembering back, one popular boy’s response stood out to me. He explained that he wrestles and has to be in a certain weight-class. He gets stressed when he can barely eat for a day in order to stay in his weight class before a match. This is a kid not much older than my own son, Brody. And, this is a stressor that he and his family chooses, like many others on this list. Is this healthy at such a young age?
Two other boys talked about Grandfathers who were athletes. One was in the NBA and one the NFL. Now, these young boys also aspire to grow up like these family legends. They are already so focused on sports. And, while I assume and hope it’s fun for them, it also seems so young to be so serious about something, worrying that they could get hurt in practice and prevent this dream from blossoming.
Maybe we shouldn’t be micromanaging future plans for what they must become. Maybe we, as parents, could cut the kids some slack and let them choose a little more. Maybe we could have some downtime and allow for mistakes. Why? Because shouldn’t some of this be their choice?
I’m noticing that much childhood stress comes from parents, both rich and poor. I’ve met many children over the years who are anxious to the point of not functioning because they don’t have basic needs met and don’t know what to expect when they get home. On the contrary, there are also many kids who know oh too well what to expect and know they must reach this high bar or else. They must keep running from lesson to lesson, and are expected to perform.
Total apathy or lack of concern, AND micromanaging and rushing future plans are ruining a fun childhood.
We must be sensible and sensitive to what our children need so we don’t drive the anxiety because many good kids are secretly suffering and stressed. Isn’t there so much more time to worry, rush, and stress? And while some stress can motivate and drive us (or even “fuel us” as one of my students said), we also need to have fun and keep ‘real’ worries in check. We all have worries but it’s how we view them, and there’s no reason to bring more upon growing, changing minds than we have to.
We spent most of the class talking about how to relieve stress, what to and not to do. Many bad habits are formed young, from overeating to dependence on technology. These are choices that I’m still figuring out! But, as I have said many times, kids are always watching what we do. How do we model dealing with stress has a huge influence on our kids.
I do know this, though, being able to talk about stress and acknowledge that we all have some stress does help. It helps us be human. It helps us connect. It helped me come home and continue this conversation with my own children, who too share some of these worries. Sometimes, if you don’t ask, you simply don’t know. So, let’s ask and listen. Let’s talk and not pressure. Let’s accept that we can’t always be happy but sometimes we can create our own happiness. And, let’s help our kids make choices that bring less stress and more choice, less frustration and more joy, and less pressure and more freedom and natural consequences.