Stress

Prioritizing Well-Being Over Stress

It’s important to motivate children and teens to succeed and do what they love, but a recent newscast in NPR talks about the risks of pushing kids too hard to do well. (The NPR newscast includes a 7-minute talk about this topic which you might find interesting!) It is not a stretch to say that students today feel immense pressure to compete against their classmates and friends to do well, and this stress can be a major contributing factor to anxiety and depression.

 

Some parents admit that they “totally bought into the idea” that their job is to push their kids to succeed and overcome obstacles. But if the pressure is too much, this effort can backfire. One high school in New York invited a psychologist to evaluate the student body using the Youth Self-Report, and found evidence of high levels of stress. This includes internalizing symptoms, or feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression; physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches, and drug and alcohol use.

 

According to experts, substance abuse is actually something that affluent teenagers may use even more than inner-city kids, as “a form of self-medication” against the stress of high expectations to do as well as peers or parents.  This means that the need for conversation around mental health applies to inner-city and wealthy suburban schools alike.

 

Parents can play a huge role in promoting well-being as a priority that takes precedence over grades. They can have constructive conversations about stresses their families face, which are not likely to be ones they face in isolation. They can also work with schools in order to improve environments at school and at home. Research-based “resilience training programs” that teach “coping and happiness skills” are taking off at school, even for elementary students. Researchers today are finding that “resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children”

 

Student-directed initiatives also give students an opportunity to talk with each other about topics they might not readily share with parents or teachers, and gives them an active role in their own mental health.

 

All of these efforts should be directed towards valuing well-being and celebrating diverse kinds of passion and success. As a society, we should acknowledge that “a culture shift” is necessary to value all kinds of success instead of prioritizing and zeroing in on certain academic successes or career paths.

 

Understanding Toddlers and Tantrums

An interesting piece in the NYTimes this week discusses temper tantrums, and what they do or do not tell us about a young child’s emotional state. Tantrums are most common around ages two or three, and gradually decrease as a child grows older. According to Dr. Egger, chairwoman of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU, childhood tantrums can be thought of as frustrations from a child who is fearful or angry but is still developing language skills to express these feelings.

 

According to the article, approaching childhood tantrums with adult reasoning or anger might not be productive or helpful. The neuroscientist interviewed in the article, Dr. Potegal, describes the emotions in a tantrum as a combination of anger and distress - anger usually subsides in a tantrum, but distress might remain fairly constant.

 

Dr. Egger said that a parent’s role during a tantrum is not to become stressed or angry herself - a parent should instead act as a container for the child’s feelings, since the child will not feel in control of the situation. Tantrums “typically happen when children are hungry or tired or when there has been some significant change in their routine,” and confusion and frustration can easily manifest themselves in these situations.

 

Experts say the tantrums parents should be concerned about are the ones that occur in public and the ones where children or toddlers become violent and bite or kick. If parents find themselves changing their routines or avoiding triggers in fear of setting off a tantrum, they should seek help instead of struggling on their own. Though this usually isn’t the case, tantrums might be an indication of an underlying developmental problems such as ADHD, or even a medical one.

Mindfulness - Something for Everyone

The timing couldn’t be better - not long after our recent post on ways to be in the present, the New York Times published a piece on “Mindfuless for Children.” The author defines mindfulness as “the simple practice of bringing a gentle, accepting attitude to the present moment,” and argues that even the youngest children can benefit from this approach.

 

The graphics in this article are beautiful and worth checking out, but we’ve condensed some of the main points here:

 

Mindfulness starts young. Even infants can notice the difference between a stressed, distracted parent and a smiling, “present” parent. Mindfulness experts say that eye contact is important to establish a connection between an infant and a parent; unfortunately, smartphones have become a huge distraction in establishing that connection. Experts recommend putting down the phone, however briefly, to interact with infants. The same goes for raising toddlers - as they start to learn to express themselves, helping them identify and describe their feelings is very important.

 

Mindfulness is important throughout childhood, from infancy to early childhood to teenage years. The appearance of mindfulness can evolve. For example, a focus on gratitude and recognizing happy moments for young children evolves to a focus on healthy interpersonal relationships in teenage years. A surprising number of diverse factors are involved in mindfulness. For example, increase in movement and activity relieves stress and improves physical health for guardians and children alike.


Mindfulness can’t be “outsourced.” People who work with children and teens to bring mindfulness into their lives emphasize the key role parents and guardians can have in contributing to children’s health. Mindfulness “isn’t like piano lessons,” where parents can simply drop off their kids to get their weekly lesson. The author of the article concedes that parenting is hard work, and often very stressful, but they are the main figures in their children’s young lives. Caregivers don’t have to be expert meditators; instead, they can focus on things like forgiveness and appreciation of the present along with their children. Having this approach will have positive mental health impacts for everyone involved.