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Stressed-Out Kids

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How sweet it would be to have the power to shape a world in which our kids played happily all day, free from anxiety. It might be sweet, but it wouldn't be advisable. Childhood is a period of psychological growth, and that growth is spurred partly by mild to moderate stress.

While parents shouldn't strive to eliminate all stress, they should try to understand what's stressing their kids so they can support them through it. By teaching kids that life can be challenging and exciting, we give them the gift of accomplishment, of managing a new task, in the same way we let a baby feed himself when he grabs the spoon. The kitchen (and you) may be worse for the wear, but the baby is better for his achievement.

Change and Excitement

In the best situations, stress is an agent of change, helping children cope with more complicated situations. Take starting school, for example. Most kids like school, or at least some part of it, and they certainly need to be there to learn. Yet starting school always creates stress because:

  • School is change — from home, from the neighborhood, from summer activities.
  • School represents a whole new set of unfamiliar demands and unfamiliar people.
  • School has its own rules and ways to behave.

Coping with school stress teaches a child adapting skills as he successfully finds his way through a new situation. This is one of the times in which stress spurs growth, which is something you want for your child. Remember your butterflies when you thought about taking that trip to Disney World? That's stress too, the kind that comes from anticipating something desirable but unknown. And your child probably has just these same feelings as he looks forward to something he's never experienced before that you've described as thrilling and fun.

Judging Stress

But how much stress is too much? And what are extraordinary stresses, from a child’s point of view? It's the size of the bumps in life, positive and negative, that determine the level of stress. The more things that change in a child's world, the more coping energy required.

The following list, from a large study on childhood stress, ranks stresses, with No. 1 being the most difficult for a child.

1. death of a parent

2. death of a brother or sister

3. divorce of parents

4. marital separation of parents

5. death of a grandparent

6. hospitalization of a parent

7. remarriage of a parent

8. birth of a brother or sister

9. hospitalization of a brother or sister

10. loss of Mom's or Dad's job

11. major increase in family income

12. major decrease in family income

13. start of a problem between parents

14. end of a problem between parents

15. change in Dad’s job so he’s home less often

16. a new adult moving into the house

17. Mom beginning to work outside the home

18. being told someone likes you

19. beginning first grade

20. moving to a new school district

Practically every item on this list would also increase a parent's level of stress! So just at the time when your kids need help coping with a serious situation, you do too. Coping uses up lots of energy, and as parents try to get through rough times themselves, they often don't have much left over to see the kids through as thoroughly as they would like. This is why it's important to know your limits and be able to ask friends or professionals for help when you'd like to do more for your kids but circumstances don't allow it.




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