Five years ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) published the results of an intensive survey on the youth of America and the pressures they face. The results were somewhat surprising—and quite troubling:
Today’s youth report stress levels higher than those experienced by adults.
Norman B. Anderson, PhD and CEO of the APA at the time of the survey, says: “It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults.
It is even more concerning that they seem to underestimate the potential impact that stress has on their physical and mental health. . . .
In order to break this cycle of stress and unhealthy behaviors as a nation, we need to provide teens with better support and health education at school and home, at the community level and in their interactions with healthcare professionals.”
Stress during the school year is particularly high: 5.8 on a 10-point scale. The average during the summer months is 3.9.
In addition to the stress associated with getting good grades, getting into college, and securing a job to carry them through the coming years, today’s teens experience social anxiety and stress at much higher levels than teens in years’ past.
Social media, an increase in school shootings over the past few decades, and an uptick in overall political and economic tension throughout the country all factor into teens’ stress levels, according to the survey.
As Doctor Anderson mentioned in his remarks on the survey, there is much that society at large—schools, governments, and communities—can and should do to address the growing epidemic of teen stress.
Such an endeavor will be challenging and take much effort.
But the very first steps to helping children and teens face the increased stress life throws at them begins not in society or the school classroom or a city hall meeting, but in the home.
I love what former First Lady Barbara Bush said to the 1990 graduating class at Wellesley: “Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”
As parents, there are many things we can do in our houses to build resilient children and make our homes a haven for the children and teens in our lives.
Here are seven ideas to try as your kids head back to school this year:
A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains that “play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.
Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”
In fact, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.”
Play need not be structured; it can be as simple as breaking out the board games for a family game night or spending an hour at the local playground.
What should be intentional is planning time in your schedule for play and simply just letting loose and having a good time. The AAP report linked to above outlines some great ideas for incorporating play as well as many reasons for doing so.
2. Tell stories.
Sharing family stories with your children helps them write their own life stories—and fill their lives with courage, strength, resilience, and empathy. Last year, I shared with readers my own experience telling family stories.
The crux of that article was this: “Stories have great power.
They provide a shared experience between the listener and teller.
They help us develop empathy.
They provide a timeless link to the past—to ancient traditions, myths, legends, and symbolism.
They help us make meaning of life.
They explain why we make the decisions we do, they help us create our own identities, and they guide us as we find our places in the world.”
3. Offer therapy.
When life gets hard for your children—and it inevitably will—be quick to get help when needed. Let your children know that you are on their side—part of a team—and are willing to do anything you can to help.
This means having a plan of attack when you know change is coming.
Talk often about that change and what it means. If needed, enlist the help of a counselor or therapist to help both you and your children develop tools that will guide them through change when it occurs.
On the Emotions Mentor Podcast this week, I talked with my friend Marissa Heisel about many ways parents can help children approach stress and change.
4. Model resilience.
Let your kids see you overcome challenges. You don’t need to share the nitty-gritty details of your own struggles, but you should be open with your children and let them know that you, too, face challenges in life.
Talk about how you’ve overcome your challenges and let your children see you working to overcome them.
This can be done by modeling self-care, having a positive attitude, and getting up and trying again when you fail or make a mistake.
5. Be sensitive, aware, and supportive.
Learn about the signs of anxiety and depression so you can recognize them if they appear in your home. Take the time to learn about what your children enjoy and what they value as important.
6. Create a community.
Find ways to build connections with your neighbors, starting with the families of your children’s friends. Try arranging babysitting swaps and playdates or starting coop preschools and community gardens.
7. Have family dinners.
There is no better place to start a conversation about many of the items on this list than at the dinner table over a shared meal.
Family dinners provide a forum for talking, sharing, and just enjoying one another’s company. Some social scientists have even declared that having dinner together is “the most important thing you can do with your kid.” Research has shown that children who regularly eat dinner with their families have a larger vocabulary and do better in school; they also tend to have better mental health and, in some cases, better physical health. Anne Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project and a professor at Harvard Medical School, says: “Kids who eat dinner with their parents experience less stress and have a better relationship with them.
This daily mealtime connection is like a seat belt for traveling the potholed road of childhood and adolescence and all its possible risky behaviors.”
PS. Want more on family development and healing?