Last week on The PediaBlog, we acknowledged that teenagers are pretty stressed out:
Our kids see what’s going on in the world. Even if they don’t watch the evening news, they know what’s happening. Preteens are natural optimists; teenagers, not so much. They are stressed out.
A new WebMD survey discovers that a lot of preteens are also stressed out, and parents, while effective at recognizing their own stress levels, may be missing important signs of anxiety in their young children:
Nearly 1 in 5 parents surveyed rated their own stress levels at a maximum “10 out of 10,” and more than half (57%) said their stress was at 7 or higher. But they considered their children to be under very little stress: 60% of parents rated their kids’ stress at 4 or below.
“Parents seem to be recognizing their own stress, but they are not necessarily recognizing the link between what’s happening in the family and how it’s affecting their children,” says Sandra Hassink, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “A child’s stress can increase along with family stress, especially if it is unrecognized.”
A majority (72%) of parents of children ages 5-13 reported negative behaviors, like arguing more often and crying and whining, and somatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, changes in appetite and eating habits, and sleep disturbances. A full 20% of the parents surveyed said their children had already received psychological counseling or behavioral therapy.
Pediatricians understand that children and preteens don’t express their feelings very well with words. Instead, they very often present to us with emotional and behavioral complaints, or with symptoms that may be vague, but consistent. If parents don’t connect the dots and recognize anxiety in their children, says Gina Shaw, they may miss psychological distress, which, in addition to causing significant problems early on, can carry over into the teen years and beyond:
The stress kids now feel in early childhood continues to mount as kids get older. The American Psychiatric Association’s Stress in America survey finds that high school students report stress levels that top those of adults. More than half of all college students (54%) have felt “overwhelming anxiety” sometime within the last 12 months, according to the American College Health Association, up from 48.4% in 2010.
Hassink says she believes stress is the top health problem facing kids today.
“I think childhood today is a much more stressful event than it has been in the past,” Hassink says. “As a parent, I felt it. As a pediatrician, I feel it.”
Kids are keenly aware of the stress their parents feel. Some common stressors that can affect a family’s functioning as a happy and loving unit include job loss, serious illness or death of a family member or friend, separation and divorce, and parents dealing with mental illness in the home. Whatever the reasons, Shaw provides the money quote:
“Children definitely pick up on and absorb their parents’ stress,” Hassink says. “What’s more, time with parents is a key source of resilience for children, and it’s hard to relax and spend time with your family when you have so much on your mind, and stressful events have to be dealt with. Parents need to recognize that their stress levels are affecting not only them, but their children, too.”