Let’s face it. Being a parent is stressful. It always has been and probably always will be. But I think being a parent today is far more stressful than it was when I was raising my kids. And I’m not alone. According to a poll by Parents Magazine, most parents feel they worry far more and are under more stress than their parents were. And many of them think that their children are under more stress than they were when they were young.
(Parenting expert Michele Borba tells TODAY's Al Roker why your children are getting anxious, the symptoms and how you can help. Watch the video.)
And why? Well we live in frightening times. Terrorism. War. School shootings. Online pedophiles. Suicide bombings. Anthrax. Kidnappings. Global warming. Tsunamis. Here is just a sampling of what moms and dads said were their top parenting concerns about their kids today:
- Sexual predators in their community
- Media influence on children
- Peer pressure on children
- Violence in schools
- Kids growing up too fast
- Sexual predators on the Internet
- Bullying and teasing at school
- Lack of role models for kids today
But if parents are feeling a bit jittery about these issues, just imagine how our kids must feel. Think about it. This is the Columbine Generation of kids. It’s the first generation of children who have watched broadcasts of war, terrorist attacks and school massacres in their living rooms. Make no mistake: the image of the world as a mean and scary place is affecting our kids’ well-being. And that’s my big worry about our children!
A recent survey conducted by MTV and The Associated Press of over 1300 teens nationwide found that only 25 percent feel safe from terrorism or traveling. The vast majority admitted that their world is far more difficult than mom or dad. Just consider a child growing up today vs. yesterday. I’ll never forget reading one study when I was working on my doctorate in the 1980s. The study said that 1950s kids’ biggest fears were loud noises, snakes, insects, and a parent’s death. Now fast forward 50 years later to today. The most pressing teen stressor is still a parent’s death, but new research studies find kids say that “Violence” has replaced loud noises and snakes. But the biggest fear many teens say: “I’ll never live to see the future.” Only twenty-five percent of our kids feel safe from a terrorist attack or traveling.
Constantly hearing about troubling world events does more than just increase our children’s anxiety. It also alters their view of their world. Many child experts are concerned that today’s kids are developing “Mean World Syndrome.” It means they perceive their world as a mean and scary place.
Of course, we can’t always protect our kids and assure their safety, but we can help allay those fears and help them see their world in a more positive light. Here are a few parenting strategies you can use to help reduce your stress and your child's anxiety.
1. Tune in to your child’s worries. Start by observing your child a bit closer to see how he handles stress. Each child copes differently, but how does your kid deal with pressure? Does he have difficulty concentrating or is he excessively irritable? Does she react fearfully to sudden noises, revert to immature behavior patterns, act out or have tantrums or nightmares? If you can identify how your child generally handles stress, you’ll be able to tune into it before it mounts to the boiling point, and you'll be able to help him find ways to reduce it.
2. Monitor the “fear factor.” Don’t assume that, because your kid is older, news events don't affect him. A Time/Nickolodeon study found that preadolescents said that those TV news bulletins that interrupt regular programming were especially disturbing. They also admitted being even more anxious if a parent wasn’t there to help explain the event to them. If your kids do watch the news, watch with them to answer their questions. And take that TV set out of your kid’s bedroom! You can’t monitor it in there (46 percent of parents on this survey admitted that their kids do have a TV in their bedroom).
3. Keep yourself strong. The Parents Magazine survey found that moms and dads were far more stressed today than their own parents were. Is there one thing you can change about your daily habits that might help you reduce that stress? Don’t expect to be able to help allay your kids’ stress levels until you've found a way to keep your own in check. Are you really watching what you eat (and reducing anxiety-increasers such as caffeine and sugar), exercising, getting enough rest, seeking the support of friends, or spending a quiet moment alone? Parenting Priority #1: Keep yourself strong so you can take care of your kids.
4. Cut one activity. Just one! The survey found that the vast majority of parents didn’t feel they had enough time to be with their kids. So take a long, hard look at that schedule. Is there one thing you can cut each week that, in the long haul, won’t make that much difference? The book club, the violin lessons (your kid hates anyway), cooking the “gourmet dinner” every night. Your kids mirror your behavior and will be calmer if you are calmer.
5. Pass on good news reports. Draw your child’s attention to stories of heroism and compassion – those wonderful simple gestures of love and hope that people do for one another (that are always on the back page of the paper). Find those stories in the newspaper and share them with your child. You can also encourage your kids to watch for little actions of kindness they saw others do and report them at the dinner table. Many families call those “Good News Reports.” It’s important to assure your children that there’s more to the world than threats and fear. Your actions can make a big difference in helping to send them that message.
6. Do stress-reducing activities as a family. I know your time is tight. But maybe you could find a way to reduce stress with your kids. Anxiety is an inevitable part of life, but one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to help your child learn to cope with pressure. Walk to school with your kids. Join a health club with your teen. Do yoga with your daughter. Go biking riding with your preschoolers. Push your baby in a stroller as you walk.
These are tough times for everyone—but especially for our kids. Stress symptoms are showing up in children as young as three-years-old. If your child shows signs of anxiety for more than a few weeks or if you’re concerned, don’t wait. Seek professional help.
Meanwhile, what are you doing to take care of yourself? Remember, you can’t take care of your kids unless you take care of you.
What are your biggest worries about today? Do you agree with the Parents magazine survey? Do you think parents – and kids – are more stressed than previous generations? I do. Just wondered what you thought.
Love to hear from you! And thanks for all those fabulous comments about spoiled kids! Wow. My mailbox is flooded. That topic sure hit a chord.
Dr. Michele Borba is the author of Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them.