More kids in childcare, higher rates of divorce, greater pressure in classrooms and busy schedules that are comparable to those of adults. Are our Australian kids stressed out?
Tom used to be a stressed kid. “Just before his fifth birthday, he started developing separation anxiety. If I left even for a minute, he would get hysterical and cry,” says mum Eugenie. “He’s always been slightly sensitive.”
Tom isn’t alone. Rhonda Wilson has worked in early childhood since 1983. “We currently have children in Australia aged four starting formal education that aren’t developmentally ready,” says Brisbane-based Wilson, who works as a trainer in early childhood studies at Open Colleges. “Australia-wide changes mean there are more expectations placed on children in schools, in care, and by society in general.”
This stress on kids isn’t just happening here. “As many as 30 per cent of children in some communities are being held back in kindergarten because they don’t know their numbers and letters,” says New York-based David Elkind, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University. Teachers like Wilson worry that the same issue could afflict children here as greater numbers of parents report stressed and anxious offspring.
Tom’s sensitivities didn’t appear out of the blue. “There was an event that we think possibly triggered it,” explains Eugenie. He woke up one night mistakenly thinking he was alone in the house. This was enough to trigger future anxiety episodes.
Are kids today simply more stressed than they were a generation ago? “I don’t know if stress is the word,” counters Dr Lennie Barblett, senior lecturer in early childhood education at Edith Cowan University in Perth. “They’re certainly more time-tabled.”
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of Psychology and director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University in Philadelphia agrees, “There’s reason to believe that higher-income parents are over-scheduling.”
Hirsh-Pasek points out that the misconception with parents is that if children aren’t scheduled with activities, they aren’t learning.
“The world we live in isn’t always structured,” she points out. A generation ago and beyond, kids had more time to play and freely explore their world. “Kids got physical and exercised their bodies and minds. Today there isn’t enough time for that.”
Dr Barblett advocates more “free” playtime for children, explaining that play primarily teaches them to regulate their emotions and manage stress. “When children play, the group tells them what’s socially acceptable and what’s not, “she explains. “Through play, children learn to negotiate, to problem-solve and to resolve conflicts.”
Another person who’s seen her fair share of stressed kids is Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a parenting coach who gives online advice for parents with stressed children or those with or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). “Play is an awesome way for kids to manage stress,” Taylor-Klaus explains. “It physiologically interrupts the stress cycle. Literally, the brain becomes hijacked under stress.” Free playtime is a simple cure, she believes.
This strategy seemed to work for Tom, as mum Eugenie, explains:, “I decided to cut any extra activities so there was absolutely no pressure.” She also investigated a relaxed kids program in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs and saw a child psychologist with Tom. Other techniques such as carrying a family photo in his schoolbag and specially created “story meditations” at bedtime have helped to ease Tom’s stress.
Dr Barblett agrees that strategies like these would be potentially beneficial. “We (as teachers and parents) aim to promote things like curiosity, persistence, flexibility and resilience,” she says. “A child needs to develop that sense of ‘what do I do if this doesn’t work out?’ They need to learn to think of another way of having a go, not just sitting and having a good cry. Play teaches that.”
“Relax,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “We are not the CEOs of our children’s every move. We need to give them the room to be the physicists, biologists and psychologists that they are. They aren’t our product.”
– Alyce Vayle