Childhood stress is reaching unprecedented levels across the developed world. At a time when children should be happy and carefree they are drowning in a tide of pressure and negative emotions. Why are our children suffering such exaggerated stresses and the accompanying mental health problems that result? At a time in history when we are in general more affluent, with better health care, more opportunity and less hardship our children seem to be suffering an epidemic of anxiety, low mood, depression and helplessness? We see it in the distressing increase in suicide, self harm, and destructive behavior. Schools and colleges in particular find themselves in the front line, dealing with students who are struggling instead of enjoying, what should be, the best years of their life.
It is for sure a complex issue with many contributing factors and it would be naive to think that there is one simple answer. In the past one could point to issues around childhood poverty and social isolation and undoubtedly that is still relevant to some sectors of society. However, much of the poor mental health that we encounter today is among the children of affluent, well off families.
The author Paul Tough has highlighted some very important research in his international bestseller, “How Children Succeed”. He reminds us that proper and healthy … attachment between an infant and parent or primary carer has a profound influence on coping abilities later on. In particular the early nurturing attention that infants receive from mothers, “fosters in them a resilience that acts as a protective buffer against stress.” And when the expected challenges of life surface later on they are better able to cope. Attachment theory has been around for quite a while now, but recent research is suggesting that good parenting is not just emotional or psychological; it goes even deeper than that, it is biochemical, impacting one’s DNA. The very building blocks of life.
However, I continually work with children and young adults who have wonderful attentive, loving parents. They have had a model childhood but in spite of this positive start are beset by feelings of low mood, anxiety and poor self esteem. What is amiss in this scenario? An American psychologist named Madeline Levine has written pointedly that much of the adolescent anxiety in more affluent families is as a direct result of child rearing practices. She contends that in some well off American homes, parents can be emotionally distant from their kids whilst at the same time insisting on high levels of achievement.
Now this resonates with me on this side of the Atlantic, especially the idea that young people are needlessly being pressured to perform at the highest level. However, I believe that the pressure can come from many sources, not just parents. Well meaning teachers, competition among siblings or friends and a culture that places a premium on grades and points achieved without recognising non academic competencies.
Academic achievement in particular seems to have become the holy grail. For many children that’s fine because they have academic ability, but what about the others. Those young people who have other capabilities but are unlikely to “achieve startling grades at school.” Much less attention is paid to the development of non academic skills or good character. Now I am all for every child receiving a good education but that is not enough. We need to look at what else is required for children to develop their innate potential and enjoy a high quality of life, which is free from needless turmoil and stress.
As I have already stated, childhood stress is a complex, multifaceted problem that will require an honest look at many aspects of modern society, but the one thing that cannot be allowed to continue is the ever increasing levels of emotional distress in young people.
If you are in any ways affected by childhood stress please feel free to contact Sean on 0872895171 or drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org