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The Stress Test: How to Help Stressed-Out Kids

Expert insight on how family, society, and crisis creates stress for kids — and their faith.



When we consider kid culture today, we typically tick off evidence of their 21st-century lives — techie gadgets, media saturation, over-scheduled calendars, and unique family structures. Less often do we think of the internal pressures that are part of kids’ daily lives — what we adults simply call stress — and how that pressure impacts kids’ faith formation.

We asked three experts to weigh in on three different types of pressure inherent in kids’ lives. Here’s what they had to say about family pressure, social pressure, and crisis pressure.


FAMILY PRESSURE: What Kids Wish Their Parents Knew

by Pat Verbal

Ask today’s kids what stresses them, and you may expect answers such as taking tests, being picked last for a team, or making new friends. But when I posed the question to 3rd- and 4th-graders, here’s what they said:

“My parents are always on me about making good grades.”

“I don’t really want to play baseball, but it’s so important to my dad.”

“My stepbrother criticizes everything I do, and I can’t be myself at home.”

“My parents think they’re the Internet cops. They lecture me too much.”

Tension at home is high on these kids’ list. “Every generation has a generation gap,” says Mary Manz Simon, author of Trend-Savvy Parenting. “However, because of the accelerating pace of change, it’s possible that more than a mere gap will emerge between parents and children. We’re poised on the edge of a societal rift.”

This growing chasm may shadow the joys of parenthood with a sense of dread. Parents, sensing the disconnect, constantly ask, “Am I a good parent?” And the answer depends on who they ask-Madison Avenue, school, or the church.

Shine, Baby, Shine!

Madison Avenue equates good parenting with good marketing. If a girl’s bedroom resembles a high-gloss page in a Pottery Barn catalog and her clothes have designer labels, she’ll be an A student. If a boy played soccer at age 3 and has a wall of ribbons and gold cups, he’ll get a sports scholarship. If a preschooler’s birthday party is a hit at the country club, she’ll make the right friends. Unfortunately, these Madison-Avenue myths create competitive parents, who put pressure-cooker expectations on their kids.

“No matter how hard I try, my dad is never happy,” says Ryan. “If I get a B in math or miss a high fly ball, I hear about it all week. Sometimes I think he’d like to trade me in for a different kid.” Ryan wishes his parents would accept him for himself. He may even be questioning whether he’s good enough for his heavenly father.

Multitasking Woes

Parenting takes time and energy, especially in stepfamilies or in homes where children have special needs.

“I know when my mom’s had a bad day at the office,” says 10-year-old Jacob. “She doesn’t smile when she picks me up.”

Adults spend 10 hours more per week at the office than they did 30 years ago, according to the Families and Work Institute in New York.

“Jobs have become much more hectic and demanding,” says president Ellen Galinsky. “People feel like they don’t have enough time to get everything done.” Schools respond to this problem by linking parents to classroom Web sites, but this has had an unexpected result-now many parents opt for email instead of attending parent conferences, further deepening the divide between parents and their children’s educational development.

When Jacob feels like one more thing on his mom’s to-do list, he retreats into video games or cyberspace. He may also reason that since God has a whole universe to run, he probably doesn’t have much time for Jacob either.

10 Is the New 16

We’re not imagining it — childhood is getting shorter. Experts say typical teen behaviors are becoming common among kids ages 8 to 12. Girls wear makeup, listen to hip-pop, and chat on Facebook. Boys drop toys for iPods, get highlights in their hair, and think parents are annoying. While parents want their children to be popular with their peers, many are fuzzy about where to draw the line.

“I believe there’s power in numbers,” says Cindy, a MOPS leader and single mom. “When my daughter says all her friends do ‘it,’ I call other parents at church, and together we set boundaries that protect our children.”

Parents are wise to worry about the dangers that come with age compression — which is society’s tendency to inundate kids with more grown-up products, expectations, and roles — due to the availability of alcohol and drugs. And deep down, children don’t want their grown-up attitudes to fool their parents. They instinctively know they need safety nets, standards, and a warm lap to curl up in now and then. Children wish their parents knew that the best place for them to experience faith is in the arms of a loving family. Absent that, churches must exemplify the true attributes of God to today’s children and offer asylum to their parents as well.

Pat Verbal is the founder of Ministry to Today’s Child ( in Frisco, Texas.

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