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Two elementary girls sitting on chairs next to each other. One looks happy, and one looks stressed.
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The Stress Test: 3 Types of Stress and How to Help Stressed-Out Kids

Expert insight on how family, society, and crisis create 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 Stress: What Kids Wish Their Parents Knew

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 third and fourh 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 and The Hear Me Read Bible. “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. When 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.

Managing 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 Ellen Galinsky, president at Families and Work Institute. “People feel like they don’t have enough time to get everything done.” Schools respond to this problem by linking parents to classroom websites, 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-hop, and chat on social media. Boys drop toys for smartphones, 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 manager of curriculum development at Joni and Friends in Frisco, Texas.

Social Stress: Navigating the Positives and the Negatives

Most parents can remember a time, usually during preschool, when their sweet child, who always followed instructions and paid little attention to what friends were doing, began to act differently. Kids begin using new words sometimes shocking ones that they hear at day care, school, or on the playground. Or they suddenly start asking for different clothes, toys, haircuts, or foods because a friend has them.

Peer pressure. Social influence. It’s often blamed for the many ills of childhood materialism, foul language, bullying…the list goes on. It can be tempting to think the only way to deal with this is to isolate kids from the community around them. Yet figuring out how to get along with others, resist negative influences, and be a positive influence salt and light are all part of growing up.

Children need to know about negative peer pressure. They need skills to act in caring, positive ways toward their peers. And they need to know how to choose friends who bring out the best in them and help them grow in their faith.

So how can you help? Try these strategies.

Team up with parents.

Children and teenagers learn interpersonal and relationship-building skills largely from their parents. Help parents build their own friendships so their kids see them as role models. Talk about ways they can encourage their children to have positive relationships. When parents start to worry about their kids’ negative relationships or pressures, give them opportunities for honest, nonjudgmental sharing with other parents.

Get to know community kids.

Find out about children’s friends their names, what they’re like, what they do together. You’ll discover the positive influences and the not-so-positive ones. You may find opportunities to encourage the positives and raise questions about the negatives. As you ask questions, you’ll help children think through their friendships and how they either help or hinder their spiritual lives and values.

Teach kids to negotiate friendships.

Teach children friendship skills. Help them practice with experiences that deepen their relationships with other kids at church. They’ll carry that practice with them at school and with other friends.

Avoid being judgmental about kids’ friendships. Children are likely to dismiss you if you attack their friends then they won’t come to you the next time.

Remember, too, that kids are often trying out different types of friends as they sort out who they are and which friendships are important to them. As they grow up, they’re likely to move beyond the negative friendships if they have other nurturing relationships.

Get youth involved.

Your church’s youth group may be one of your most important resources. Young people who are often heroes to younger children can teach about negotiating the pressures they’ll face in the community. They can also guide kids toward the positive resources and influences in their schools and neighborhoods. Encourage your youth leaders to offer peer ministry training for their kids, then use those peers in supporting your ministry with children.

Link with allies in the community.

Lots of people in your community want the best for children. Find them. Get to know them. Support and encourage them. You can work together to increase the chances that the community’s young people, adults, and neighbors work together to create positive opportunities and influences for children. See yourselves on the same team for children, even if you’re doing very different things and have different emphases.

Celebrate growth.

When our son was in third grade, he did something that really pressured his friends. He wanted to play viola in the school orchestra, but he didn’t want to do it by himself. So he convinced several of his friends to sign up, too. For the next several years, those boys were a force to be reckoned with in elementary orchestra.

When we see kids’ relationships grow strong and we see them influencing each other in positive ways, we can celebrate that they’ve learned to negotiate negative pressures and influences and grow with the positive ones.

Eugene Roehlkepartain is co-director of Search Institute’s Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence.

Crisis Stress: The Faith-Shaker

A definition of “at-risk” children can be difficult to pin down. It’s safe to say that in this fallen world, all children are at risk. Every child will be faced with navigating situations that can build him or her up or break them down. Some children suffer distinct disadvantages during their development issues that impact relationships, vocations, self-identity, and spiritual formation.

What are the basic needs of children?

The most important and most basic emotional needs all children have are to feel safe and to feel secure. These two basic human needs are best met by providing for other essential needs that is, clear structure, unconditional love, consistent affirmation in who they are, a healthy balance of grace and justice, positive modeling of conflict resolution, respite in the arms of a parent or caregiver, healthy touch (hugs and kisses), receiving gifts, empathy from elders, clear expectations and consequences, and social success, to name a few.

Recognize unmet needs.

Children become at-risk or in crisis when their needs for safety and security aren’t met. When a child’s foundation is shaken, he or she feels alone, angry, confused, misunderstood, unworthy, ugly, and unlovable. How a child navigates these deficits is a watershed moment because kids are establishing behavior patterns and interpretive skills that’ll profoundly impact their adolescence and adulthood.

Understand their challenges.

Children concretely process their thoughts and feelings. They’re typically not self-aware to report on what they feel and experience. So a child in crisis carries burdens which usually manifest through observable interaction with parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and elders. Signs include tantrums, withdrawal, defiance, poor academic performance, seeking negative attention, and poor social skills.

Over time, an at-risk child internalizes what he or she feels and interprets these events in black-and-white terms. For example, “Those kids won’t play with me. I’m a bad kid.” Or “They all laughed at me, and I hate feeling like a loser. I’ll make sure they never laugh at me again,” as the child becomes an aggressive bully. As a result, kids enter survival mode as they attempt to gain the support, safety, and security (their basic emotional needs) they need in specific situations.

Crisis affects a child’s faith.

As with their life experiences, children’s faith experiences are concrete and experiential. A child in crisis interprets and experiences faith in the same survival mode that protects him or her every day. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a struggling child to fully think and believe, God doesn’t love me or God hates me and I’ll validate his hate by acting out because I’m unworthy of love. So while kids typically embrace God as fact, they’ll experientially recall their life experiences when interpreting God’s relevance and significance in their lives.

Your ministry is crucial.

This puts you in an exciting place. You can give struggling kids many opportunities to experience God’s love for them in your ministry. Your ministry is an extension of Jesus, displaying patience, grace, justice, and unconditional love that the child may not experience in other settings. And these consistent experiences over time can transform a child’s life, eventually resulting in the concrete, life-impacting understanding: “God loves me as I am, and he is proud of me.”

Trevor Simpson is a youth and family therapist in Wheaton, Illinois. He is a contributing author of Emergency Response Handbook for Youth Ministry (Group).

Looking for more ways to help kids deal with stress? Check out Group’s Emergency Response Handbook for Children’s Ministry. You can also check out this article.

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