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So much to do, so little rest



Published: Sat, March 1, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Young people need time to relax and cope with stress.

By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER

LIBERTY -- A parent's underemployment. A sibling's ill health. Homework loads, college applications, proficiency tests, the American College Test. Peer pressure, relationship trouble, alcohol, drugs and sex.

And why can't we afford Abercrombie jeans?!

The minds of young people today are filled with stressful thoughts.

Although many may be beyond a parent's control, some well-meaning adults may be playing a part in stressing out their children, said Dr. Douglas Darnall, director of Psycare Inc.

Busy, busy, busy

In the past 20 years, there has been an influx of extracurricular activities for youngsters, Dr. Darnall said, and parents are taking the bait.

"Parents frequently get their children into too many activities where there's little time left" to do anything else, he said. As a result, children have less creative time than they used to.

This is the modern phenomenon of the "overstressed child," said Dr. Phillip Maiden, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who serves as medical director at Belmont Pines Hospital. "So many children are overscheduled with ballet, golf ... that they have to schedule time to do nothing."

There also is a good deal of "vicarious accomplishment" going on when it comes to parents' living through their children, Dr. Maiden said.

"You obviously want what's best for your child, but I think parents should be careful about the demands they put on children," Dr. Maiden said. "If they're doing something, make sure they're doing it for them, not for you."

Richard Feldman, Belmont Pines chief executive officer, suggested that parents let children take the lead when deciding which activities to pursue. Focus first on academics but don't expect perfection, he said. "Not everybody can get an A every time."

Adult issues

Young people today are often dealing with adult issues, said Dr. Mandy Medvin, developmental psychologist and director of the preschool lab in the psychology department at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and with America on the verge of war in Iraq, children face new stresses. Those with parents in the military reserves may worry even more.

Adults should encourage children to talk about their feelings, not minimize them, Dr. Medvin said.

Turn off the television news, she said. "It's not their issue."

"Be positive," she added. "Reassure them that they live in a good place and that the chances of bad things happening are small."

Adding to stress can be parents' divorces, Dr. Darnall said, with children living between two households, dealing with visitation issues and trying to fulfill "peacemaker" roles.

The sum of all these parts: "Frankly, it's just a lack of time. Extra activities, two households, schoolwork. Kids are pretty well tired," said Dr. Darnall, who serves on the Weathersfield Board of Education.

Watching for signs

One way to gauge a child is to watch for changes. Or, as Dr. Maiden suggests, simply ask them, "How are you feeling today? What are your worries?"

Although some youngsters thrive under pressure, others will suffer.

Signs that a child may be severely affected by stress include depression or anxiety, irritability, acting out or withdrawing, a change in sleep habits, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating or a drop in grades and gastrointestinal problems or headaches.

Monitor your children, learn the signs that they are stressed, and talk to them, Dr. Darnall said.

"Emphasize listening, not lecturing," he added. "Offer mentoring or guidance instead of demands. Allow children to participate in decision-making that affects their lives."

And let them relax, Dr. Maiden added.

"Sigmund Freud [the founder of psychoanalysis] said it was a sign of health that one is able to love and to work," he said. "Even better is the version by Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst: 'To be healthy, a person must be able to love, to work and to play.' Even adults need to play. ... And if adults need to play, children certainly need to play."

viviano@vindy.com




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