Our kids are way too stressed out and it’s really starting to worry me. I know we dealt with stress when we were little, but it was nothing compared to what I see my son going through these days. Ever since the 3rd grade, when his teachers collectively decided that the kids were done being kids and started treating school more like boot camp, he’s been growing more and more stressed with each passing year.
With Jacob, the stress coincided with the first year of standardized testing (the PSSAs in PA). I opt him out of the PSSAs every year (I’m the only one in his school that does it), but he still has to deal with the pressure and stress from teachers trying to prep kids for a “be all, end all” test. Then came Common Core. My son, who shined in math and reading, started failing because his mind works differently and he didn’t fit into the common mold. Mind you, when it came to math, he always knew the right answer, he just didn’t arrive at it the way the Common Core system wants him to.
On top of the extreme pressure to perform put on him by his school, Jake is dealing with issues that affect most kids his age: bullying, peer pressure, preadolescence. He’s not alone. All of our kids are dealing with many of the same issues every day. So what can we do to take the pressure off? How can we help our kids not be so stressed out? I don’t have all the answers, but I think I have a few good places to start.
Giving our Kids the Tools to Deal with Stress by Boosting their Confidence
After I wrote all these, I realized they have one major thing in common: they all help boost kids’ overall confidence. When kids feel more confident in themselves and their abilities, they’re less likely to stress about the little things. Confidence also gives them the tools they need to handle the big things that life throws at them. So think of these as both confidence boosters and stress reducers.
Praise their Strengths
Kids need praise. They need to know we’re proud of them. A really twisted woman that I know said the most disgusting thing once. She misunderstood a study, thought that it said kids shouldn’t hear any praise because it doesn’t prepare them for the real world. So she basically stopped saying anything nice to them at all, and instead started tearing them down by saying things like “you are weak, that grade was awful,” etc. The scary thing? She thought that was good parenting.
I’m not saying you should praise your kids for eating a banana properly, or for managing to put their shoes on (unless it’s the first time they do it right!), but kids do deserve to hear that they’ve done a good job. They also deserve to have their strengths praised so that they feel encouraged to play to them.
Don’t harp on their weaknesses
Are you good at everything you’ve ever tried to do? Do you master everything the first time you try it? Can you remember everything you’ve read in 6 different subjects at any given time and be ready to instantly recall it on demand? If you answered yes, well, you’re special. The rest of us, not so much. Why then, do we expect our kids to get As in every single subject, every single semester? Why do we harp on them when they come across a subject that just doesn’t click? I stink at math. Always have, always will. I can’t even help Jake do his 5th grade math, especially now that it’s all that common core junk.
If your kids are good in every subject except one, by all means, get them extra help so they can at least pass the class, but don’t harp on it. Don’t punish them if they bring home bad grades in one subject when you know they’re trying their best. It’s not fair. How would you like it if I pointed out constantly everything that you were bad at? Took away your favorite leisure activity because you couldn’t get top scores in something that you just plain didn’t understand? Think about that, please.
Give them a break!
Weekends and holidays are family time. They’re called school “breaks” for a reason. Jake’s teachers this year are pretty good about it. In the past, I’ve sent notes back to school with his uncompleted homework telling them that we don’t do school work on breaks. I tend to be a bit more, um, rebellious I guess, then most parents. If you don’t feel comfortable doing something like this, then at least make sure you’re giving your kids an ample break from your own extra educational activities so they can have some down time. Don’t over-schedule their after-school sports or activities either. They need time to just be themselves and explore their own interests.
Don’t force them to “stick with it”
Speaking of sports and activities, if you want to help reduce your kids’ stress, don’t force them to “stick with” something they truly hate. Childhood is a time to explore different interests and find something that really resonates. Jacob tried chorus for a few months and really hated it. I let him quit. This year, he’s doing band and really likes it! I know it’s hard when you’ve spent money on an activity to just let them give it up, but forcing kids to keep doing an activity they hate is going to backfire. They’re not going to put their heart into it anyway, and that’s not really fair to the kids who are there to win.
Let them win arguments sometimes…even against you!
I can’t remember if I read this in a psychology book or if my therapist told it to me, but if you want to help prepare your kids for the real world and boost their confidence, you have to let them win a few arguments. I’m not saying give in to dangerous requests. Jake has been asking to stay home alone since he was 8. Not gonna happen bud, sorry. End of discussion.
However, there was a video game that he really wanted to play that I was on the fence about for a while. He argued his side eloquently, we discussed the difference between real life and games, he proved that he understood and in the end, I let him win. I did tell him that if I see his moral compass going south he was going all the way back to Dora and Diego games, but so far, we haven’t had any problems.
Love them unconditionally and make sure they know it
All parents (okay, all good parents) love their kids unconditionally. It’s part of being a parent. No matter what our kids do, we will always love them. The thing is, our kids need reassurance of that fact quite often. Kids haven’t yet grasped that you can be angry at someone and still love them. To them, love is happy and cuddly. Anger is hate. When you get angry with your kids, it’s so important to let them know that you’re angry at the action or the choice they made, but you still love them.
Try this: replace at you with that you. Example: instead of “I’m so mad at you I could scream!” say “I’m so mad that you chose to ignore curfew because I was so worried!” This way, you’re making it clear that you’re mad at the action.
REALLY acknowledge their feelings
Sometimes in an effort to diffuse a situation we say things that make our kids feel like we don’t understand them at all. Example: Jake tells me that a kid called him a name. Rather than acknowledging his hurt feelings, I quickly tell him that the kid doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that’s not true at all, Jake is awesome, that kid is just mean. What Jake really wants, though, is me to acknowledge that he’s feeling hurt and betrayed by this kid who is supposed to be his friend.
When your child is upset, acknowledge the feelings. Even if they’re upset because someone stole their loot stash in Minecraft, the feelings are real to them. Don’t brush them off.
Let them know you’re always in their corner
Last- but perhaps most important- let your child know that you’re always rooting for them and that you’ll always be there for them. Establish an open line of communication so they feel comfortable coming to you. Whether they’re upset with a teacher who has gone too far (sadly, we’ve found that teachers can be bullies too) or just feeling overwhelmed by peer pressure, it’s important that kids know you’ll be there to lend a non-judgmental ear and, if possible, a helping hand.
Will doing these things eliminate the stress in our kids’ lives? Sadly, no. Hopefully, though, they’ll help our kids stay strong in the face of great and, in some cases, unreasonable expectations and extreme pressures put on them by today’s society and education system.