The word stress is lodged somewhere in our psyche.
Even as I write it, I think to myself: “Don’t say it. Don’t think it. Try not to stress.” I try to breathe, and relax, to let my thoughts focus on the present moment, not the past or the future.
A friend who’s been an English teacher at one of the top private schools in the city for 35 years recently shook his head in wonder at a dinner party.
“I hear that word a lot these days,” he said.
He’s not the type of guy to put a judgment on something. He didn’t wag his finger and say “All these freaked-out parents are messing up their kids!” He just noted the heavy usage of the word.
And I nodded.
I may not be the best one to judge the change, since I grew up in the hippy dippy ’70s in Tucson, Arizona. The sun nearly always shone, and people moved pretty slow, having chosen to escape the faster-paced places of their youth. People came and visited from those places to detox all that stress at Canyon Ranch, which opened just near my house. I know people worried about plenty of things back then, but you just wouldn’t have heard them say “I’m so stressed,” or “My kids are so stressed.”
Maybe my upbringing is why it strikes me as particularly scary that we talk so much now, in front of our kids, about stress. I always fear labels and diagnosis because I feel like they can hem us in if we let them.
I have a friend who is a psychological diagnostician for kids. I called her recently, to get her take on a big push from some fellow parents of Stuyvesant freshmen that their kids are too stressed, that they have too much homework to get enough sleep, that the administration needs to do something.
Something about the tenor of the conversation struck me, the way I could imagine the parents communicating with their kids about the rigors of the notably difficult school they were attending, and how they proposed it should be handled, how the parents needed to step in and handle it.
The parents who were upset spoke of the multiple activities their kids had on the side, and how there just wasn’t time for those, and to get the homework done and sleep. I remembered the advice of the psychologist at orientation, of the older kids at the school, to take things slow, to add in activities as you acclimated to the workload. My son had reminded me of this when I wrung my hands that he was only doing baseball and hadn’t joined other clubs. But he was right. He has not seemed majorly stressed, he has time to play with his friends and relax, and he has slept fine. Now, he has begun to add in some work on the newspaper.
Maybe, I suggested to my friend, these kids were trying to do too much?
“I think a lot of kids don’t have any unscheduled time, they’re often jam-packed to a breaking point with after-school activities so they can be the ‘perfect applicant’ for college, and it doesn’t give them any leeway when there’s extra homework, or a project,” she said.
What’s more, she said, parents’ own anxiety often means they take on too much responsibility for their children’s work, trying to smooth their path and make it easier and then, she said, “the child’s core belief becomes ‘I’m not capable.’ ”
She likened it to cutting out the scratchy tag in a shirt instead of allowing your child to “suffer” the slight discomfort, and get used to it.
“You’re modeling for your kids, and a coping model is the best model,” she said. “Instead of thinking you can align the stars so that their life is easy, tell them about something difficult that you did, like a presentation, and how you got through it, how you talked to yourself. Don’t pretend you’re Superman.”
Finally, she said, keep the mention of “stress” in check, so it doesn’t become this frequent refrain.
“When you say it, it can make it so,” she said.
So now I say “You’re fine, you can handle it.”
And then I cross my fingers and walk away.