More kids plagued with chronic stress: Why it’s happening, how to help

Kids are 'coming out of the womb highly stressed' (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON Kids these days are more stressed than ever.

Recent studies show that adolescents and young adults are five-to-eight times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than kids who lived at the height of the Great Depression, said William Stixrud, clinical neuropsychologist and faculty member at Children’s National and the George Washington University School of Medicine.

“And in the last six years, there’s been this tremendous spike in anxiety disorders, depression, chemical use in young people, and all of these are stress-related disorders,” Stixrud added.

What’s causing all this stress? There are a number of factors at play. For starters, young people — and their parents — are sleeping less than they did 20 and 30 years ago. Technology has made it so that society has less downtime, and competition generated by college admissions and the job market is great.

But not all stress is bad. In fact, a mild-to-moderate amount of stress is part of healthy childhood development; it’s how children become resilient, Stixrud explained.

“You become good at coping when you have this experience and the confidence that ‘I can handle challenging things,'” he added.

Excessive stress, on the other hand, is damaging both in the short and long term — as it interferes with one’s ability to function socially, emotionally and academically.

“Stressed kids can’t learn. The brain does not focus well; it does not integrate information, it does not remember information well when it learns,” said Stixrud, co-author of “The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.”

Being highly stressed also disrupts the architecture of the brain and places kids at a greater risk for anxiety and depression as they age.

“And so kids who are chronically stressed are just more likely to be even more easily stressed as they get older,” Stixrud said.

However, there are some things parents can do to foster healthy brain development in their children. The first step is to equip them with the information and perspective that they need to navigate life, and not to solve their problems for them.  

“Our role is to help them solve their own problems. We want them to deal with their own stressors … We want to help them get enough rest, we want to coach them in developing a schedule that’s not completely overloaded, we want to help them put their academic concerns in perspective so they don’t worry unnecessarily about getting into college,” Stixrud said.  

Keeping bedtimes consistent as much as possible and placing an importance on “radical downtime” can help decrease stress in young adults.

“Radical downtime is daydreaming or mind-wandering, meditation and sleep,” said Stixrud, who explained that if kids need to be awakened by an alarm clock, they are not getting enough sleep.

“When we have some time just to let our mind wander, we tend to solve problems better, we tend to be more creative, and when we meditate, virtually everything gets better because our brains work better.”

Placing an emphasis on balance is another strategy. Yes, being involved in athletics, after-school clubs and other extracurriculars looks great on college applications; but for many students, an overloaded schedule is not a healthy way of life.

Another thing to consider is the increasingly popular option of taking a “gap year” between high school and college. Stixrud said the research on gap years “is very compelling” — especially for highly stressed kids and those who could use some experience running their own lives before being turned loose in an environment where binge drinking and late bedtimes are the norm.

Parents of younger children can help prevent chronic stress by giving them a sense of autonomy and control through choice. This can be as simple as encouraging a little one to choose his own outfit or decorate his room. Allowing a child to be in control hard-wires the brain to better handle stressful situations later in life.

“And as they get older, what we want to do is encourage kids to make their own decisions with our help we want them to make informed decisions and we want them to solve their own problems, which is how they become more resilient,” Stixrud said.

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