Family Stress: It's Not All in Your Head

For most of my kids' childhoods, I felt that my ability to guide my family faced direct competition from school, and many forces beyond.

In elementary school, heavy backpacks bent my kids' soft little backs. Homework intruded into playtime, even though research has shown that play is important for cognitive and social development. In middle school, more homework and big projects hijacked precious family weekends--just when my kids needed more sleep, more time to adjust to their rapidly changing brains, and more healthy time with friends, and when my husband and I needed some rest. By high school, the downward pressure from looming college applications threatened to torque my kids' developmental arc.

"Don't do anything for a college resume," I warned. "Make choices because they make sense to you."

As the tsunami of outside competition flooded toward us, I felt like a little mushroom field trying to filter toxins out of a roaring river. The competition over messaging added even more pressure: media was saturated with hypersexualized images, dysfunctional interactions, unrealistic problem-solving, violence, and more. It was hard to stay on top of it all, to teach my kids the difference between our values inside our family versus values in the outside world. This on top of our own adult pressures to manage childcare, two jobs, meals, paychecks, health care and sick days, quality time, extended family, and maybe a few friends.

Adults are stressed, but our kids are stressed, too. A recent survey found that in the United States, teens' stress has now surpassed that of adults. Many young people say that they are overwhelmed, depressed, and sad because of the stress that they, themselves, gauge to be unhealthy. And the mental health of teenagers in this country is declining over time. Many parents are frantic, reaching for whatever levers they can put their hands on: hiring therapists, looking to medications, and trying ancient practices to calm everyone down. If only we could find the right key, we parents think, we can unlock the stress, and our child will thrive. 

photo by Elvin

photo by Elvin

But when the number of kids and families struggling is so large, we have to start asking questions about the systems beyond ourselves. We parents love our children wildly, and ultimately, they're our responsibility. But our ability to care for them successfully also depends in large part on how the wider culture, policies, and values support childrearing. And on that score, America is not doing very well, especially compared to other countries. Last week I published an op-ed in The Washington Post exploring that theme. One of the comments was provocative: "America hates children," it read.

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you," goes the saying. And I'm here to affirm: The stress that you and your kids feel is not all manufactured inside your family. Self-help goes only so far, and sometimes it even deludes us into accommodating to a maladaptive situation. A new election cycle will roll around soon, and it's time to start asking when America will put children first.