Tag Archives: American Psychiatric Association

Stressed Out Kids: Who’s to Blame?

For this 100th blog post, I’ve decided to write about a topic that is killing us.

Literally.

I can’t think of a more important issue for the health of our children and our families than stress. Think your kid isn’t stressed? Think again. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 91 percent of children in the United States report feeling stressed—even though many of their parents reported those same kids were not anxious. It really shouldn’t be that surprising to us parents—as stress permeates every facet, age-group and demographic of our over-stretched, frenetic American lifestyle. Of course it has to affect our children too.

As I’ve reported for multiple magazines and news outlets, stress is a killer. Well, not stress exactly—but how we deal with it. When there are chronic excess levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in our bloodstream, we put ourselves at risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and multiple autoimmune disorders. Pregnant women, especially, need to watch stress levels as cortisol crosses the blood-stream barrier and is linked to potential attention deficit disorder and memory impairment later in life—as well as being a precursor to pre-term birth. (See my FitPregnancy magazine article Beat the Four Biggest Pregnancy Stressors ).

We are just starting to uncover the truth about how stressed our children really are and what this means for their futures and their health. The APA’s latest Stress in America survey  shows that while a majority of parents didn’t think their children were feeling stress, 91 percent of children interviewed reported they were. And what do you think caused children, ages 8 – 17, the most anxiety? Watching their parents. This information from the survey really struck a cord:

“Nearly three-quarters (69 percent) of parents say that their stress has only a slight or no impact on their children, yet 91 percent of children report they know their parent is stressed because they observe a multitude of behaviors, such as yelling, arguing and complaining.”

Think about it, our young children watch us, worry, and later mimic us. In the meantime, their stress-filled bodies often become over-weight. Another article I’m writing this month for a health care magazine shows that Type-2 diabetes rates among children are rising at a staggering pace—even in fitness-oriented cities such as Los Angeles. The typical reasoning is our changing American lifestyle that hampers children from riding their bikes freely or walking to school. One diabetic physician in Los Angeles told me that children are staying home alone and playing video games more and more—then eating fast food for dinner. But that’s for another story…

Stress has other potential side-effects for our kids. For instance, one recent study linked extreme stress (such as children living with a chronically ill parent or sibling, or those who have experienced or witnessed violence crimes) with poor school performance, exacerbated health issues and a likelihood to abuse drugs and alcohol. And a University of Wisconsin-Madison study concluded that intense and lasting stress actually alters children’s brain functioning: reducing short-term memory and cognitive abilities.

Helping Our Children Starts at Home

Clearly, it’s critical that we help our children lower their stress levels. But how can we expect our kids to manage their stress well—if we, as parents, aren’t doing a good job ourselves? It’s a bit hypercritical and impractical as the bad reactions and habits we have actually triggers their anxiety!

We are our children’s teachers. They watch our every move. If we are snapping at them and rushing in all directions at a scattered pace to get to work, school and a myriad of activities—how can we expect them to roll with the punches? How can we expect them to be relaxed, if we aren’t? Yesterday I overheard a mom at the grocery store yell at her whining toddler: “STOP it or I’ll pop you in the mouth!”

Clearly, that didn’t work—or make her more relaxed. But who hasn’t felt that way? (Obviously, I’ve had my moments too! See this post.) Who hasn’t been triggered by over-load from work and life demands that suddenly leave you breathless and reacting instantly instead of calmly and patiently?

I know I can be guilty of this. If I don’t slow down or limit the number of obligations I have on my plate, I’m less mindful.

Think of what other habits you may be forming that aren’t the best for you or your kiddos. Do you often complain about work demands or money? Do you find yourself racing around, not listening, and then ordering pizza, putting a kids show on the tube and pouring yourself a glass of vino to veg out? Do you and the hubby argue in front of the kids?

They’re watching, or listening, even if you think they aren’t. I’m not trying to lay on the guilt…like we all need one more thing to feel bad about! But, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I expect my children to make healthier choices—I have to as well. It starts at home. It starts with me.

I recently wrote an article about kids and stress for Pulse, a Los Angeles-based healthcare magazine for Torrance Memorial Medical Center. (Soon to be published.) I reported about an elementary school principal in Palos Verdes, Calif. who hired a stress-reduction and mindfulness expert to come into her school last year to teach young children techniques to lower their stress levels. The health expert, who has a Master’s Degree in clinical holistic health education, showed the children relaxation techniques, including how to “find a safe place” through guided imagery and meditation.

This program was introduced before the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, and surprisingly, even in the wealthy enclave of Palos Verdes—many children reported feeling stressed and anxious on a weekly basis. Most anxiety was reported as stemming from wanting to fit in or pressure to excel (yes, even in elementary school!) and worrying about their parents. So you see, even if you think your children aren’t feeling the strain that other kids are, you’re likely wrong.

Wouldn’t it be great if more schools in America introduced yoga, meditation and other mindfulness workshops to their children? In a time with multiple school budget cuts, it’s not likely. And, to be more on topic, unless parents attend these workshops with their children—I wonder if stress levels would lower very much within the family dynamic?

I know in this family, it’s time for mom to make a concerted and consistent effort to lower anxiety levels for my boys.  And that starts, well, with me.

Navigating Autism

Last month I wrote the cover article for Pulse Magazine. It was more than just a look into autism and its causes and behavioral checklists for families—the type of articles I have written for parenting publications in the past. No, this article was an in-depth exploration into how families cope with the disorder and what resources are available to them. I was moved when talking with families who have tried multiple therapies and who have stayed together while sacrificing so much of their lives and personal time and careers to fight for the wellbeing of their children. While this magazine article is tailored for Southern California readers— the stories of the many families I interviewed will inspire you by their sheer determination and positive energy that seems boundless.

And boundless, positive energy is critical today after the American Psychiatric Association has endeavored to “redefine autism,” potentially limiting the numbers of families who will now qualify for assisted therapies. (See this New York Times article to read more on this unfolding development.) Even when facing an uncertain future in terms of assisted therapy and programs—each family I spoke with were determined to find alternative ways to help their children. If you’ve ever thought that one person couldn’t make a difference, I dare you to continue to think that way after hearing Sam Felsenfeld’s story. In honor of his son Jack, Sam ran a marathon each week in 2010—61 marathons and two ultra-marathons—to raise money for autism research and public awareness. He has raised more than $150,000 for Train4Autism and the 39-year-old father of three is still running. (You can read about his daily endeavors on his blog OperationJack.)

Risks:

This morning I was inspired to write and promote my article on autism after watching a CNN brief about how a study determined that the age of sperm carries risk factors for delivering a child with autism. (Read this New York Times article to read more about how the age of the father carries potential risks for autism and Schizophrenia.) It’s certainly compelling. For many years the state of California has been deemed the state with the most autism cases in America. (Surprisingly, Utah just jumped ahead this year…) In fact, the number of children with autism has tripled in California since 2002. I recall attending a panel for Fit Pregnancy magazine (where I freelance often) and a doctor suggested that both environmental and genetic factors were to blame for the disorder’s rise. No one knows for sure, but determining that the age of sperm carries risk factors, is an important step—especially in the age of older parents and the popularity of fertility treatments. A Scientific American study revealed clusters of autism in California’s city centers (twice the national rate), which lends me to believe that there may be some validity in a link between the age of parents and autism risks. (As most people know, older, new parents can be found in larger cities where many delay having children until after pursing careers or higher educational goals.)

What do you think? Perhaps there is NO one risk. Perhaps it’s a whirlwind of factors that, when crashed together, puts your child at high risk. Perhaps it’s part genetic, part environmental and part age of sperm and/or egg. Why some children are on one end of the spectrum and fight just to attain speech—while others are born with less severe symptoms and race forward in therapy and are able to attend college and become independent—is baffling to experts. There is no one autistic child or one autistic experience. If you have a child with any level of this disorder—I’m sure you’re only concern is that of helping your child thrive and attend school and later to navigate social cues and be able to find a job and become independent as an adult. It can seem overwhelming to the outsider, but if it’s your child—it’s your passion and your life. I get it. Here’s hoping Obama’s healthcare endeavors will get more children—regardless of where they fall in the new and developing definition of the disorder—approved for assisted occupational therapies.

And finally, here’s hoping that more of us without autistic children teach our kids to become more accepting of others. Because, at the end of the day, we all need to embrace the wonderful and sometimes whimsical children with this disorder—as often times, they have much to teach us.