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Kristen Race, Ph.D. Headshot

The Epidemic of Stressed Parents Raising Stressed Kids: From Generation X to Generation Stress

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It's Monday. Back to school, back to work, back to the hamster wheel. Pack the lunches, get one kid on the bus, the other ready for carpool, and make the early meeting on time. Get your daughter off her phone and on the bus. No time for breakfast yourself. Spilled coffee on your pants racing out the door because it's your turn for carpool and school starts at 7:30. At least you'll get to work on time. Bing! Text from your daughter -- FGT VIOLIN. CAN U BRING IT?

Mondays no longer mean back to work, it's back to work in the office. You've been answering emails all weekend -- a few here, a few there; your phone makes it so easy -- so why doesn't it feel like you had a weekend at all?

Once upon a time, this scenario would have read like a movie script for a situation comedy. Now, it just reads like a typical Monday. You see, Generation X is all grown up. Far from the slackers we were reputed to be in our disaffected youth, in 2010 Generation X (those of us between the ages of 34 and 47) was identified as the most stressed-out generation in America.

If it were just us, that would be one thing. But as you may have noticed, there were more people involved in the scenario above than just you. For years I've been talking about how stressed-out parents create stressed-out kids -- developing what I call Generation Stress. Well guess what? According to the 2013 "Stress in America" report, teens have taken over the throne as the most stressed people in America. The recently released report paints a picture of extreme stress and ineffective coping skills that appear to be ingrained in our culture. If it seems like things aren't the same for young people as when we were kids, that's because they're not.

It starts young -- really young: depression and anxiety among elementary school students are rising. Nearly a third of high school students report feeling sad or hopeless. One in five school-age kids has a diagnosable mental disorder -- 20 percent of our children! This kind of stress is incredibly dangerous, to the point our kids' very lives are being threatened. Each year, about one in six teens seriously considers suicide, and approximately one in 13 attempts to take his or her own life.

While Chardonnay playdates are getting a wink and a nod, adults aren't the only ones self-medicating. Last year, while I was researching my book, a high school resource officer acknowledged the new street drug of choice among adolescents is Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. Where kids used to look for drugs to pump them up -- speed, even Ritalin -- now they're looking for drugs to calm them down.

When it comes to managing their high-pressure schedules, even kids not popping pills are looking for a way to chill out. Rather than being active, kids are opting for "Call of Duty" and some couch time instead. The APA poll backs this up, indicating that children engage in more sedentary behaviors when they're feeling stressed. Increasingly, kids turn to video games or surf the Internet to try and relax. Unfortunately, technology just doesn't work this way. While entertaining, Facebooking, IMing and video games actually increase stress in the brain. In addition, kids who learn early in life to rely on sedentary behaviors in order to manage stress face serious health implications down the road.

Stress Is Contagious

While we've done our due diligence about Stranger Danger and flu vaccines, we've missed a big one. Stress is both debilitating and highly contagious, so it makes perfect sense that a generation of stressed-out parents is raising a generation of stressed-out kids. Human brains are equipped with special hardware, wiring that allows us to tap into the emotions we witness around us. The hardware comes in the form of "mirror neurons" that reflect back the emotions we witness around us. Mirror neurons are the reason that our infants smile back at us when we smile at them. That's a lovely and rewarding example, but these neurons light up in response to all kinds of expressed emotion, not just smiles.

When we witness an expression on someone's face, we not only understand what that person is feeling, the area inside our own brain responsible for that same emotion lights up as well. So when you feel anxious on that Monday morning above, your child's anxiety neurons are firing as well. Stress is having an unprecedented impact on our mental, emotional and physical health, and is taking a significant toll on our children. The good news is that positive as well as negative emotions are "catching" in this manner. If we can stop the cycle and cultivate emotions in ourselves, everyone around us benefits, including our children.

There Is Hope

While we can't eliminate all stress, there are many things we can do to become more resilient to the stress in our lives. It doesn't require money, leaving the city or quitting your job. In fact, most of my presentations are more about simplifying your life rather than employing a whole new slew of strategies.

At the core, we have to start with ourselves. We can't help our kids manage their stress until we can manage ours. If you think you're hiding your worry and stress from your kids, keeping them in a safe bubble of blissful childhood, think again. Whether you have a teen or a toddler, modeling healthy stress management is critical for the health of future generations.

It's Not As Hard As You Think

Every parent I know would move heaven and earth to improve their kids' wellbeing. They'll shoehorn in one more "essential" activity, remove all the gluten from their households, or hire a private tutor for test prep or math. What we're talking about here is more elemental and infinitely more important and it impacts every facet of your child's life: emotional and physical health, learning and retention, empathy and relationships, and more. Given this, can any of us afford not to unplug a little, look our kids in the eye and integrate a few simple rituals to calm the stress response in the brain, increase positive emotions and create relationships with our kids that will buoy them from modern stress?

What does it look like? It looks like five minutes of mindful breathing -- the time it takes to order a latte. It looks like taking a moment to actually engage with and imprint a special moment in your consciousness. Instead of filming the soccer game with your iPhone so you can post it on Facebook, leave the phone in the car and watch her make an amazing pass, or see the heartbreak cross her face as the opponent scores a goal. It's taking a moment at dinner to discuss a mistake that you learned from today, so our children begin to understand that life isn't perfect, and that mistakes can lead to growth rather than suicide ideations.

These are small shifts, yes, but they matter. And if you make them a habit you will not only change your response to modern stress, you'll change your kids' as well. As a generation, we weren't always known for our anxiety, and we can turn this around. Gen X, this is what the cutting edge looks like, for us and for our kids: leaving the hamster wheel to the classroom pet and cultivating resiliency.