Trevor was an elementary school student whose days were full, Monday through Friday. When school got out, he went straight to tutoring sessions with Ms. Malcolm, followed by soccer practice, dinner and finally, his community karate class. Trevor enjoyed each of these activities (well, except for the school tutoring), and didn't want to miss out on them because he had friends at each one.
By the time he was 16, Trevor was emotionally fragile. His over-extended, over-committed, over-connected lifestyle was sending him over the proverbial edge. His mom suggested he see a counselor. Trevor still hasn't recovered from his childhood, even now, as a young college student. He lacks initiative and ambition, he plays video games for hours daily and has no idea what he wants to do with his life.
Does this story sound a bit too familiar?
It's the story of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of young adults. Their childhood is so structured that it becomes a source of stress, leaving them wanting to make up for their childhood in their twenties. It's no wonder why the majority of students move back home after college -- they never finished being a kid.
What can we do?
I do not pretend to have the solution for all stress in young people. I do, however, have some thoughts about how many parents, teachers and coaches can help children and teens navigate the stress levels they experience, and perhaps avoid anxiety, distress and even depression in their lives. If we enable them to handle pressure well as a kid, they may be more successful at managing the high-level stress environments of college life. Here are some ideas:
1. Limit their extracurricular activities.
Kids were never meant to be overwhelmed with options. Help them choose one or two activities for fun, but keep them focused on their priorities.
2. Be sure they eat and sleep well.
Sleep is a critical factor in performance. We all know this, but fail to help our kids eat and sleep well. Healthy food and eight hours of sleep can reduce stress.
3. Teach them stress is neutral and doesn't have to become distress.
Often, kids get "stressed out" when they don't view stress properly. Pressure can be positive or negative depending on our response. Help them to see it as weight lifting -- you're putting pressure on your body, but in order to gain strength and build muscle.
4. Condition them to do difficult tasks and learn resilience.
As early as possible, challenge your kids to do hard things. Be sure they're suitable to your student, but learning to struggle, fall and bounce back is essential to life.
5. Enable them to locate their strengths and work inside them.
Stress levels often drop when kids find their sweet spot. If they identify a gift, help them to use it, develop it and flourish. This does wonders for emotional health.
6. Tell them stories of kids who learned to make stress work for them.
I tried to pepper my kid's childhood with stories of young people who turned their stress into success -- their lemons into lemonade. At times, attitude is half the battle.
A good example of this is Louis Braille. Born in 1809 in Coupvray, France, Louis lost his sight at the age of 3 due to an eye injury. Years later, studying at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Louis invented a system of reading and writing for the blind involving raised dots, which today is known as Braille. He was only 15 years old. At age 19, Braille became a full-time teacher at the Royal Institute, where he remained until his death at age 43.
Today, Braille is a universally-used tactile method of writing and reading for the blind. Studies have shown that congenitally legally blind adults "who learned to read using Braille had higher employment rates and educational levels, were more financially self-sufficient, and spent more time reading than did those who learned to read using print."
Louis' blindness could have stressed him out. He could have gotten lost in misery and depression. Instead, his lemons made tasty lemonade.
Stress becomes destructive when opportunities look like obstacles. Let's help our students see them for what they are and learn to manage stress in a healthy way.