COVER

GROWING PAINS

With increased awareness of AIDS, pollution, sex abuse and violence, life is more stressful for today's children

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER January 8 1996
COVER

GROWING PAINS

With increased awareness of AIDS, pollution, sex abuse and violence, life is more stressful for today's children

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER January 8 1996

GROWING PAINS

With increased awareness of AIDS, pollution, sex abuse and violence, life is more stressful for today's children

COVER

The little girl dialled the Kid's Help Phone late one night in December. "My name is Christie," she told the anonymous counsellor. "I'm 11

years old and I have to take care of my little brother and sister because my parents are working. My sister fell and she’s bleeding and I don’t know what to do.” The counsellor calmly guided the panicky Christie through the crisis, arranged for emergency help and then picked up the next call from a young boy who was afraid of a violent school gang. “I’m scared,” he said. “They’re going to hurt me, maybe even kill me.”

Those were two of more than a million Canadian kids who phoned the national line last year. And their confidants, the counsel-

lors at the Kid’s Help Phone, say the callers not only tell of age-old problems such as bullies and peer pressure, but also betray a troubling new level of insecurity. “They feel unsafe a lot of the time, in their own homes and in school,” says counsellor Bonnie-Sue Solomon. “Many of them have a bleak idea of the future.”

Childhood was rarely the idyllic, carefree time portrayed in popular Fifties TV shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Real kids have always experienced growing pains. But there is a new consensus that life is more difficult for today’s chil-

dren. They live with new worries such as AIDS and environmental pollution, with an increased awareness of such realities as sexual abuse and serial killers, and they often confront firsthand the breakdown of the late 20th-century family. “It is a much more stressful world for kids,” says David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. “They are inculcated about its dangers from an early age—even little kids are told all about child abuse and AIDS.” What their parents do not tell them, television usually does. “The information explosion has eroded children’s sense of safety and security,” says Bettie B. Youngs, author of Stress and Your Child. “What does a fouror sevenor 11-year-old

do with constant Bosnias or Somalias?”

The news, in fact, keeps some children awake at night. “I worry about the war in Bosnia,” says 10-year-old Jonathan Law, who lives in sleepy Mount Pearl, Nfld., near St. John’s. “Sometimes I have trouble sleeping, wondering why they have to have wars and why people are getting killed.” Parents feel helpless to guard their children’s innocence. “You can’t shield them from everything,” bemoans Jonathan’s mother, Marie Law. “No longer is their world within the walls of their own home.”

Nor is school a pressure-free zone.

Last October, Ian Manion, a psychologist and co-author of the Canadian Youth Mental Health & Illness Survey, reported that 51 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 13 and 18 felt “really stressed” from “once a month” to “all the time.” Sixty-five per cent stated that school was the biggest source of stress—with pressures ranging from passing exams to wearing the right brand of jeans. “There’s a lot of peer pressure to do drugs and alcohol because it’s a cool thing to do,” says 17-year-old Sarah Vanderveer, a Grade 12 student in Port Coquitlam, B.C. “And everybody is supposed to have sex.”

The future, to many students, holds more uncertainty than promise. “Am I going to spend four or five years at a university and still have to work at McDonald’s?” asks Vanderveer. In Calgary, Natasha Bharmal, a 14-yearold Grade 9 student, feels the pressure for high marks. “I want to go to university so bad,” she says. “Parents want you to do well and you can’t let them down.”

Many parents, feeling pressured themselves, unintentionally pass the tension on to their children. “A parent today is more likely to tie a child’s shoelace than show the child how to do it,” says Youngs. “It’s, ‘C’mon, c’mon,’ because parents are in a hurry to go more places.” And while most parents would ridicule California’s “Prenatal University” for babies in utero—which features a “Pregaphone” made from a plunger and plastic hose to speak more loudly to the future superkid—many hold high expectations for their children. Dr. Jill Matthews, a Regina mother, was shocked by a gift she received from another parent when her daughter was born—a book on how to teach a child to read at the age of two. “Why would anyone want to do that?” asks Matthews. “A child’s work is to play—I think we have forgotten that.” Matthews limits the extracurricular activities of her children, Heather, 12, and Mark, 10, to a few hours a week. Still, she says that her attitude is at odds with that of most parents in her neighborhood. “I know one kid who is told to practise 100 wrist shots a day,” says Matthews. “Who is that for?”

While some children thrive under stress, others may suffer from it. Health professionals say that parents can tell if their children are under too much pressure by watching for changes in normal patterns—whether physical, emotional or behavioral. “Some may withdraw; others may act out,” says Manion. “Some will feel it in the gut with stomach cramps and butterflies.” Others experience headaches, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances or nightmares. “If they are not sleeping, not deriving pleasure from activities they once enjoyed,” says Manion, “then stress has taken over the child’s life.” Most kids, though, learn to cope with the stresses and strains, however trying. “Sometimes I want to scream,” says Benita Sharma, president of the student council at Moscrop Junior High in Burnaby, B.C. But although the 15-year-old Grade 10 student sometimes feels overwhelmed by her demanding schedule—which also includes working on the school yearbook and doing peer counselling—she views it as a challenge. Vanderveer counts on friends and family members to help her through, and when she feels tense she takes long walks and listens to music. “When all you have coming at you is noise and people telling you stuff you have to do,” she says, “you can just turn on your Walkman.”

But parents, experts say, should step in and help children cope with serious, negative stresses. “It’s a total myth that children are more resilient than adults,” says Youngs. “If you ignore a child’s stress, their emotional security is eroded.” That, says Derek Leslie,

is at least partly what happened to him. Now a Grade 12 student at Ontario’s Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, Leslie was seven years old when his widowed mother remarried and the family moved to Barbados. The boy had trouble making friends and he frequently argued with his strict stepfather. Leslie and his mother soon returned to Kingston, but his anger lingered. By Grade 8, the former A student was skipping classes and hanging out with a group of kids whose daily routine included drinking, drugs and occasional knife fights. Leslie was able to turn his life around three years ago when he joined a program called Fit for Life, designed by Lee Huddleston, a Kingston Collegiate counsellor. “I don’t have the pressures like I did,” says Leslie. “I have a way of expressing them so they don’t build up any more. But if Lee hadn’t got hold of me, I would still be a badassed bruiser.”

For parents, the solution to their children’s stress problems can be as simple as encouraging them to talk more openly—or as difficult as what happened to a woman named Marie. A New Brunswick secretary who asked that her identity be concealed, Marie separated from her husband

three years ago after 15 years of marriage. Her two daughters, now 15 and 17, were devastated. “The No. 1 stress was money,” says Marie, who was then unemployed. She took the girls from their large, comfortable family home in a small village and rented a basement apartment in a nearby city. “Both of them were very stressed by the move,” says Marie. “The older one, who is 17, never smiled. The younger one became physically sick and both developed a tendency to anorexia. They would fight more, they were angry and frustrated.” The girls’ symptoms only disappeared when Marie took them back to their home town. “It was very hard for me to see my ex-husband every day,” she says. “But back in their own surroundings, the girls are doing OK. The older one started laughing again.”

Some schools are beginning to take a more active role in helping children to deal with stress. Over the last three years, several Ottawa-area schools have tested an innovative 10-week program designed by Terry Orlick, a sports psychologist who has worked with professional hockey players and Olympic athletes. The program teaches children to use games and simple breathing exercises when they feel tense. Eight-year-old Irene Derry, who took part in the program last year, says she used to become upset if a friend teased her or if her parents or any of her four brothers and sisters were in a bad mood. “Now I do some relaxing,” says the Grade 3 student, whose favorite anti-stress game is called changing channels. “You pretend you are a TV and you are holding the remote control. You are allowed to change the channel and you go from a sad channel to a happy channel by thinking something happy.” Orlick, who describes the games and techniques in a book for parents and teachers called Free to Feel Great, has already introduced the program to 3,000 Ottawa-area students from kindergarten to Grade 6, and hopes to expand it across the country. “Children do not automatically learn effective coping strategies on their own,” says Orlick. “The greatest gift we can give children is the ability to free themselves of the stress in their lives.”

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER