Teacher's Tips: Are we stressing too much over students' 'stress'?

Parents and school counselors, administrators and school board members keep telling me the same thing — there is an epidemic of anxiety among school-age children.

High school students in particular are susceptible to anxiety, they say. More students are on accommodation plans, receiving medication or both for the malady than ever before. The reason is “stress,” a catch-all term used to describe why many children can’t cope.

I learned a long time ago that where there is smoke, there is fire. Something is happening to a lot of kids. My purpose here is not to dismiss a serious problem that can make a human being of any age downright miserable.

But, I have to ask: Are we as parents, teachers and a community as a whole failing to raise resilient children?

There is merit to the question. First of all, the historian in me knows that throughout time young people have faced all kinds of stress and successfully coped with the rigors of life.

True, the concept of childhood as we know it relatively new — and in flux. Some today argue that “childhood” should be extended to individuals in their late 20s. (Surprising no one, that’s a concept that I heartily reject.)

But within the last 70 years, young people not much older than my students faced amazing stresses and prevailed.

My late father’s “summer abroad program” in 1944 was jumping out a perfectly good airplane to face the stress of fighting the Nazis during World War II.

I have friends who as teenagers and young college students participated as activists in the Civil Rights movements of the early 1960s, facing hatred and danger that would make most of us wither in despair. Thank God they didn’t give up.

Furthermore, I have former students who come from modest means and often poor family circumstances who decided they wanted a better life. They stay in touch with me, telling me how they are working, raising families and living better than many thought they would. None of that was easy.

I don’t wish war, social unrest and poor home lives on any child. In addition, I won’t practice medicine without a license: If you believe your child has issues with anxiety you need to schedule a visit with your pediatrician so an expert can make a diagnosis.

But, my gut-check tells me that families and the community needs to take a hard look at some other factors.

Are many parents over-scheduling their children with a myriad of activities, classes, extracurricular events and sports with the intention of getting that child into “the right school” come hell or high water? I say “yes.”

Does our school system sometimes fall into enabling behavior that fails to promote resiliency? I say “yes” — and I plead guilty to being part of the problem.

Do many in our community assume that young people are as emotionally fragile as Delft china, ready to shatter at the first shock they encounter? Most undoubtedly yes — and I see the truth of that statement in countless examples, ranging from parents who do their child’s homework “because the class is too hard” to the soft bigotry of low expectations expressed toward children who come from poverty, single-parent families and families of color.

What’s my solution? That would take another column to explain fully. But if I could have my way, I would at least call for the following:

Parents: Let your child face challenges, including tough school work or school situations, knowing that failure might not be the worst thing that ever happened to a teen-ager. Failure is not the end of the world. It’s the place you get to when you figure out what to do next. Part of that includes a child learning how to recover from a mistake, control his or her emotions and move on to something better. Better yet: Model that behavior yourself.

School system: We should stop trying to provide all the answers to life. Human-beings have been trying to figure out all the answers to life for the last 5,000 years. The only thing we’ve learned is you find the answers on your own. Yes, teachers, coaches, counselors and administrators should be trusting, caring role-models. But sometimes the best thing we can tell a child is, “You will need to figure that out on your own.”

Community: If our high-school graduates decide that a trajectory straight into college is not right for them, don’t have a coronary. There is a lot of good that can come from getting a job, paying some bills, or just leaving home. That’s why they call it “independence.”

Something tells me we would have fewer anxious kids.

A former reporter who covered politics and government for newspapers in California and Oregon, Paul R. Huard teaches social studies and English courses at Ashland High School. The opinions he expresses are his own.

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