Be it football or music, dance or geography – the joy we experience in these activities becomes less and less important with ever greater pressure to achieve at an ever younger age. Such achievement is constantly measured with various tests and examinations. Anyone who does not meet to the norm rapidly falls out of the group or becomes a constant source of worry for parents and teachers. As a result many children are subject to the constant experience that something is wrong with them. Brooding, self-doubt and negative thoughts lead to physical stress reactions.
There is a worrying trend that symptoms associated with exhaustion and stress are appearing at an ever younger age. In view of the fact that children are still developing in every respect – brain development, immune system, habits and soul qualities – it is all the more important to create an environment for them in which biological rhythms, the life forces which build up the body and support the soul, can develop, helping them to unfold in an atmosphere of security.
Burnout has a long lead time. That is why it seems obvious to investigate the extent to which the changed economic conditions and family circumstances of the last thirty years have influenced the rise in the number of children with challenging behaviours such as anxiety, sleeping problems, hyperactivity, destructive behaviours and learning difficulties. The way in which we deal with children in our culture could be connected with the increasingly frequent and early appearance of stress symptoms in adults.
Time to dream and the art of doing nothing
Children today are more frequently looked after by adults and have less space for themselves than thirty years ago. They are kept occupied with all kinds of organised activities, such as sports and clubs, as well as by television and computers.
The extent to which children must be kept occupied is noticeable as early as kindergarten. They are more animated and can concentrate less, have less imagination and initiative to play than previous generations. The art of boring oneself to health is being lost as much as parents are losing the ability to bear boredom in their children.
The first thought of parents is that they have done something wrong. But “being bored” means not knowing for a few moments what to do with our time, and then finding something with which to occupy ourselves out of ourselves, out of our own imagination and sources of creativity.
That teaches us to address our own inner sources of activity, we activate the imagination and the will to undertake something ourselves. There was good reason why boredom was something which previously occurred primarily in childhood. Young adults had already learnt to keep themselves meaningfully occupied.
Today we no longer need to feel bored, children can look at DVDs even in the back of the car, and as soon as we do not know what to do for a few moments – how to cope with the silence or with ourselves – we switch on music or the television, chat with someone on the Internet or play a game on our mobile phone. The time in which we can dream and immerse ourselves in our inner world becomes more and more brief.
Children in changing family structures
If the parental home was previously a place of calm to which one could withdraw or where one could play outside with other children without restriction, today’s children mostly have two working parents. That means that they have to learn at an early age to assert themselves outside the family. They have to learn much earlier than previous generations to adapt to the rules, customs and changing environments of the people who look after them. Increasing numbers of children live in patchwork families when their parents split up. That creates additional stress both for the parents and the children. They have to move, frequently to another district or city, and they have to assert themselves and find friends in two separate environments. They no longer know where their true home is.
If a child wants to obtain or not do something it can turn to the other parent or play one off against the other. Conflicts and arguments over money and visitation rights during separation place a burden on children. Children are left in an insecure intermediate zone, particularly in difficult separations riven by disputes in which each parent denigrates the other one. With each parent they learn to keep quiet and not talk about what happens in their other family. They have to stand emotionally on their own two feet at an early age. This frequently creates “fragmentation” when they are young which encroaches deeply on their sense of life. Although many children give the superficial impression that they are well able to adapt, it costs them a lot of vital energy which is then not available for other developmental tasks such a playing and learning. The same applies to many children who grow up in two contrasting cultures and are under constant pressure to adapt to each one.
Feelings of security, contentment and everything being “in order” are essential basic conditions if children are to thrive. Such feelings promote a coherent heart beat and the physical relaxation which children need as a counterweight to our excessively stressed society.
There is less and less opportunity to blow off steam through play and movement, particularly in cities. Because parents are afraid of letting their children play outside, they would rather have them sit in front of the television or computer.
Stressed children – overworked parents
There is a higher risk that women who are under pressure and tense during pregnancy will have a baby or infant who cries a lot and sleeps badly. Yet among all the cultural influences, stressed parents and the television are not the only reasons why children are overactive, lack concentration and cannot get out of bed. Some children, such as with an attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders for example, bring with them a predisposition as a result of which they are more lively and have greater difficulty in behaving appropriately.
Other children have had a sensitive stress system since birth. A screaming child can rob its parent of sleep night after night over many years. Children suffering from anxiety, children with an autistic predisposition and children with a constitution which is too open and sensitive also quickly become hyped up. Factors which do not affect other children at all can make them totally beside themselves or suddenly become angry for no apparent reason. Parents of such children have their hands full supporting and protecting their son or daughter and communicating the “operating instructions” to the child’s environment so that the he or she is not constantly rebuffed. They talk to the teachers, attempt to let their offspring play at other children’s via another mother or obtain the highly coveted invitation to a child’s birthday party. But mostly they cannot prevent their child occasionally forgetting himself or herself despite their best efforts. Suddenly Jan, who only a minute ago was well-behaved and playing in the sandpit, goes for another child and begins to beat him about the head with a spade. An hour after a child’s birthday party has started, Dad has to collect Maria because she is in floods of tears after everyone watched an exciting DVD together. Rashid’s parents keep having to turn up at school because he is behaving loutishly and not listening. Kevin’s neighbours tell social services that his parents are abusing him because they hear the boy screaming each evening. With such behaviours the first thing that the parents, neighbours, friends and the parents of other children think is that the problem with the child lies in a wrong upbringing.
Whether spoken to their face or behind their back – the parents of such children always feel the blame and unspoken judgement that it is all their own fault. They should simply have been stricter or, precisely the opposite, more empathetic; they should have offered their child greater protection, they should have let their child deal with it himself for once, they should have ...
All things considered, it means that the parents concerned are under huge strain and stress. I have seen several parents of such children skid into burnout – not because their job was particularly stressful but above all because they had so little diversion outside the family and were completely taken up with the growing problems of their child.
How can I avoid excessive stress?
In order to deal with stress in a healthy way it is important that children are not constantly occupied or entertained. Because the life forces only thrive through quiet and rhythm. Children of parents who are always stressed, children who are themselves stressed because they have to go from here to there, from school to sport, to music lesson and then have to go on to friends or to Grandma, cannot come to rest. We must not keep driving our children forwards, conditioning them for achievement. They do not have to be the best in the choir, at playing the violin or at football but they must be allowed to have – and should simply have – enjoyment and fun doing such activities. Neither do they have to learn constantly, be alert, observe, reflect on things or understand why they are doing something. Dreaming, being bored is much more necessary to thrive psychologically and for the inner source of life than constant active exertion. Let us leave our children in peace, in their own world, so that creativity and imagination can flourish again.
It is a healthy habit in family life not to do several things simultaneously. Meals should be taken without telephone calls, television or the newspaper. A day when no one is under any obligation to do anything or to work does everyone good. We live in the here and now, there is space for spontaneous plans or simply quietude. Every person has his or her own warning signals when the stress gets too much. We adults must learn to respect our own limits and those of our children and to live a life ourselves which creates space for peace and idleness in the best sense of the word. Because quietude and reflection belong to an active life like breathing out to breathing in, sleep to being awake.
About the author: Annejet Rümke is a doctor in Amsterdam. She works in child and adult psychiatry and is a trained family and couple therapist und a voice dialogue therapist.