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Nurture The Nature
By Michael Gurian
John Wiley & Sons Copyright © 2007 Michael Gurian
All right reserved.
Chapter One Escaping the Social Trends Parenting System
My stress level and that of my husband is so high, and it's the same for our kids. What we really want is to find the love and healthy direction a family is supposed to be. -CARLA JAMES, MOTHER OF THREE CHILDREN
CARLA CAME TO SEE ME WITH TEARS IN HER EYES. HER FIFTEEN-year-old daughter, Katie, would not speak to her, she said, and her twelve-year-old son, Andy, was obsessed with video games. Carla felt overwhelmed, unsure of how to be a parent, and unable to get the help from family, school, and friends that she needed. She worried that Katie would become promiscuous.
"The way she dresses, the way she acts, it's becoming out of control," Carla said. "And no matter what my husband or I do, our son Andy just lives in his own world, his own little box. And I know it's not just me and my kids. It seems like a lot of my kids' friends are having the same kind of problems. They're good kids-deep down these are all good kids-and we're a good family, but there's something wrong. We're just too stressed out!"
Another couple, Angie and Bert Stohl, brought their daughter, Susan, to see me. When I met this young woman of sixteen,I saw dark circles under her eyes. Susan was so busy she only got five hours of sleep per night (she needed nine), and some of that was fitful. She was losing herself to the stress of everyday life, compounded by lack of sleep. For Susan it was like a badge of honor that she could survive with so little sleep. At the same time, she was acting in ways that did not fit her natural needs as a teenager: she was not healthy.
In another case, the Royce family came to me with their son, Devin, who was failing first grade. Well liked by other kids, he did not perform in the way either his parents or school wanted him to. His parents had done all the right things for producing a high-performing son: reading to him early, playing Baby Einstein tapes, putting him in the best school. They had even started him on the computer at three years old. But his teacher said, "Devin simply refuses to concentrate and learn." At the age of six, Devin was wetting the bed again and beginning to withdraw from school.
These are all good families, good people, trying their best. But they are struggling, and they are not alone. I constantly receive e-mails and letters from parents and other caregivers who notice significant stress and anxiety in their families and the families around them. Some of the stress they notice shows up as disorders in the young children, some as listlessness in the young adults, who just aren't finding success or a place in the world. Everywhere I travel in my community work, I'm seeing families struggling with stressed-out children. These parents love their kids, and these kids want to grow and develop successfully. But something is wrong.
In this chapter, let's all take a collective pause for breath. Let's figure out what's wrong. In the busyness of contemporary life, let's ask the right questions in our own homes and schools. If you feel as though everything has sped up and is going too fast and there isn't enough time in the day to do it all, pause a moment and ask yourself some questions:
Is my child's life overscheduled? Am I spending all day taking children from one class, rehearsal, workout, team practice, and social event to another? If so, why? Is the frantic struggle to keep up with other kids and their parents doing my child damage? If so, do I sense it but feel powerless against it? Do I have a child who just "doesn't fit" the conventional expectations of well-intentioned teachers, doctors, and other experts who complain about him or her? Is my child just plain "different"? Is my five-, six-, or seven-year-old on behavioral medication, unable to calm down or function properly without a chemical stimulant? Or has this medication been recently suggested for my young child, though I don't believe deep down that he needs it? Has my teenage daughter gotten into trouble recently in ways that seem "not who she is"? Has my teenage son begun turning away from my home and authority in dangerous ways? Do I worry constantly about my child getting into the best college-and does that stress push me to create an overwhelming daily life for my kid? Is my child obsessed with the computer, video games, television, cell phones, text messaging, blogging, or other "electronic addictions"? Does my child have a materialistic sense of entitlement that cripples his or her ability to fully mature and find purpose and meaning? Do I live in a constant anxiety that I as a parent am failing one or more of my children?
Many families and children today are not necessarily sick, ill, or destroyed, but nevertheless suffer from one or more of these issues. Some children play three sports, have team and personal coaches, and are rushing from one grueling athletic practice to another. Some are constantly taking test-prep workshops, dance classes, and music classes, and are rehearsing daily for one academic or artistic performance after another. Others develop social or emotional skills but little character. Still others act out in uncivil, angry ways, while at the same time struggling to keep up with the latest competitive trends.
I believe these children and their parents are suffering from chronic stress. After two decades of research and practice, I now believe that far too many families suffer from this dangerous condition. Let's pause for a moment to look at it carefully so that we can protect our families from it, then let's look at a major social force that might be causing it-one we can battle very well if we decide to become revolutionary and nurture the nature of our children.
What Is Chronic Stress in the American Family?
Stress-whether the daily stress of life or a major trauma, such as a car accident or death in the family-is a constant in our lives and in the lives of our children. It's normal for our kids' brains and bodies to experience surroundings of great complexity, all the while trying to maintain stability. Much of this is what neurologists call "positive stress." Our bodies and minds work to understand and integrate the stressor- put out the daily fire; learn a new, difficult skill; recover from an accident; or allow grief into our lives-and we notice that we've gained strength, understanding, new power, new purpose. Thus we can say that the stress has been helpful and meaningful, and our brains have not strayed into danger.
Negative stress, in contrast, is something we need to be very careful about, especially with our children. In the most general terms, as experts at the University of Maryland Medical School wrote recently, "When these symptoms persist, you are at risk for serious health problems. This kind of stress can exhaust your immune system. Recent research demonstrates that 90 percent of illness is stress-related." When stress goes beyond the stimulating (positive stress) and becomes debilitating (negative stress), symptoms fall into three categories: physical, emotional, and relational.
Physical symptoms include sleep disturbance; weight gain or weight loss; fatigue; asthma or shortness of breath; and increases in viral and bacterial infections, migraines, or other tension headaches. Emotional and psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, moodiness, lack of concentration or motivation, feeling out of control, substance abuse, and overreaction to daily situations. Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are all exacerbated by negative stress. Relational symptoms include antisocial behavior; increased arguments, nastiness, conflicts, and isolation from others; and increased aggression and violence.
When does negative stress become chronic stress? When the stress continues for years at a time. The question I began asking ten years ago, when I started identifying negative stress patterns in families like the Jameses, Stohls, and Royces, was this one: "Could our families and large numbers of our children be experiencing not just negative stress for a given day or week, but a socially sanctioned chronic stress?" And continuing along those lines, "Could it be that we don't realize the extent of this condition in our own homes, schools, and communities?"
Having conducted some clinical "detective work," I believe I can now answer these questions.
Research on Chronic Stress
Present scientific research on chronic stress appears mainly in two fields of scientific inquiry:
Study of children traumatized in their early relationships by inadequate or violent care at the hands of parents and caregivers (this includes abuse). Such trauma raises cortisol levels (stress hormone levels) and thus "rewires" normal brain chemistry and circuitry. Study of families caring for severely disabled or chronically ill individuals. Both the ill individual and the constantly vigilant caregiver can experience raised cortisol that can lead to depression and other brain chemistry issues.
When these people are acutely stressed, they exhibit and report these experiences:
Feeling as though they are always rushing, always late, always on the run Taking on too much, keeping too many irons in the fire Feeling overaroused Becoming short tempered Feeling constantly anxious Being overreactive and tense Worrying a great deal about a lot of little things Focusing on negatives, especially negative self-judgments and negative judgments of others close to them Thinking a lot about failure, possible disaster, lack of success Constantly feeling inadequate
Looking at these symptoms, as well as those listed earlier as symptoms of chronic stress, I came to realize that they applied all too well to what Carla James and so many others faced in their families.... In each case, parents and children had felt this panoply of symptoms for long periods of time, but without quite being able to figure out what was going on.
As I tried to understand the connection between chronic stress research and the families I was seeing, I asked the Gurian Institute research team to help me reach out to parents and find out what they thought.
In 2005, the Gurian Institute staff decided to measure the level of parental stress in families. We conducted an e-mail survey in which we asked 1,859 parents and caregivers to rank
How supported they felt as parents in this culture
How protected their children were in their social circles
What they most feared as parents and caregivers
The results were powerful. Two-thirds of the survey participants considered themselves "unsupported as parents in the United States," felt "inadequate," and felt "constantly worried that their children would be harmed." Worry for children's safety is natural to any generation of parents, but the greatest fear among parents in our survey came not from physical violence or even from terrorism or sexual predators. More than two-thirds of participants believed that their children were in more danger from "subtle harms" than they were from "overt harms." As one respondent put it, "Our society has taken care of a lot of the obvious harms to children-like lack of food or shelter-but now the subtle harms are far worse." Subtle harms for surveyed parents included media stereotypes (thin girls, buff boys) as well as media exploitation of violence and inappropriate sexuality, loss of family bonding in everyday life, and high social pressure on kids. A number of participants reported variations on this theme: "There are inordinately high social and family expectations on my kids to perform in ways that just don't fit who my kids are. This is really stressing them out."
Also interesting in the survey was this finding: three-quarters of the respondents felt that their children were in more danger than they themselves had been as children. Many of these respondents were brought up during the Cold War-a time when Americans thought they could lose their lives in a nuclear catastrophe at any time-yet they felt that their children's exposure to subtle harms in contemporary society was worse.
Previous Work on Chronic Stress in Families
These survey results inspired our Gurian Institute team to look deeply at what these parents might be hinting at-especially the sense of stress and anxiety linked to social expectations and pressures. We reviewed other literature and surveys on parental stress. Although our survey was perhaps one of the first of its kind to try to determine an exact link between chronic stress and family life, there have been other surveys that measure general parental anxiety and child health. These others supported our survey results.
The Michigan Healthy Start survey of 2003, for instance, found that 66 percent of parents measured at "significant stress" on their Parental Stress Index. According to the Michigan researchers, this result showed a significant generational increase when they compared the baby boomers to their children. The Carnegie-Mellon corporation conducted a long-term study in the 1990s on child and family health, and discovered significant parental and family stress. They called this "a quiet crisis in child rearing."
These surveys followed the calls and hints of other researchers to look closely at family stressors. David Elkind, professor of psychology at Tufts University and the author of The Hurried Child, first wrote about stressed children in his clinical observations in the 1980s. In the 1990s, a number of fields began to report on children's deteriorating mental health due to such severe family stressors as abuse, neglect, and dangerous media stimulation. Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley reviewed the literature in Ghosts from the Nursery, showing the roots of violence in chronic stressors in early childhood. Jane Healy also reviewed the literature in Failure to Connect, showing correlation between excessive media exposure and children's stress.
In the late 1990s, the field of physical therapy began to discuss the possibility of a condition therapist T. W. Myers called "kinesthetic dystonia," a neurophysical state in which the child's body is constantly under neural stress because it is living out of sync with its own natural needs. The exponential increase in child obesity in the last decade falls into this category.
In the last few years, our nation's colleges have also been noticing a situation that supports the chronic stress theory. In November 2004, college health service workers from a wide variety of schools noted the severity and incidence of student mental health referrals in university health services. Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, recently pointed out that students' mental states are now so precarious that they "interfere with the core mission of the university."
According to Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today, by 1996, "anxiety overtook relationship concerns and has remained the major student problem" in student health services. Eating disorders of some kind or severity now afflict 40 percent of women at some time in their college career. Psychologist Paul E. Joffe, head of the suicide prevention team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, tracks the increase of dangerous drinking among young people. He finds among our late adolescents "an inverted world in which drinking to oblivion is the way to feel connected and alive."
Excerpted from Nurture The Nature by Michael Gurian Copyright © 2007 by Michael Gurian. Excerpted by permission.
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