If you think the stress in America is bad today, well, count your blessings. In 1881 a medical doctor wrote a book that warned about the harrowing increase of nervousness in America. And the causes, he cited—and I kid you not—the emergence of the railroad, Western Union and the pocket watch.
I guess you could say it’s a matter of degrees.
According to Dr Bill Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland, and co-author of the national bestseller, The Self-Driven Child, the impact of stress on life today is about 10,000 times greater compared to 140 years ago.
You may think that Dr Stixrud is exaggerating a bit here. But he does make two key points: (1) It is terrible out there, especially for our kids, and (2) As parents we can do something about it.
I have known Dr Stixrud as both a friend and a colleague for over 20 years. In addition to his private practice, Bill also serves as an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He has spent 30 years working with stressed out children, teens, and young adults—many of whom come from affluent families.
Dr Stixrud says even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems were at epidemic proportions among kids.
Now, it’s only gotten worse.
Kids are suffocating under pressure to get the best grades to get into the best schools. Parents ask Dr Stixrud: “Will it get better for my kid in college?” His answer: “No. It gets worse.”
The reality is that the mental health crisis among college students has been escalating for years—and now colleges, including the most elite, can’t hire mental health professionals fast enough.
Dr Stixrud has strong advice, some might even say, bitter medicine, for parents readying their kids for college. Don’t micromanage your teen’s life. Lighten up.
“As parents we need to be honest with ourselves. We don’t always know what’s best for our kids. We don’t always have the right answers. The best message we can give a teenager, besides ‘I love you,’ is that I have confidence in your ability to make decisions about your own life and to learn from your own mistakes. And I want you to have tons of experience doing that before you go off to college.”
The opposite approach certainly hasn’t worked. Under the gaze of well-meaning but overbearing parents, kids work ferociously hard for much of their young lives to get into a top college like Stanford or Harvard or Yale, but once they arrive they are emotionally unprepared for what follows. Growing up, they never learned to think for themselves; their parents never gave them much autonomy. More and more kids end up dropping out of college for treatment and, later in life, many even end up fighting drug or alcohol abuse.
Dr Stixrud says there is one thing parents can do to take pressure off their kids and give them a better shot at a healthy, happy life. And that is NOT to pressure them to work harder, to do more. In fact, parents should encourage the opposite. Give your kids what he calls, “radical downtime.” Schedule more time for things, that are as simple and incredibly valuable as meditation and sleep; daydreaming and mind wandering.
You know I am a huge advocate for the benefits of meditation, so let me just say a few words about sleep. Dr Stixrud says that teenagers need an average of nine-and-a-quarter-hours of sleep to not to feel tired. And yet most kids sleep less than seven hours of sleep a night during the school year. This means that teen’s cognitive capacity is more impaired than if he or she were legally drunk.
But the best thing we as parents can do to send our kids safely off into the world is to foster an ongoing close relationship. “Closeness with a parent is like a silver bullet for protecting our kids from emotional distress,” he says.
And for that we need to start by creating a home life that is a safe base. “Life is stressful enough,” Dr Stixrud says, “As parents we should strive to become a ‘non-anxious presence’ in the lives of our kids. We all know it’s much easier to soothe a crying infant if you stay calm. It’s much easier to handle a three-year old who is having a tantrum in a store if you stay calm. And if you’ve got a 15-year-old who comes home and his girlfriend just dumped him, and he’s really upset. Well, it’s much easier to listen and help problem-solve if you stay calm.”
My advice is to follow Bill’s advice. Do everything you can, including meditating regularly and getting enough sleep, to stay calm. The primary beneficiaries, right after you, will be your kids.