In the most recent California Healthy Kids Survey, a third of high school juniors reported feeling chronically sad, while a whopping one in five high school freshmen and juniors reported contemplating suicide. One in three teens told the American Psychological Association that stress was a primary driver — with the single largest cause being school. These numbers are alarming.
During a youth leadership training program a few years ago in Bethesda, Maryland, I took a moment to simply observe kids jumping out of their cars and rocketing toward the donut table. And I saw this stress etched on their young faces.
Some of these kids were playing on three different basketball teams (school team, travel team, and CYO team). The school workload for most of these middle-schoolers was a solid two-to-three hours of homework and study every night. Then there was tutoring and other extracurricular activities for many of them.
In comparison to my own childhood days — it seemed like such a contrast.
Kids today need to “look good” and keep up with all of their friends on social media. Today, As and Bs are the required standard academically, and kids are also expected to shine in at least one or two sports. Popularity with at least a small group of friends is necessary to have a little social life, and at home, table manners and social norms are continually enforced. It’s all good stuff — but it can also create tremendous inner tension in these young minds and hearts over the long haul.
I asked Jen Roach, a Greenwich, Connecticut, wife and mom of eight kids — from toddler to teen — to share her wisdom on this issue. I have known this family for over a year now, and in spite of living in a highly competitive area, a place many would perceive as the “epicenter” for stressed-out kids, her children are balanced, kind, and happy.
“As parents, we all are doing the best we can with the tools we have,” said Roach. “Most of us feel that when our children express an interest in something, it’s our job to make it happen for them — or, if they don’t show a passion, it’s our duty to expose them to as many things possible until they find one.”
She added, “Eventually, we all scratch our heads — the whole family is running around stressed out, kids and adults included. We ask ourselves, ‘Why? What is this going to accomplish?’ Some of the running around is necessary for school or work, but many things are not bringing us any closer to our goals. If the things you are doing are stressing you out, then you need to evaluate if they are really worth it.”
In Roach’s experience, parents need to give their children two things — “priorities and perspective on what matters most in our lives,” she said. “And how to achieve those goals. Everything else will fall into place. If they are going to be a mathematician or a pro athlete, it will happen, because you have instilled the priorities and perspective to have a life in balance. And because they have the God-given ability.”
“When we get too busy, our family is out of step and restless.”
Roach noted that it is important for families to outline their priorities. These need not be special or elaborate goals, but ones that will live at the center of our family, and can be built upon as needed.
“Jobs, teams, and schools are always changing; therefore, you can’t center your family on one or all of those things,” she said. “We need to go outside of ourselves. For us [as Catholics], it’s Mass together each week. This time as a family to just be together can also serve others. When we do those things on a weekly basis we feel joyful and peaceful. When we get too busy and one or two of those things don’t happen, our family is out of step and restless. So, we have to adjust — and eliminate some activities.”
Roach also said: “Simplify!” Her family focuses on what matters most to them, and makes sure these come first.
“It may take some juggling, but our daughter will make it to Mass, even when she is on the road,” said Roach. “There is always a story about a teammate or even several who joined her and had a great experience. By having those priorities, she finds that peace even when traveling, and can share it with others. It makes her who she is, and gives her a perspective that is not all about the competition of that moment, but the bigger picture.”
Roach said that the family believes that “hard work in academics and sports is important. But more important is that she [the daughter] has a perspective that isn’t only related to her success and her life. Sometimes we step off the path, and sometimes we fall — but the beauty is the path is always there to follow.”
Stressed-out kids? Teach them to lean into God.
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Kids need to hear from an early age that they are not supposed to “go it alone.” Time needs to be set aside to attend church together every Sunday and the home should be, in the words of St. John Paul II, a “domestic church,” where Christ is truly at the center.
As my own dad was preparing his traditional chili on a recent Saturday afternoon, he said to me, “Michael, we are blessed to live in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. You were able to grow up in a safe neighborhood, a place where family life is strong and people care about each other. But never forget our true home is in heaven.”
Stressed-out kids? Teach them to lean into God — and to never lose this eternal perspective.
Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.