Stress as a Factor in Social and Emotional Development (page 2)
When we think about stress, we generally associate it with adult life rather than childhood. Over the last few decades, however, more and more people have been concerned about the levels of stress that even young children experience. David Elkind (2001) has been the most visible and well-known spokesperson for this issue.
Stress has always been a part of childhood. Making friends, going to grandma’s house, learning about the world around them, and living in a family are all examples of the normal stresses of growing up. But what Elkind and others are concerned about are the additional stressors children face today. While not every stressor is problematic, each has an additive effect that can eventually make life more difficult for children. Divorce, remarriage, violence and sexual themes on television, and the increased pressures of schooling are examples of potential stressors.
This combination of both normal and extra stress is making it difficult for many children to deal successfully with aspects of their social/emotional development. If stress is allowed to build, most children eventually reach a point of feeling overwhelmed, and developmental progress suffers. For example, a common response from children of divorce is that they feel responsible for their parents’ breakup (Elkind, 2001). If these feelings are not worked through with the assistance of caring adults, they can cause children to devalue themselves as individuals and may negatively affect not only their overall self-esteem but their social development as well.
What are the major factors causing children stress? Some have already been briefly mentioned, but the following list helps clarify the most significant issues.
The most common stressor faced by today’s children is divorce. However, remarriage, two-career families, and gay parents are other examples of family situations that can cause children stress. For example, a young child in a two-career family may experience what Elkind (2001) calls change overload from being shuttled between early morning care, school, and late afternoon supervision.
Early Pressure to Excel
Many well-meaning parents inadvertently put stress on their children by involving them in too many extracurricular activities. While some young children benefit from early musical experiences, competitive sports programs, and computer camps, more often these experiences add stress to their lives. A more specific example of early pressure to excel comes from the writings of Glenn Doman (1961). In his book, Teach Your Baby to Read, and through the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential (2007), Doman has been encouraging parents for over 40 years to teach their infants and toddlers to read. Although it is possible to teach some children to read at very early ages, there is no research to indicate that this approach has any long-term value for these early readers. For most children, this activity only adds to their stress level.
For a variety of reasons, television is a stressful media experience for children (Center for Communication Policy, 1997). One reason for this stress is that young children have difficulty separating fact from fantasy and therefore struggle to understand and cope with the violence and sexual themes they regularly encounter. Television advertising has also been criticized because of the unhealthy foods and low-quality toys promoted and the conflicts that arise in interactions with parents (Notar, 1989). Movies, popular music, and even some children’s books (e.g., see Carlsson-Paige & Levin, 1986) have also been cited for their stressful impact on children.
Child Abuse and Neglect
Parents and families under stress may react in very inappropriate ways to children. Physical abuse in the form of beatings, sexual relations between family members, and blatant neglect may result. Figure provides some examples of physical and behavioral indicators of child abuse and neglect. As an adult working with young children, you need to be aware of these symptoms and be ready to report possible child abuse and neglect to the proper authorities. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, originally enacted by the federal government in 1974 and reauthorized in 1996, requires mandatory reporting of suspected cases of child abuse. All 50 states have passed similar legislation requiring teachers and selected other professionals to report cases of child abuse to the proper authorities. Make sure you know the specific legal regulations for the state in which you plan to teach.
Growing Up Too Quickly
Elkind (2001) suggests that many children today are being pressured by society to grow into adulthood too quickly. He calls these children “hurried” and sees this push to grow up as a pervasive element in American society. Consider, for example, the clothing we now buy for our children. There is virtually no distinction between adults and children in the clothes we wear. When youngsters are dressed like adults, we expect them to engage in adult-like behavior. Another related example is the proliferation of beauty contests for young girls. With adult hair styles, makeup, and clothes, very young children are placed in high stress situations where they are expected to act like miniature adults. In many other ways, children are being hurried into adulthood too quickly.
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