When my son started kindergarten, the changes in his behavior were noticeable almost immediately. By the middle of first grade, he was worried about things that I would not have given a second thought when I was in his shoes: Not being old enough to get a smart phone and not being allowed to play the latest violent video game are two that stand out the most. The social and educational pressures of elementary school seem to have intensified for his generation. Add modern technology, and a firestorm of emotional stress ignites, making the age when children start experiencing anxiety even earlier than before.
Stress is a normal part of life, and so are anxious feelings. That butterflies-in-the-stomach moment right before taking a spelling test, being afraid of the dark, wondering why your best friend doesn't want to play with you at recess — all feelings that come with the territory of growing up. But the pressure on my kids to grow up faster than I did is making my job as a parent more important, and much harder.
It seems to not be so much about experiencing stress and anxiety at a certain age, but more about the period of time when social interactions increase and the pressure to perform educationally begins. I asked Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a family therapist practicing in New York City, what she believes the connection between starting school and anxious tendencies is. "I think that any time structure and expectations are introduced, before the child is ready for the experience, may produce anxiety," says Dr. Smerling.
She also acknowledges that different stresses children experience may cause anxiety to manifest even earlier in the form of separation anxiety. "I think that you can tell when kids start to exhibit anxiety. There's no one age. Children who are 2, 3, 4 years old experience separation anxiety — won't go to sleep, cry when mom walks away, etc.," Dr. Smerling explains. "Then there is [age] 7, 8 when kids transition from early childhood to childhood — when they become aware that adults have expectations. And that causes a change from magical to concrete thinking. [This] also includes a loss of power for a child. This all creates anxiety."
An increased access to technology also occurs around the time children enter primary school grades. Teachers use technology to facilitate learning, but some also see the impact technology for personal use (i.e., cell phones) has on children in the classroom. Bethany Austin is a fifth grade teacher in Texas who utilizes the latest technology when teaching her students. "We live in a technology driven world and we are doing a disservice to our kids if we aren't teaching them the tools of the world," she tells me. While she views integrating technology into the learning process as "crucial" she also acknowledges that stress from social media use outside of school has an impact on kids today. "Students chatting while playing Fortnite and Snapchat at home can spill over into the classroom and interfere with their learning," she says.
Although technology is a necessary part of society today, Dr. Smerling explains why technology may be distracting for children and cause an increase in anxious tendencies. "Modern technology is overwhelming, and it creates anxiety in the most healthy of adults, so it certainly does for children. There's distraction, a lot of bright colors and fast moving objects, and that doesn't appeal to having thought about much of anything," she says.
When anxious feelings occur in children, they can cause an onslaught of problems that manifest in both psychological and physical ways. In an article for Psychology Today, Daniel P. Keating, Ph.D. explained, "We’ve known for some time that toxic stress arising from early life adversity poses a high risk for mental as well as physical health, and recent evidence shows that these risks are long lasting. Excess stress in early life — even in the womb — can 'get under the skin' to affect how the brain is wired as well as how genes are expressed."
This impacts how children behave both at home and at school. So, how do experts recommend helping kids stay carefree as long as they possibly can? One simple answer is to let them play. Seriously, just play.
Dr. Gail Gross, a human behavior, childhood, and education expert, gave this suggestion in an article she wrote for Huffington Post, "Pure play is needed to reduce stress, foster creativity and experience joy. Adults shouldn't turn play into work, and they shouldn't try to teach children during their play period." She stressed the importance of letting children experience their childhood without being rushed through it, noting that play is an integral part of that process.
I'm personally all for giving my children as much time as they need to grow up, because they have the rest of their lives to grow up and be as worried and stressed out as I usually am. Parenting is tough, but childhood doesn't have to be.