The stressed-out life starts early


WITH THE RELEASE this week of a major study of the early adolescent years, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development has again sounded the alarm: Growing up in late-20th-century America is risky business.

The Carnegie study, nine years in the making, presents some sobering statistics about those awkwardly in-between early adolescent years between 10 and 14:

* One-third of 13-year-olds acknowledge that they have used illicit drugs.

* Homicide rates for young people 10 to 14 years old more than doubled from 1985 to 1992, while the suicide rate and other self-destructive violence more than doubled from 1980 to 1992.

* In the classroom, achievement levels among eighth-graders have remained stagnant while the educational demands of the workplace have risen.

Roots early in life

All this highlights the fact that many of the problems that surface in young people in more dramatic forms in high school have their roots earlier in life -- and that paying attention to them sooner would produce big benefits.

You'll find no quarrel with that here -- nor with the assertion that young adolescents have gotten short shrift from researchers, when compared to older teens or to the early-childhood years.

But anyone who thinks attention from researchers is all it takes to smooth out the rough spots of childhood should have been present this past week at the Park School's annual conference on early-childhood education (which, despite all the research on this stage of life, remains an all-too-rare opportunity for pre-school teachers to attend professional-development workshops).

This year's hot topic was a workshop new to the conference -- helping children cope with stress.

/# Stress? In pre-school children?

Presumed innocent

According to the workshop leaders, pediatrician Alan Lake, M.D., and psychologist Stefanie Bergey, Ph.D., the tensions of modern life are invading even those presumably innocent years of early childhood.

That raises an interesting question: If the Carnegie researchers are finding the roots of full-fledged crises of teen-agers in the tender ages of early adolescents, are the seeds of those problems being planted as early as 2 or 3 or 4?

Judging from the experiences of these two professionals, it's quite possible.

As Dr. Bergey notes, society is expecting competence -- whether in social, academic or athletic pursuits -- at a very young age.

As a result, she sees more self-doubt and anxiety cropping up in young children.

And, of course, fewer children have the luxury of a leisurely childhood.

In 1993, almost one-third of mothers were using organized day care for children younger than 5. As a result, for many young children, mornings are a blur of activity so that moms and dads can drop them off and not be late for work.

Often, the pace of evenings and weekends is not much better, as harried parents squeeze in errands and chores.

Your stress, my stress

These kinds of schedules help illustrate the different ways in which children and adults feel stress.

The morning rush can be exasperating for parents, especially when it's clear that children don't share their sense of urgency. But the same parents, arriving late to pick up a child at the end of the day, may be equally oblivious to the anxiety the child has been feeling during the wait.

Far more wearing, however, is long-term stress, the kind of trauma that might occur in a divorce, a long-term illness in the family or a custody battle.

What happens to stressed-out children? According to Dr. Lake, the young ones can produce predictable symptoms: bed-wetting, refusing to eat, regression in potty training.

Older children may resort to psychosomatic calls for help but, more often, they will probably bury their anxiety in general unhappiness or discontent.

PD The message isn't all grim. School can be an oasis for children.

Teachers can help

Teachers, from the pre-school years on up, can help mitigate these problems by creating safe, nurturing and stimulating environments.

Parents, of course, play an especially crucial role. Stress may be unavoidable in children's lives. But as Dr. Bergey notes, it helps enormously if children also have some "inoculation" in the form of frequent reassurances from parents -- reassurance that they are loved, that stressful times are part of life and not the child's fault, and the reassurance that the child will not be abandoned.

Clearly, growing up is no easy task. But children are resourceful and resilient, and many of them grow into fine adults despite all the obstacles in their path. That's cause enough for optimism -- and for heeding the call to offer a helping hand.

G; Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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