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An increasing number of physicians are seeing patients as young as five experiencing stress-related health problems that are usually only seen in adults. Pediatricians are seeing more children with emotional complaints such as anxiety and depression as well as sleep disorders, stomachaches and chronic fatigue.
One kindergartener began suffering chest pains from worrying about school and had to be rushed to the emergency room. Another five year old was cursed with anxiety attacks that left him gasping for breath.
It appears these children are experiencing the stress one would expect arising out of hectic schedules and multiple activities. The children are also under considerable pressures and expectations to succeed academically, athletically and socially. Dr. David Namerow, chief of pediatrics at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, New Jersey exclaims “We're over programming and over scheduling our kids... Their bodies are crying out and saying: ‘Enough!'”
Another physician, Dr. Fred Hirschenfang, a pediatrician at Hackensack University Medical Center put it this way: “We're seeing more and more of it. There's probably a direct correlation between the symptoms and the weight of the backpack. Somehow I managed to become a physician without 14 hours of homework in the third grade.”
Hyper-managing play time activities means hours on the SUV shuttle going from music lessons to club meetings to sporting practice and it is the down time which may be a significant source of physical aches and pains for a lot of children.
Dr. Hirschenfang says that parents are surprised to learn that stress is triggering irritable bowel syndrome, chest pains, tension headaches and fatigue in the children. Dr. Ellen Schwartz, a therapist who treats kids with stress-induced anxiety and depression claims that the pressure to excel academically can trigger anxiety. “The schools are too demanding. They create a tremendous amount of pressure. Kids don't have as much time as they need to just be kids.”
This drive to arrange a lifestyle centered on a series of structured activities is being forced on children at a younger and younger age. The idea came out of the late 1980s when researchers found these types of activities would keep kids out of trouble and improve academics. Many experts are finding that this trend has reached a level of overkill and has spun out of control.
Dr. Wayne Yankus, former president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is concerned with all these after school enrichment programs that did not exist ten years ago. He is particularly worried about the year-round elite sports teams that lead to excessive stress on developing tissues and joints.
Dr. Yankus puts much of the blame on motivational needs of parents. “This is directly related to the parents' level of success and the parents' level of work achievement and how they view being busy.”
David Elkins, a psychologist and retired professor who has written a great deal on the subject recalls treating a 9-year old with anxiety and insomnia. The boy had a schedule similar to a corporate executive. When Elkins pointed out to his mother that the boy's stressful schedule could be the cause of his problems she responded that she had involved her son in the activities because her mother did not make them available to her.
1) Layton,Mary Jo. “Stress Is Making Kids Sick.” Online posting. Dec. 2003
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