Is the drive for success in Christian families making our kids sick?

shutterstock_310788722Last weekend, I read a very thought-provoking article from in the New York Times addressing the question… Is the drive for success making our children sick? The findings in the article support what I observe in both my peer group and my practice.

Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, knows something about the impact of stress. After uncovering alarming rates of anxiety and depression among his medical students, Dr. Slavin and his colleagues remade the program: implementing pass/fail grading in introductory classes, instituting a half-day off every other week, and creating small learning groups to strengthen connections among students. Over the course of six years, the students’ rates of depression and anxiety dropped considerably.

But even Dr. Slavin seemed unprepared for the results of testing he did in cooperation with Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., a once-working-class city that is increasingly in Silicon Valley’s orbit. He had anonymously surveyed two-thirds of Irvington’s 2,100 students last spring, using two standard measures, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The results were stunning: 54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

“This is so far beyond what you would typically see in an adolescent population,” he told the school’s faculty at a meeting just before the fall semester began. “It’s unprecedented.” Worse, those alarming figures were probably an underestimation; some students had missed the survey while taking Advanced Placement exams.

Vicki Abeles offered this hypothesis to explain the levels of anxiety and discouragement expressed by far too many children and teens in 2016 America…

Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life. Children living in poverty who aspire to college face the same daunting admissions arms race, as well as the burden of competing for scholarships, with less support than their privileged peers. Even those not bound for college are ground down by the constant measurement in schools under pressure to push through mountains of rote, impersonal material as early as preschool.

Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.

Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.

shutterstock_284570393Read the entire article. As the father of two teenage girls, I find myself questioning my role in contributing to the stress my daughters experience on a daily basis and my culpability in shaping values that contribute to unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior. I was reading this passage of Scripture yesterday afternoon, pondering the disconnect between Jesus’ words and the experience of so many kids and families I’ve come to know…

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 Matthew 6:25-34 (ESV)

From where I sit, four societal developments have contributed to the heightened levels of anxiety, frustration and hopelessness evident in so many children, teens and parents in recent years…

The 2008 financial crisis: When I think back to when the makeup of our practice changed, the number of kids we’re asked to see with anxiety-related symptoms spiked during the aftermath of the crash and has never returned to pre-2008 levels. People who lost their jobs or businesses (or saw their friends and neighbors lose jobs or homes) wanted to protect their children from economic vulnerability through positions contingent upon academic success.

The escalating cost (and competitiveness) of our higher education system: The article I referenced from the Times discussed the steps a medical school professor implemented to relieve excessive stress among students. That stress is NOTHING compared to the stress of getting into medical school.  Kids trying to get into many healthcare-related fields face daily reminders that their ability to pursue what they’ve discerned to be their calling is dependent upon near-perfect grades.

College is outrageously expensive…including Christian schools. My daughter attends a Jesuit university where much emphasis is placed upon extending the love of Christ to the poor and marginalized in society. Her tuition, room and board for her first year of college (after her significant academic scholarship) exceeded the combined cost of med school and my undergraduate education. Kids know they’re placing a huge burden on their families by attending college, and place great pressure on themselves to lessen the cost to their families.

shutterstock_212733064_renderedThe culture of testing in the schools: Thanks to last year’s Common Core tests, I broke my personal productivity record in the office during the two weeks leading up to the exams. While we all want our schools to offer our kids a high-quality education, when we seek to measure quality based upon performance on “one size fits all” standardized tests and tie the compensation of our educators to the scores kids achieve on the tests, we’re exposing our kids to unhealthy levels of stress.

The impact of social media on the insecurities of kids and parents: I work with lots of high schoolers. More so than ever, they find themselves wrestling with questions about where they plan to attend college and what they hope to study because there’s more chatter on social media. When parents see and hear about other people’s kids getting into prestigious schools, earning fabulous grades or getting scholarships, it’s easy to kids to question their own ability and parents to question whether they have done everything they can to avail their children of similar opportunities.

As Christians, we’re increasingly called to lead countercultural lives in embracing values very different than those embraced in the society in which we live. Shouldn’t our kids be “different” in their prevalence of anxiety-related illness and disability compared to their peers? Here are some of the challenges I find myself…and parents of kids I know wrestling with…

  • How do I teach my kids to put their faith and trust in God’s provision as opposed to trusting in their own ability or academic pedigree?
  • How do I trust in God’s provision and not drive my kids too hard to earn scholarships when doing so would ease the burden our family faces from tuition? 
  • When do I tell my kids to let things go in school when they have more demanded of them than is healthy?
  • What do I tell the parents of kids with learning differences who see their kids experiencing more struggles than others in the current environment?

How can we as Christians be “in” but not “of” the world in communicating to our kids how to live healthy and impactful lives in the context of our culture?

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Not Alone logoKey Ministry is delighted to partner with Not Alone, one of the top resources available for parents of kids with disabilities. Not Alone was developed by a group of special-needs parents who know the heartache of getting a diagnosis and the joy found in the smallest of accomplishments. We speak the same language. We’ve sat in IEPs, hospital waiting rooms, and in the hall during the church service. We push wheelchairs, prepare GF/CF foods, calm night terrors, and plan for our children’s futures. We’re here to help parents find faith and friendship for the special needs journey. Check out Not Alone today!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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One Response to Is the drive for success in Christian families making our kids sick?

  1. we are definitely seeing this with our third born, a driven perfectionist who cannot lighten up, no matter how much we assure her that her worth is not found in her abilities, but in Christ. I would love to have the answers to the questions you ask here.

    Like

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