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updated: 4/23/2012 6:02 AM

Stress management begins at home

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There's one topic of conversation that's easy to predict when any group of parents get together: How busy our children are, and how much time and energy it takes to keep them "on schedule."

For example, Susan has soccer at 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, and a game at 10 a.m. every Saturday. Her piano lessons are at 4:15 p.m. Tuesdays (and she is supposed to practice every night for a half-hour). She tap dances at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays. The church youth group meets at 6 p.m. Sundays and the whole family tries to get to church on Sunday mornings.

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Franklin also plays soccer, but for a different team that practices at a different park. His practices are at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Thursdays (which makes getting Susan to her piano lesson and dance class a bit exciting). His games are at 11 a.m. on Saturdays, giving his parents a chance to catch some of his sister's game before one of them has to drive him across town to his field. The school science club meets before school at 7:30 a.m. Mondays, so he needs a ride to school. Trombone lessons are every Thursday after school, which means he misses the bus and needs a ride then, too. His church group meets at 4:30 p.m. on Sundays.

Still with me? Jenny, the 4-year-old, gets dropped off at her preschool at 8:30 a.m. daily, picked up at 11:30 a.m. and dropped off at her aunt's house at 11:45 a.m. so mom can work at a local office supply store from noon to 3:30 p.m.

Jenny gets picked up at 3:45 p.m., just in time to swing by the house or school and pick up whoever has to be someplace. Oh, Jenny also has preschool gymnastics at 1 p.m. on Saturdays -- can't forget that.

Actually, both parents are involved in managing the family schedule. Dad's job starts at 8 a.m., allowing him to help out with some of the morning schedule. Since he is sometimes home by 5 p.m., he also can help out after school. And Dad has taken responsibility for scheduling a Sunday night family meeting to go over the next week's schedule.

Think I'm exaggerating? For a lot of families I know, the above is not all that out-of-line. An awful lot of us parents are running ourselves ragged trying to keep up with such schedules.

Most of us who take on such a load justify feeling frantic as one of the sacrifices we make for our families. We want our kids to have the chance to explore and develop a variety of talents and interests. And, really, everybody else is doing it, too.

We don't want our children to feel left out, and we do not want to feel like less-than-perfect parents.

As I've watched families try to cope with such demands, however, I've started to wonder if our families -- especially our children -- aren't also paying a heavy price for our attempts to do more of more, more and more.

Over the years, I've gotten used to seeing adults come into therapy complaining of a variety of symptoms that suggest they are overly stressed. Recently, however, I have been working with a number of children who seem to be suffering from nothing more, and nothing less, than too much stress.

Though the symptoms -- tiredness, irritability, stomachaches or headaches, bad dreams, etc. -- may be hard to pick up or sort out, as I work with these kids and their families it is clear to me that their biggest problem is simply the pace at which they are living. Some of them will even tell me in no uncertain terms that they are just feeling overwhelmed.

Yet most of these children don't know, and aren't being taught, that they can do too much of even good things.

Which brings us back to parents. In our efforts to allow our children to explore and develop their talents and interests, we too often are not teaching them that there are limits to how much any of us can explore and develop.

We neglect to teach them such basic stress management skills as choosing among alternatives, pacing ourselves, settling for less or allowing "down" time -- perhaps because we haven't mastered these skills ourselves.

So we get stressed-out kids who, unless we teach them otherwise, will probably grow up to be stressed-out adults.

A couple of families I know are trying a different approach. They are carefully choosing what activities family members commit themselves to. They're thinking through the implications of such commitments before they make any decisions. And they are sometimes saying "no."

I think these families will be a lot better off with such an approach. What is equally important is the children in these families will be learning necessary lessons about how to manage the stress in their lives. Although stress is an inevitable part of life, being stressed-out is not. Our kids need to learn the difference.

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