The hard life of kids

Alec Fischer’s documentary about bullying in Minnesota’s schools is only 45 minutes long but it clearly packs an emotional punch, as a local audience saw for itself last week.

During a showing of the film at Ridgewater College, the room grew hushed while photos flashed across the screen of students who killed themselves after prolonged bullying by their peers.

One of the filmmaker’s messages: Kids are singled out by bullies for many different reasons, and it won’t stop unless more people, both kids and adults, speak up about it.

From the vantage point of adults, childhood and adolescence can seem like a golden time. But there’s mounting evidence that this no longer is the case for all too many kids (if indeed it ever was).

Take the Minnesota Student Survey. Conducted every three years for students in grades 6, 9 and 12, it tracks them as they progress through middle school and high school. It’s seen as a good barometer for risky behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use and early sexual activity.

But look at what students are reporting about their state of mind. In 2010, the most recent year in which the survey was administered, 8 percent of sixth-grade boys and 9 percent of sixth-grade girls reported feeling almost more pressure than they could handle at some time within the past 30 days. Among 12th-graders, 11 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls said they felt this way. Many kids also reported distressing symptoms such as frequent headaches and stomachaches, sleep difficulties and feeling unhappy or sad.

To be sure, these weren’t the majority. Most kids in fact seemed to be doing OK, and the vast majority said they liked school and that they had parents and other adult relatives who cared greatly about them.

It’s disturbing, however, that so many young people are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. Bullying, which seems to have become much more pervasive than a generation ago, is only one of the problems that students encounter.

A recent Associated Press story, which explored what some high schools are doing to reduce kids’ anxiety, noted that adolescents have a lot on their shoulders these days. School officials pointed to hectic schedules, academic overload and pressure to achieve, and kids spoke of days packed with nonstop activity. Here’s a typical day for Abbie Kaplan, a student at Boston Latin School:

On a scale of 1 to 10, she places her stress level at a pretty steady 9. She regularly has four hours of homework a night, some done before swim practice. She eats dinner around 9:30 p.m., then finishes the rest of her homework and generally goes to bed at 11:30. Then she’s up at 6 a.m. so she can be at school by 7:45.

She calls her hectic schedule “the new normal.”

“You keep telling yourself that it will prepare you for the future,” Kaplan says. “It’s just sort of how it is.”

She, too, has had anxiety attacks related to her workload, she says.

And a rising tide of stress among the younger generation was highlighted in yet another recent survey, this one by the American Psychological Association, that found stress levels have increased for Americans of all ages but are being felt most keenly by young adults. The study also found that younger adults seem to have more difficulty managing their stress and that their stress has increased in the past year.

Some of this may simply be how the human psyche matures and ages. Other studies have found that the years past middle age, when people tend to have accumulated life experiences and learned to cope with them, are often the happiest.

But as many observers have pointed out, the stresses faced by kids today are different than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. The world is a more complex place than it once was, the economy is more difficult and the future more uncertain – and it’s all being intensified by the pervasive presence of the social media.

When kids are stressed and not managing it well, does it put them on the path to becoming tomorrow’s stressed adults, with all the unhealthy and potentially destructive behaviors this entails? While adults can’t always make the world an easier place for kids, acknowledging that there’s far more pressure on kids than there used to be seems like the first step toward taking this issue seriously and helping them develop coping mechanisms that can carry them into a healthier adulthood.

2 thoughts on “The hard life of kids

  1. I was bullied as a kid too, mostly with relational bullying–I was given the silent treatment for literally years.

    It sticks with you.

    Also, it’s especially difficult for kids because they are stuck. They have to go to school, and they can’t get into a car and drive away or decide to make a move.

    I didn’t really know at the time that anything would ever get better, but at this point, if I had a choice, I would never choose to relive my childhood. There were many happy moments, but the lack of control over one’s circumstances and the cruelty of a mass of people giving the silent treatment to an extrovert, I can do without.

  2. Thanks, Anne, for discussing this critical topic. Like Kari, above, I was bullied as a child. I can’t fathom ever forgetting the years-long ordeal and the powerlessness that accompanied it. Fortunately for me, eventually the bullies got bored with me and moved on to another victim. But there is no negating the damage they did. To this day, over 4 decades later, I remember the incidents and they taint much of my perspective.

    But bullying isn’t just for kids. Adults do it and suffer from it. That’s exactly why I’m a fierce advocate for teamwork and safety in the workplace. Bullying, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, was standard operating procedure in many medical training programs, and the damage there is pervasive within the health care community. Thankfully, awareness is improving at least that segment of society. Even if kids have it worse.

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