By Judy McSpadden
There’s no doubt about it – military deployments cause stress for kids.
Plenty of research conducted on military operations since 9/11 backs up that statement. A military member goes to a hazardous zone, leaving a caregiver and other family members at home to face new and unsettling routines. Consider the news footage of children, among many over the past decade, who are waving good-bye to dads and moms wearing camouflage and are filing alongside other soldiers through the airport gate. What follows for the children are nights of worry and days peppered with adult problems.
So what is the answer? How can parents and others alleviate the stress on the children?
One effective remedy for child stress is activity – what one dictionary defines as a pursuit, hobby, diversion, or recreation. In other words, “getting busy” can shift a child’s attention from painful rumination over a parent’s absence to learning cartwheels or sharing a game of soccer. Our Military Kids, whose grants pay for sports, arts, and tutoring activities, runs periodic surveys of its grant recipient families. Results show that 98 percent of parents believe activities have reduced their children’s stress symptoms. Not only that, but children’s activities drew participation by other members of the family – dads joined the gym too, or mom made new mom friends. The result was an improved sense of well-being for the whole family.
The “activity remedy” isn’t just for military kids. Notable adult stress factors, like divorce, moves, work or school insecurity and illness, can affect kids of all walks of life. Their grades may plummet; they may withdraw. But parents and teachers often see negative behavior or attitudes change when kids get into a sport, a club, or hobby.
In his 2011 report on the positive effects of extracurricular activities, scholar Evan Masson purports activities improve a host of problems — bad behavior, low grades, and dropout rates — while also helping kids learn adult lessons, like teamwork, time management, and social skills.
Of course, parents can run the risk of overscheduling their kids. Dr. Michele Borba, author of the book, Unselfie, suggests there are times parents need to “hit the pause button.” Loading a child down with too many activities may add stress rather than alleviate it, especially if performance requirements (or school grades) are involved. Psychologist Reid Wilson and psychotherapist Lynn Lyons, authors of the book, Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, advocate the importance of play, “play that isn’t pressured.”
Yes, the evidence is convincing. So here’s the next question: which activities are best for our kids?
Last year the Pew Research Center surveyed parents of school-aged children about preferred after-school activities. Sports was by far the most popular activity for 73 percent of their respondents. Sixty percent of the activities were religious, and just over half of the activities involved music, dance and the arts. Fewer activities included volunteer work and tutoring. Thirty-six percent of parents reported that their teenagers had part-time jobs in the year prior to the survey.
According to a recent survey by Our Military Kids, since January of this year, sports programs have taken top billing; over half of Our Military Kids recipients took gymnastics, baseball or other programs. The next highest categories were arts, then camps, then tutoring.
Whatever the activity, the important thing is to get the child involved in something positive, compelling…or just plain fun.