Stress is taking its toll on the very youngest Americans. The number of preschool children on antidepressants jumped more than 200 percent between 1991 and 1995. Ritalin use for 2- to 4-year-olds during that same time shot up 300 percent in Midwestern states.
Let’s face it: A stressed lifestyle can become a behavioral addiction that we pass on to our children. Overloaded schedules, junk food, a frantic pace, mind-numbing and nerve-wracking entertainment, and constant media bombardment are harming our livelihood. They all contribute to the neglect of family, good nutrition, regular exercise, relaxation, time for reflection, and sane sleep schedules.
Psychiatrist Richard Winter states it this way: “When stimulation comes at us from every side, we reach a point where we cannot respond with much depth to anything. Bombarded with so much that is exciting and demands our attention, we tend to become unable to discriminate and choose from among the many options. The result is that we shut down our attention to everything.” Coupled with a diet that is stimulating but not strengthening, mental and nervous system health are sure to suffer. Not to mention the other more noticeable health indicators such as cholesterol, weight, and blood pressure—even in children.
Setting limits on children’s behavior, diet, schedules, and activities plays an important part in controlling their stress levels. When parents set limits on behavior, it helps children develop self-control. It also communicates the parents’ expectations and helps build consistency and security into children’s lives.
Besides limiting sweets and junk food, parents need to set limits on diet by providing children with plenty of fresh fruit, whole grains, and vegetables. These steps will help parents protect their children from undue weight-gain and lifestyle diseases that affect both physical and mental function.
By setting limits on schedules and activities, parents protect children from unrealistic expectations and excessive drain of emotional and physical energy. It also helps them build structure into their lives.
Developing a consistent family schedule that includes regular times for meals, chores, going to bed, doing homework, and family fun helps a child develop a sense of security, responsibility, and community. This will help them contribute in a positive way as they grow up.
Despite what they may tell you, children want to know what the rules are. It is important for parents draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. According to Ellen Galinsky, a child development expert, “Limits make children feel safe.” When a parent cares enough to prevent a child from doing something that is seriously out of line, the child feels more secure and trustful.
Establishing regular family worship provides time for reflection, interaction, and the development of conscience. Replacing meaningless entertainment with quality family time and social interaction will benefit children by helping them develop the ability to set boundaries, build self-esteem, and create a social environment that helps prevent at-risk behavior. Perhaps most important, it helps parents keep a check on their own priorities, schedules, and commitments! After all, that’s what children tend to copy.
By Laurie Snyman, MSW, ACSW, LCSW, Director, Awakenings Family Therapy of Lansing, Michigan Global health at the crossroads: Surgeon General’s report on the 50th World Health Assembly. Satcher D. JAMA 1999 Mar:281(10)942-3.  Winter R. Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 36.