Mar 23rd

Family Stress: It’s Not All in Your Head

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by Diana Divecha, Ph.D.

For most of my kids’ childhoods, I felt that my ability to guide my family faced direct competition from school, and many forces beyond. In elementary school, heavy backpacks bent my kids’ soft little backs. Homework intruded into playtime, even though research has shown that play is important for cognitive and social development. In middle school, more homework and big projects hijacked precious family weekends–just when my kids needed more sleep, more time to adjust to their rapidly changing brains, and more healthy time with friends, and when my husband and I needed some rest. By high school, the downward pressure from looming college applications threatened to torque my kids’ developmental arc.


“Don’t do anything for a college resume,” I warned. “Make choices because they make sense to you.”


As the tsunami of outside competition flooded toward us, I felt like a little mushroom field trying to filter toxins out of a roaring river. The competition over messaging added even more pressure: media was saturated with hyper-sexualized images, dysfunctional interactions, unrealistic problem solving, violence, and more. It was hard to stay on top of it all, to teach my kids the difference between our values inside our family versus values in the outside world. This on top of our own adult pressures to manage childcare, two jobs, meals, paychecks, health care and sick days, quality time, extended family, and maybe a few friends.


Adults are stressed, but our kids are stressed, too. A recent survey found that in the United States, teens’ stress has now surpassed that of adults. Many young people say that they are overwhelmed, depressed, and sad because of the stress that they, themselves, gauge to be unhealthy. And the mental health of teenagers in this country is declining over time. Many parents are frantic, reaching for whatever levers they can put their hands on: hiring therapists, looking to medications, and trying ancient practices to calm everyone down. If only we could find the right key, we parents think, we can unlock the stress, and our child will thrive.


But when the number of kids and families struggling is so large, we have to start asking questions about the systems beyond ourselves. We parents love our children wildly, and ultimately, they’re our responsibility. But our ability to care for them successfully also depends in large part on how the wider culture, policies, and values support childrearing.


Diana Divecha, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who writes and speaks about children, teens, and family life. This article is reprinted with permission from her website at

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