The Taconic Counseling Group

Patricia G. Thomas, Ph.D.

Children and Stress: "The Hurried Child"

Most of us think of stress as an adult phenomenon. But today's pressures to cope, to succeed, and to win are every bit as taxing for children as they are for adults. "The pressure to grow up fast," David Elkind notes in his book The Hurried Child, "to achieve early in the areas of sports, academics, and social interaction, is very great in middle-class America." Hurried children are stressed by the fear of failure--of not achieving fast enough or high enough.


Chief among today's pressures on middle-class children is the pressure for early intellectual attainment. Several decades ago, the child prodigy was considered an oddity. Such attitudes have changed markedly, replaced by a value on precocity. As an example, the full-day kindergarten that admits children at increasingly earlier ages emphasizes structured curricula to develop such skills as reading, has become the rule more than the exception.


Another evidence of the pressure to grow up fast is the pressure to engage in organized competitive sports and to perfect skills. Schedules and supervision have often times replaced spontaneity and freedom. Lessons, not make believe, are the rule. It is not unusual in my work with children to hear of afternoons and weekends spent shuttling from tennis lessons, to soccer practice, to karate or dance classes to Scouts. This high level of structure reflects the new attitude that the years of childhood are not to be frittered away by engaging in activities merely for fun. Rather, the years are to be used to perfect skills and abilities that are the same as those of adults.


Educators and psychologists worry that such rigid regimens and high expectations are producing passive and pressured kids. It is my observation that "hurried children" may be forgetting how to have fun, may lose their spark and creativity. My clinical work with such children seeks to retrieve and nurture the capacity for spontaneous imaginative play and a pleasure in intellectual discovery both within the therapy and the child's life with family and friends. The over-programmed child under pressure to perform may make up a large portion of the troubled children seen by clinicians today. They "include many of the children who have chronic psychosomatic complaints, such as headaches, who are chronically unhappy, hyperactive, or lethargic and unmotivated. These diseases and problems have long been recognized as stress related in adults and it is time we looked at children and stress in the same light."