What are we doing to our kids?

March 2018 View more

New data suggests that despite the advantages of our award-winning community—safe neighborhoods, excellent schools and an abundance of competitive athletics and extra-curricular activities—a majority of Naperville-area youth often feel overwhelmed and stressed.

Nearly two years ago, amid a growing climate of teen overdoses and suicides, the city of Naperville earmarked funds to address the social-emotional-mental heath of area youth. “As a city government,” explains Mayor Steve Chirico, “we don’t have internal resources, but we can provide funding.”

Nonprofit youth organization KidsMatter applied for a 2017 grant and was awarded the financial support needed to plan, research and develop a comprehensive survey to better understand the causes of the monumental pressure kids face. “We first looked at the national statistics, and 61 percent of young people feel stress has a great impact on their lives,” says KidsMatter Executive Director IdaLynn Wenhold. “Eleven percent said they have turned to alcohol and drugs to handle the stress. We wanted to know how that compared to the Naperville kids.”

More than 25 local organizations involved in KidsMatter’s Collaborative Youth Team worked together to create the survey, including Patricia M. Schacht, an associate professor at North Central College. The survey went through several rounds of revisions after piloting it on various youth groups, including lifeguards at the park district’s Centennial Beach. “Once we had a good working draft,” says Schacht, “we took it to the schools to see if the questions were really relevant to our kids.”

The final online surveys were administered during school to 66 percent of seventh- and tenth-grade students in Community Unit School District 203 and Indian Prairie School District 204 over the course of a two-week period in October 2017. After partial results were released to the public, I spoke with four area youth—a boy and a girl from each school district—about the survey results and their personal experiences with stress.

Thirteen-year old Luke Olsen shares that baseball and school are what cause him the most personal stress. He is often rushing to get somewhere, as the year-round athlete plays club soccer and baseball, plus school basketball at Lincoln Junior High.

“The worst part is morning practices on Sundays from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m.” he says. “For some reason it’s harder to wake up for that than for school.”

Most of the youth I interviewed are tired; all are athletes and no one is getting enough sleep—a common complaint in survey responses. Olsen’s classmate Cecilia DeTulleo, 13, agrees. “My swim practices are usually late at night, so I’m definitely not getting enough sleep. And teachers don’t take sports as an excuse for not getting something done.”

Though they both enjoy competitive athletics, Olsen and DeTulleo admit the pressure to perform can also be a source of stress. “There are 14 players on my baseball team and only nine get to play,” says Olsen. “If you don’t show up and hustle, you’re not going to get playing time.”

In addition to sports, Olsen is expected to keep a close eye on his grades. “Parents can cause stress by saying, ‘You gotta get good grades. Your education is your number-one priority,’” he says. “I’m checking my grades constantly.”

DeTulleo shares that sometimes she gets pressure from her parents, but for her, school stress is more intrinsic. “If I don’t get good grades now, then I won’t get into honors classes in high school, which means I won’t get into a good college.” The thoughtful seventh-grader admits, “I know I’m not supposed to think about college now, but I do.”

Naturally, both high school students I spoke with are also concerned about their college prospects. Even though 15-year-old Olivia O’Keefe plays volleyball at one of the best clubs in the country, she says academics are now more stressful to her than athletics.

“For me, getting good grades pushes me. I want to play volleyball in college, but I want to get a good education.” The sophomore at Neuqua Valley High School played three sports when she was younger, and would sometimes have three different practices in one day. “Now,” she says, “academics are such a priority for me because I have goals for where I want to go to college.”

Her classmate Carter Stubitz, 16, agrees that some kids feel they have to fulfill very high expectations, which sometimes can be unbearable. “I have friends whose parents ground them if they don’t get a 97 on a test,” he says. “I think that’s where a lot of the stress comes from.”

While the Collaborative Youth Team members are careful not to point fingers, pressure from parents was a stressor that bubbled up for many survey respondents. “A lot of the students are talking about the pressure that their parents are putting on them,” says Schacht. “The kids feel like they have to ‘be the best.’”

Stubitz is thankful that his parents have high expectations of him, but not too high. “My parents are not the type to be on my butt to get A’s in a certain class,” he says. “I think they have allowed me to live my own life and be responsible for my own grades. I’m very fortunate to be in that situation.”

Social media is another pressure point for many teens. O’Keefe says that when she was in junior high, no one really cared about what people posted or what they looked like.

“Now people for sure care about how many likes and followers they get.” And although she doesn’t see physical bullying at school, O’Keefe does see it online.

Olsen is actually grateful that he escapes those pressures, because he isn’t allowed to have a phone yet. “That really helps,” he says. “I see other people who stare at their phones all day and they have a lot of problems on social media.”

In an effort to provide parent and student resources to combat stress, the Collaborative Youth Team members are creating prevention-based workshops and educational video modules that offer resources focused on coping skills and restoring balance.

Jessica Littlefield, a licensed clinical social worker at SamaraCare Counseling, urges parents to work to truly understand their child’s point of view. “Take the first layer of listening to just be there and care. Don’t be all over them. Come back later to talk through solutions,” she advises. “Try to listen more and talk less. Let the emotions of the situation settle a little bit, and then come back to it to problem-solve. That can be so helpful.”

And Wenhold shares a poignant phrase from a talk by Loyola University professor Dr. Jonathan Singer, who recently spoke at a Talk 203 event hosted by the school district: “Want the best for your child, not for your child to be the best.”

With youth stress at epidemic levels, adopting healthy expectations of—and listening to—our kids might prove to be the most powerful antidote of all.