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5 Simple Things That Can Damage Your Child’s Growth

Written by S.O.

Posted on March 27, 2015 at 8:29 pm

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People have always commented on the speed at which their children grow up. But, with fairly recent advances in modern telecommunications, and the global technological connectedness it allows, our children are growing up faster than ever.

From the media we consume in alarming volumes, to the hectic schedule we often impose on their lives, our children’s lives are much different than how kids grew up even a decade ago.

Sure, it seems like parents have always thought their children are missing out on something they themselves had when they were growing up – During the Second World War, parents lamented the fact their kids would never know the delights of growing up during the turn of the Twentieth Century; parents in the 1970s bemoaned the fact their children would miss out on growing up during the halcyon days of the 1950s. Not surprisingly, many parents today hate the fact that their kids will never know what it feels like to live in a pre-Internet age.

At the same time, if we dismiss that growing up today really is different from growing up in other eras, simply thinking that’s what parents are always saying about their kids, we miss out on helping our children address and navigate the particular challenges of their day.

That is, we will miss out on being the best parents we can be.

Let’s look at five simple ways kids today may be hurting their growth, and then at some ways we can help our kids avoid those obstacles.

1. Just Too Darn Busy

Yes, the placid, slow-paced schedule of the idyllic childhood certainly has been replaced with activities-heavy schedules that can weigh down even the most energetic child. Sports, extra school tutoring, music or dance lessons, and civic groups are just some of the activities children today must juggle. Where just a generation ago, participating in one or two of extracurricular activities was the norm, parents now feel like the they must cram into their kids’ schedules as much as possible lest they miss out on an opportunity or fall behind their peers.

That’s partly what is driving this need to have children’s schedules match their parents’ hectic lives – many parents genuinely feel that creating such a frenzied pace will eventually pay off for their kids. And, there is no denying that children heavy into activities are less likely to get into trouble after school or get into drugs, and are more likely to form strong peer relationships with people of similar interests. On top of that, college recruiters demand that potential enrollees have a vast and well-rounded life outside of academics, thus causing a sort-of arms race in terms of achievements.

But at what price? What use is it to have a full load of activities when everyone involved is fried from never getting a break? Stress builds, meals are missed or haphazardly thrown together, and kids miss valuable sleep due to doing too much too often.

Not surprisingly, many kids find it impossible to keep up the pace, leading to subpar grades, dissatisfaction with the dearth of free time, resentment, and, often, unaddressed anxiety. While we can’t draw a straight line from one to the other, mental health studies reveal what essentially is a continuous, linear increase in anxiety and depression over the past few decades. Rates of diagnosed anxiety disorders and depression in kids are five-to-eight times higher than in the 1950s, and the suicide rate for those 15-24 years old had doubled over that same period. Shockingly, over the past 60 years, the suicide rate for those younger than 15 has made a four-fold jump.

Aside from clearing your child’s schedule completely, exercising moderation when creating your child’s schedule would go a long way toward relaxing your child’s anxiety. Yoga classes are sprouting up that cater to relieving childhood stress, so the problem has been recognized by the adult world.

No one is saying activities can’t be both eye opening and horizon expanding. But give your kid some space. Doing so will give them a chance to take a deep breath and relish the incredible opportunities they have

2. Television and Technology

Few modern inventions as television have been such a bugaboo; it didn’t earn the moniker ‘the boob tube’ for nothing. But is that criticism completely fair? Is television – by which we mean anything with a screen, including tablets and smartphones – really that bad for children?

Well, yes and no. While a little television probably isn’t going to hurt anyone, the amount of time our children actually spend in front of screens blows right past any reasonable allotment – the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates the average American child’s screen time clocks in at over six-and-a-half hours per day. If that figure is true, sleep is the only thing kids do more of.

And all this screen watching really adds up. According to the AAP:

• Kids spend more time with a screen than they do with their own parents;

• By the time a child completes the fifth grade, they will have watched over 8,000 people being murdered on television;

• This amount of screen time per day causes children to have shorter attention spans, slower language acquisition, and increased aggression toward peers and authority figures;

• Sleeping – particularly the ability to fall and stay asleep – is negatively affected. Over time, this problem may increase.

Researchers have found that too much time in front of a screen can actually damage the structure of a child’s brain. Experts have found there is a linear relationship between time spent watching television and brain alterations, leading to lowered verbal intelligence, a marked decrease in impulse control, poorer eating and study habits, and trouble falling asleep. It is especially damaging to toddlers. With brain size tripling over the first three years of life, early exposure to television can over-stimulate a toddler’s brain, leading to shorter attention spans later in life.

So, plopping down the kids in front of the television for long periods of time is directly linked to lessened cognitive functioning later on.

Experts now suspect that when kids watch screens in lieu of other activities – like playing with friends, reading, or coloring – their motivation to learn more about the world they inhabit decreases, making them less curious and less able to find out answers for themselves.

Very scary stuff, indeed.

Just for the record, the AAP recommends that kids under two watch no screens, while kids two-and-older should watch no more than 1-to-2 hours of quality programming per day.

3. Too Little Sleep

Being too busy and watching too much television seems to converge in the bedroom, where kids fight to fall asleep either from being too amped up from a busy day to finding it difficult to fall or stay asleep due to too much time in front of a screen.

Of course, sleep is important for all mammals, helping the body – to recharge and repair – and the mind, in the form of memory consolidation and the processing of emotions.

Failure to get enough sleep can result in poor mood, behavior issues, and, over time, a higher chance of developing acute diseases. But there is another side of the coin. That is, too much sleep can be dangerous as well, leading to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.

For children, irregular bedtimes have been linked to behavioral issues, learning problems (as reflected in lower scores on standardized tests), higher rates of hyperactivity, and problems processing emotions.

The good news, at least as far as sleep is concerned, is that poor sleeping habits can be corrected. Changing a child’s bedtime so he or she is getting enough sleep, and then keeping that bedtime consistent, has been shown to reverse the damage. With that in mind, the National Sleep Foundation recommends newborns get between 12-18 hours of sleep per 24-hour period; those between 1-to-3 years old should get 12-14 hours; kids between 3-to-5 should get 11-13 hours per day; and those 5-to-10 should sleep between 10-to-11 hours per day.

4. Exposure To Too Much Caffeine

Since the dawn of modern food production, the use of caffeine, particularly by children, has slowly crept up. First with soft drinks, and then with coffee and ‘energy’ drinks, caffeine has become a bigger part of the average child’s diet, to deleterious results. While a little won’t do much harm, experts suspect that children who drink more than 45 mL a day (the amount in one 12-ounce can of soda) can expect nervousness, upset stomachs, difficulties sleeping and concentrating, and an increased heart rate.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers says that every year there are over 1,000 reported cases of childhood caffeine toxicity. With that in mind, some experts recommend avoiding all caffeinated drinks until a person reaches their late teens. Besides issues with concentration and sleeplessness, the increased consumption of caffeinated drinks by children has tended to push out of their diets more nutritious options. Further, many caffeinated drinks are high in calories, which often leads to increased weight gain, while the high sugar content can cause havoc with dental health. And, because caffeine is a diuretic, oftentimes kids who consume those types of drinks are dehydrated.

Because children shouldn’t need the energy boost often associated with caffeine, parents should monitor their child’s intake. Play close attention to foods and substances – such as chocolate, iced teas, and certain over-the-counter pain relievers – not traditionally thought of as containing caffeine.

5. Too Much Praise / Too Little Praise

Giving your child praise can seem a lot like a thankless exercise. That’s because experts inundate parents with seemingly contradictory advice when it comes to doling it out. They say too much praise will make a child come to ‘need’ it in order to feel validated, while not enough will result in lowered self-esteem and poor self-image.

Like a lot of things in life, the truth is praise does have a ‘sweet-spot’ that many parents will struggle to find.

Most of us can figure out that failing to praise your kids at all is likely to make them feel as though there isn’t a point in accomplishing their goals. They might feel like nothing they do is good enough, or that doing a good job at something is rather anticlimactic, perhaps preventing them from seeking out future.

Less accepted, though, is the idea that too much praise can damage your child as well. Kids are smart. They notice that, when everyone is equally praised despite the outcome, the praise rings hollow. When they know they’ll be praised for simply trying, experts say some children see little point in going beyond the ‘trying’ stage.

Additionally, children can feel like constant praise is belittling, often leading them to confuse praise with actual achievement.

On the other end of the spectrum, many kids become ‘approval junkies’ – that is, people who cannot do anything without a dollop of often-unearned praise. One result is kids start to fear failure, which may prevent them from trying anything that they aren’t very good at – because so much of their self-worth is wrapped up in getting approval. These kids of children may grow up confusing the reward with the experience itself.

With that backdrop, childhood experts insist that instead of the quantity, parents should be more focused on the quality of praise they give their kids. For instance, praising effort over outcome will help kids understand that they should work hard regardless of the outcome. Quality praise also includes sincerity, as a child will often simply dismiss praise if it seems forced or artificial. Experts also recommend focusing on praise that highlights successes under the child’s control; we should praise our student’s great study habits over his or her level of intelligence. Hold off on praising your kid for something that comes easy to him or her. Point out that it is better to learn to master the activity as opposed to being better at it than his or her peers.

It is important to remember that kids use praise as a kind of measurement. When we praise them for things they did well, or how hard they worked at something they found difficult, children get a better sense of how effort and attitude are valued. When they get praise for every single thing they do, they lose that bass-line value, often leading to confusion and underachievement.

One other thing to remember is that different age groups respond differently to praise. As toddlers, it seems like that they can never get enough. But as they grow older, replace that sort of praise with the more constructive variety.

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