Do you write for children or teens? If you do, take care: It’s all too easy to hang onto an idealized vision of childhood—to think longingly of those days when your biggest worry in the world was whether to buy hot lunch, whether to audition for the school play, or whether you’ll catch the bus.
Yeah, it sounds great, right? Someone else pays the bills, does the laundry, cooks your dinners, drives you around.
But if you think back—really think back, rather than just daydreaming about what you wish childhood had been like—you may start to remember that being a kid isn’t easy or stress-free. Kids lack power. They are at the mercy of parents and teachers, who rule their lives, and they are under tremendous pressure to perform—and in the past few decades, that pressure has increased tremendously.
Check out this list of stresses your young characters might face—and I hope it inspires!
- Friendships: For the very young child, friendships seem to be pretty straightforward—two kids find themselves playing on the same playground, start playing together, and bam! they’re friends. It’s not long, though, before friendships become more complicated, with “best friends” trading off, cliques, and rampant drama. Elementary and middle schoolers can develop complicated “friendship rules” that are stressful to navigate…and that’s only the kids who actually have friends. The boy or girl who doesn’t fit in, who is socially awkward or doesn’t know how to connect with peers, will be stressed because he or she lacks any friends.
- Peer pressure: Everyone wants to fit in, but I think the pressure is greater for kids than adults. Think lunch box logos and backpack styles in elementary school—clothes, having a boyfriend/girlfriend, and extracurricular activities in middle school—or drinking, alcohol, and looking cool in high school. Peer pressure may push a kid to kiss someone, smoke a cigarette, shoplift, cheat on a test, dress a certain way, talk a certain way. Whether your character chooses to let peer pressure control her or chooses to go against it, the situation will be stressful for her.
- Sports-related: If your character excels at sports, he might be under tremendous pressure to excel; if he’s clumsy and awkward, he might be stressed about P.E. and mandatory team activities. Being a sports star brings one set of stresses—can he live up to the hype? Can he keep up grades and training? Can she be the person people expect her to be? Being a klutz brings a different set—will her classmates hate her because she made them lose the game? Will she be picked last for volley ball? Will she puke on the track? School is one of the few time
- Physical changes: The process of growing up, going through puberty, and dealing with all the associated physical and emotional changes is hugely stressful—remember zits? Suddenly kids are dealing with boobs or acne or standing six inches taller than everyone else, all while their hormones are going haywire. Talk about stress.
- Romance/Sexuality: Today’s kids are starting to “go with” each other as early as elementary school. The pressure’s on to get someone to like you, “go with” you, kiss you; to get a date to Homecoming, get that first kiss, get to first base, get laid. Not all kids will face the same pressure or feel it in the same way, but even kids who don’t feel like they have to date may, at some point, want to date…and that brings its own set of stresses and uncertainties!
- Academics: With introduction of the IB diploma and increasing competition for college entry, the pressure to get good grades has increased significantly over the past years. “Smart” kids have to choose between taking classes in which they aren’t challenged and classes in which they can expect an hour or more of homework every night…leading to a lot of stressed-out, sleep-deprived teens!
- Feeling overscheduled: For some reason, today’s kids are involved in more activities than ever before. Think music lessons, sports teams, church groups, after-school clubs, volunteer work, jobs, and an ever-increasing homework load.
- Parents: This one’s a timeless stressor. Parents can stress out their kids by being too demanding, by fighting with each other, or simply by having their own problems.
- Siblings: If you’ve got one of these, you know that brothers and sisters are the best and worst things in the world. When you’re a kid, seems like they’re mostly the worst thing. Younger sibs annoy, distract, embarrass, get you in trouble with the parents, and get into your stuff; you might have to bring them along when you go out with friends, or you might have to stay home to watch them when you want to go out with friends. Older sibs boss you around, get to do things you can’t do, are know-it-alls, hog the bathroom, tattle on you to the parents. Older or younger, having a sibling means there will be fights over music, food, activities, friends…you get the idea. Don’t get me wrong. Having a brother or sister can be wonderful, but it definitely brings along its share of stress!
- Home problems: When the family is struggling, the kids feel the pressure. Maybe Dad lost his job, or the older sister is pregnant, or the dog is dying of cancer. Kids have lives outside school and friends, and sometimes those lives create stress, too.
- Bullying: Thanks to Kerri for adding this one. With technology like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and cell phone cameras, bullying wears a different face today, and I think that makes it more difficult to detect, more difficult to prevent, and sometimes even more hurtful. The obvious, stereotyped bully might not be tolerated in today’s schools, but what about the popular girls who are buddy-buddy with that P.E. teacher? I think that kids who look like bad news get no slack in the bullying department, but the ones who are popular or smart or class favorites don’t get called out.
What about you? What stresses do you see hitting today’s kids?