Is this unwanted item in your child’s backpack? (And what to do about it)

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imageWith a son and daughter, one of the repeat purchases every school year at my house is a backpack for each of them. Have you seen how much stuff today’s student carries to school? It is no wonder backpacks only last from August to May. Just a peek inside one of those things would convince you that this is the vagabond generation. Extra clothes. Extra shoes. Books. Binders. Notebooks. Pencil pouches. Calculators. Phone chargers. iPads. Skateboards? Yes. Skateboards.

As if these items in their backpacks were not enough, today’s kids are carrying an oversized load of something else with them every day. Stress. Homework stress. Peer stress. Appearance stress. Social media stress. Test stress. Sports stress. Health stress. Worrying-about-the-future stress. And yes, family stress. It is possible for them to carry the weight of family stress (or the stress that accompanies adult problems) without our even knowing it.

I will never forget the look on my daughter’s face and the words that came from her mouth as a ten year old, shortly after she misunderstood something I said to my wife about our personal finances. My comment to my wife was, “We don’t have any money.” Meaning, whatever it was we were considering buying in that moment, we didn’t have the money to spend on that particular item. But that was not what my daughter heard. In her tears, she said in utter dismay while standing at our kitchen table, “We don’t have any money.”

It was a blow to her tender heart. The fact that she misunderstood the context of my statement did not matter. She was suddenly face to face with what she thought was a harsh reality – that her parents didn’t have what we needed to provide for our home. We were able to mend the situation after some time of consoling and explaining. But looking back, the underlying issue was that I unintentionally gave my daughter extra weight to carry in the form of an adult-sized problem. Something she was never meant to carry. I added weight to her emotional backpack that day.

I have a feeling I’m not the only parent who has done this.

Many young people have become the victim of their parent’s circumstances. Without realizing it, parents can cause children to carry the stress of adult problems, leaving them with no solutions but to feel crushed and dismayed on the inside. It can happen as quickly as a misunderstood statement in the kitchen, as was in our case. In can happen when they overhear a phone conversation with your ex spouse in the next room. It can happen when they know tension is in the air, things just aren’t right, and they hear the dreaded words, “Daddy isn’t coming home for a while.”

There are two problems at work that we need to be mindful of. First, we live in a broken world and our kids cannot be completely protected from the pain that life brings. The other problem is that we as parents were not given X-ray vision. We cannot always see or discern what is going on inside our children. They could end up going for days, weeks, months, and even years carrying emotional weight we have handed them without our ever realizing what has happened.

For this reason, we need a plan. Just like we make certain at the end of the school year that their backpacks for school are emptied (we would hate to find out they threw away those extra erasers we bought them with the now-worn out backpack that’s going in the trash), we need a strategy for checking their emotional baggage and making sure it is as emptied as possible of any unwarranted stress or concerns they may be carrying. This is something that cannot take place only at the end of the school year. This is something we need to make sure we do for them and with them on a regular basis.

Here is a plan. It consists of prevention and cure. You really cannot separate the two, because what you do for one, you do for the other. Allow me to qualify my approach by stating clearly that not all stress is bad. It is the unproductive stress caused often by 1) problems that have been buried underneath the surface, or 2) adult-sized problems that have been handed down either unintentionally or neglectfully.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But either way, these intentional steps of action can go a long way in helping your children deal with the stresses of life:
1. Be emotionally present and available for your kids. It is one thing to be in the house with them or in the same room with everyone on their iPad or phones. It is another to be engaged and taking interest into what they are saying, doing, and feeling in the day to day. This cannot be replaced with things you do for them.

2. Running hand in hand with number one is listening to hear what they are really saying. Two of the most basic of human needs include the need to feel heard and to feel understood. One way to demonstrate that you are listening is to make good eye contact and attempt to repeat back to your child what you believe you hear them saying (this is called active listening). This simple exercise in conversations (especially when they open up about feelings) can help your child feel that you are a safe person to talk to about their struggles when they do come, and they do not have to bottle up the stress they could be tempted to carry on the inside. It can also help bring to the surface anything your child may be carrying that has been weighing them down.

3. Be ever-aware of your conversations when your children are present. They do not need to hear your negative opinions about your ex, your boss, or the fact that you are in the red in your bank account. These are adult problems that need to stay that way.

4. Find ways to have a lot of fun as a family! This cannot be overstated. Find some things your family enjoys, and do them often! And it doesn’t have to be expensive getaways. I know for our household that few things can lift our spirits more than a trip to get ice cream or to have an in-home dollar movie night with some fresh baked cookies.

Perhaps a beneficial way to conclude this post is to provide a few conversation starters to use with your kids that may help you get deeper with them than the usual “how was your day?” If your kids are anything like ours, we have one who will share without hesitation anything bothering them or anything they are excited about. Then we have one who we really have to dig to try to get anything out of. I am trying to keep both personalities (and those that fall in between) in mind with these suggestions.
What went well for you today?
What are some things coming up that you are excited about?
What was the best part of your day?
What was the worst part of your day?
Who did you help today?
What are you encouraged about?

And one last thing. Do not be afraid of awkward silence. Let them share what they want to share, and let them be silent without feeling pushed to talk.

I hope these suggestions will go a long way in helping you make sure your child isn’t carrying unnecessary stress in their emotional backpack. And if they are, perhaps these tools will help you bring them to a place of healing and restoration.

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