From the onslaught of testing that starts in grade school to the race to get into the most prestigious colleges, kids today are under more stress than ever.
But when the pressure is high, does your child thrive or crumble? Can you help your “worrier” become a “warrior?”
For a growing number of kids, stress overload is taking a toll.
“We see kids who pull out of doing things with friends, who pull out of sports. We see kids who don’t go to school because they’re too anxious about test performance,” says Dr. Laura Richardson at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
While some anxiety is a normal part of growing up, Richardson says what’s different these days is the amount of pressure kids face because they’re worried that even the slightest misstep will come back to haunt them.
“It’s not just achievement tests, but it’s the right extracurricular activities. It’s the right volunteer activities. It’s the right sports activities. It’s everything coming together because they need to do all these things to get into the right college, and into the right job, and into the right life.”
There are many factors that play into why some kids can handle pressure, including new evidence that a certain gene plays a role.
“It turns out there is a gene for this, that there is a gene that explains a lot of that sort of mental functioning. It’s known as the COMT gene but it’s been given the nickname warrior-worrier gene,” says Po Bronson, author of a new book, “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.”
Bronson says researchers have found that under normal conditions, people with the worrier gene, those who are more prone to anxiety, are actually more focused, are better planners, and perform better.
“On a day-to-day basis, they have a 10 IQ point cognitive advantage when they’re not stressed,” he says. “But it reverses under stress. In that case, those with the warrior genetic variation, they actually outperform and do their best under pressure.”
He says there’s no easy way to tell which gene variation your child has, other than to observe how they do in those high stress moments.
“If they thrive in them, then you’ve probably got a “warrior.” If they don’t thrive in them, or they thrive in some, it may be unclear. I would say the most important thing is what we do about it.”
One thing you don’t want to do is shield your kid from anything that might be stressful. Bronson says helping them embrace the anxiety can go a long way.
“Through cycles of ebbs and flows of sort of stress and not stress, they do learn to acclimate to it, to get to that point, even if they have the worrier gene, where they can actually handle stressful situations.”
Bronson points to an experiment involving Harvard undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Half of the students were given a practice test that had a cover page that stated, “People who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. If you feel a little stressed, don’t be concerned because it could help you.”
“Just hearing that science, which is actually backed up,” says Bronson, “they that day scored 50 points higher on a quantitative section of the GRE.”
Bronson says research shows that many professional athletes and musicians feel as much anxiety as amateurs, they just look at it differently. As long as your child is not distressed, he says parents should also not look at short-term stress as an enemy.
“Long-term stress is bad, but short-term stress is your body readying itself for performance, and teaching kids that is what is going on, it’s your body supplying energy, allows them to perceive that physiology differently, and hang in there and do actually their best.”