When children are the victims of burnout The young are being bombarded from all sides with unrealistic expectations

October 09, 1990|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

THE TERRIBLE toos afflict children of all ages.

Too many expectations.

Too many media images of perfection.

Too many fears.

Too much guilt brought on by too many "shoulds."

These "toos" douse the energy and enthusiasm of too many fired-up kids.

And they ignite another terrible too -- too much burnout, a malady that has affected parents for some time and has now spread to their children, some as young as 7 or 8.

"Twenty to 30 percent of kids experience some kind of burnout," says Joseph Procaccini, associate professor of education at Loyola College and the author of two parenting books. Procaccini, who has for at least a decade focused on parent burnout -- the subject of one of his books -- is expanding his interest to the other side of the family.

Child burnout may be relatively minor and fleeting, marked by a temporary lack of interest in school or occasional temper tantrums. Or it may persist until a child feels trapped and begins dropping out -- socially, mentally, even physically -- from school or home.

Burnout happens when the demands on a child outweigh his energy, Procaccini says. There is, however, a delicate balance to work with. Imposing demands on children is not wrong; it is, in fact, a good way to motivate them, he says. When energy and demand are equal, a person is performing at his peak; when those demands get out of hand, burnout threatens.

"Unrealistic expectations are the real culprit" in burnout, he says. These expectations can come from within a person, from parents and teachers, from peers and from the media.

Procaccini lays a good part of the blame on parents. "I think most parents overestimate their kids' abilities. Many parents will not accept anything but an A," he observes. "There's a whole group of parents out there . . . just waiting to get kids into programs," be they soccer teams, computer camps, language clubs or tot gym classes.

Children bombarded with unrealistic demands and expectations begin to believe that their parents' love is based on their achievements, that it depends on how well they do some thing or many things, Procaccini says.

And the youngsters begin to accept their elders' expectations as the norm. "I call these kids YAPPIES, Young Aspiring Professionals."

"A burned-out kid is an angry kid," says Procaccini. "To burn out you have to be on fire." That fire is fueled by frustration over the conflict between what a youngster assumes "should be" and what he knows "is."

Here Procaccini sees television as a big contributor. It is not the programs that affect youngsters as much as the advertising that prompts them to "try to become something that's impossible to become," he says. Anyone 20 and younger has grown up with "constant images of perfection" that lead to "an awful lot of anger."

A burned-out child will also feel guilt, which Procaccini describes as anger turned inward, over the disparity between "should" and "is."

This anger eats away at a child's energy, he says, imbalancing even further the energy-demand scale.

A child's unrealized expectations combine with the stresses that are inherent in both childhood and family life. "Stress is caused by change. Change is constant. Bodies change, lives change, people change," says Procaccini. "Every day in our lives, families are changing."

With 40 percent of all American families breaking apart, many children have more than their normal share of change, he adds. Even children from intact families have "a sense of impending loss," because they know so many children from broken families.

These natural, and man-made, stresses add to the possibility of burnout among children.

The signs of it are several, says Procaccini:

* Fatigue. A child may become "abnormally sluggish" physically and mentally lethargic.

* Irritability. Temper tantrums may become frequent or more intense than usual.

* Mental exhaustion. This is often characterized by forgetfulness -- especially of well-known facts.

* Paranoia and disassociation. These mark the "serious stage" of burnout, when a child is feeling trapped and may be questioning his values, talking about dropping out of school or society and even threatening suicide.

He cautions parents to "factor out normal types of behavior" for their child before determining burnout. But, if a parent detects a trapped feeling or paranoia, he advises "your child probably needs counseling."

And what's a parent to do to prevent burnout?

Procaccini has a couple of suggestions.

Parents need to show that their love is unconditional, that nothing a child does or fails to do will diminish that love and that children do not have the power to make or break their parents emotionally by their actions or achievements.

Parents can also foster a tolerance for ambiguity, so that children learn life does not work like a math formula: That just because they play -- and play hard -- they don't necessarily win. "We're not letting them know that in some areas you can be fourth or fifth," he says.

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