In the last few weeks there have been numerous events that would make average men or women pull their hair wondering, "What's going to happen next?" A plane has fallen out of the sky and over a month later no one can find it, the passengers, or crew. Mud slides have taken whole neighborhoods off the map. A kid has run through hallways with knives in both hands stabbing 21 people in five minutes at the beginning of a school day. What's going on with the weather? Is it still winter or is it spring? It was 80 degrees one day and below freezing the next. Not including what's going on in our own world of our family, job, or neighborhood. All of these things cause stress.
Stress, according to psychologists, causes many of the common headaches, stomach aches and depression experienced by children. However, at times that problem can be more serious. Studies have shown stress can affect intelligence levels, cause repression in speech or learning, and lead to the eventual use of drugs, alcohol and, in extreme cases, even suicide.
What is stress? To a child, stress is what I worry about. What scares me. What I get excited about or what I think about a lot.
Dr. R. Dean Coddington of the Louisiana State University Medical School cites a list of stress factors for children in three different age groups. For elementary school-age children, the list includes factors such as squabbles between parents, reprimands, physical arguments with parents or friends, taking tests, violent weather and signs of puberty. High school students experience stress from non-acceptance, having a close friend die, fear of authority figures, dating, weight and skin problems, and involvement with drugs and alcohol.
A child at any age can experience stress from divorce, separation or the death of a family member. Other, far more complex situations can cause stress. The fear of war, nuclear war or any war, for example, is pervasive among people today. A well-adjusted 12-year-old awakened his parents at 4 a.m. recently because he had a nightmare about being caught at school during an attack. In the dream, he couldn't find them or his sisters.
Awareness of such adult issues can be a major cause of stress among children, according to Dr. David Elkind, psychologist and author of "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon." He asserts that children today face too much stress because they are being hurried through childhood. On the outside, they look and act very mature, but on the inside, they are still children.
Socially, we expect too much of them, Dr. Elkind says. We force them to make decisions and deal with situations that demand maturity they don't have. Academically, we encourage, pressure or bribe them to learn to read earlier and achieve faster.
The result? "Our children are stressed by the fear of failure, of not achieving fast or high enough," Dr. Elkind warns.
Slow down, he advises, and stop rushing your child from the crib to babysitters to classes to schools to activities. Relax, and allow them to enjoy and relish their childhood. Success, joy and happiness are best achieved by avoiding the pursuit of perfection.
If that jostles some long-held attitudes, let Dr. David Burns explain: "It is important to distinguish perfectionism from the healthy pursuit of excellence," says the one time director of the Behavioral Science Institute at Presbyterian-University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.
Dr. Burns found that the pursuit of perfection accounted for depression and anxiety among patients who were unable to achieve the unrealistic goals they had set for themselves. He looked at 700 people from all walks of life, expecting to find that even if perfectionism brought less happiness, it would also bring more rewards.
He was surprised at the findings. "They (perfectionists) were significantly more anxious, depressed and unhappy. But there was no evidence that they were doing better in work or life. In fact, they were earning less and performing less well" than their non-perfectionist counterparts.
Perfectionists, he says, often believe they must earn other people's love through success and that failure makes them less worthwhile. This self-applied pressure and fear of failure blocks creative activity. "You lose the capacity to love, play, and have fun," says Dr. Burns.
In his book, "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy," he suggests "letting go of internal 'shoulds' and getting into a more spontaneous way of life. You can still be committed to your work or your marriage. But, he admonishes, "do it with joy."
Maybe that is what the Bible meant when it said, "Perfect love casts out all fear." I always wondered about that verse until our oldest son, who was 9 or 10 at the time, came and knocked on our bedroom door at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., asking could he get in the bed with his mother and I. "Why" we asked. "Because I am afraid of the lightning and rainstorm going on outside." There was lightning and the storm was loud, so we said, "sure." As soon as the boy got in our bed, and his head hit the pillow, he was out like a light. He went to snoring, and did not wake up until the morning. I thought the storm, the lightning, the things that he was afraid of, is still going on. Why is he no longer in fear? Why has his stress level disappeared? God laid on my heart, "Perfect love cast out all fear." He was in between two people he knew loved him, and that took away all his fear and stress.
To me that is what Easter is all about. It was God sending his son, to help us with our fears and stress by taking away the things that were hurting us, inside and out. In the church, we call it sin. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life."
I hope you have found something or someone that "cast out all your fear" and stress.
Cummings is pastor of Bethlehem Apostolic Temple in Wheeling and Shiloh Apostolic Faith Assembly in Weirton.