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Title: Life's gracefulness lost on overstimulated, overtired children


Each summer, no matter how pressing my work schedule, I take off a day exclusively for my son, to follow his whims (as completely as possible) from the moment he wakes up until he finally gives in to exhaustion. We call it dad / son day.

This year our third stop was the amusement park, where he discovered (at age 9) that he was tall enough to ride one of the fastest roller coasters in the world. We blasted through face stretching turns and loops for 90 seconds then, as we stepped off the ride, he gave a shrug, and in a distressingly calm voice, remarked that it was not as exciting as other rides he had been on.

As I listened, I began to sense something seriously out of balance. Throughout the season, I noticed similar events all around me. Parents seemed hard pressed to find new thrills for nonchalant kids. I saw this pattern in my family, in the sons and daughters of friends and neighbors and in many of my patients with behavioral and emotional problems. Surrounded by ever-greater stimulation, their young faces were looking disappointed and bored.

By August, neighborhood parents were comparing their children's complaints of "nothing to do" to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. They also were shelling out large numbers of dollars for movies, amusement parks, video arcades, camps and visits to the mall. In many cases the money seemed to do little more than buy transient relief from the terrible moans of their bored children.

This set me pondering the obvious question: "How can it be so hard for kids to find something to do when there's never been such a range of stimulating entertainment available to them?"

What really worries me is the intensity of the stimulation. I watch my 11-year-old daughter's face as she absorbs the powerful onslaught of arousing visuals and gory special effects in movies. Although my son is prohibited from playing violent video games, I have seen some of his third-grade friends at an arcade inflicting blood-splattering, dismembering blows upon on-screen opponents in distressingly realistic games. My 4-year-old boy's high-tech toys have consumed enough batteries to power a small village for a year.

Why do children immersed in this much excitement seem starved for more? That was, I realized , the point.

I discovered during my own reckless adolescence that what creates exhilaration is not going fast, but going faster. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in a few seconds slams the body backwards with powerful sensations, but going 60 mph, we can calmly sip coffee on an airplane. Thrills have less to do with speed than changes in speed.

Since returning to school, the kids have been navigating ever more densely packed schedules. The morning rush to make the school bus is matched by a rapid shuttle through after-school sports, piano, foreign-language programs and social activities. Dinner is, too often, a series of snacks eaten on the run. Then, if they manage to get their homework done, the kids want to "relax" in front of highly arousing images on the television or computer screen.

I'm concerned about the cumulative effect of years at these levels of feverish activity. It is no mystery to me why teenagers appear apathetic and burned out, with a "been there, done that" air of indifference toward much of life. As increasing numbers of friends' children are prescribed medications -- stimulants to deal with inattentiveness at school or antidepressants to help with the loss of interest and joy in their lives -- I question the role of kids' boredom in some of the diagnoses.

My own work -- behavioral pediatrics and child psychiatry -- is focused on the chemical imbalances and biological underpinnings to behavioral and emotional disorders. These are complex problems. Some of the most important research concentrates on genetic vulnerabilities and the effects of stress on the developing brain.

Yet I've been reflecting more and more on how the pace of life and the intensity of stimulations my be contributing to the rising rates of psychiatric problems among children and adolescents in our society.

The problem of overstimulation arises frequently in my work on children's sleep. Although I diagnose and treat many unusual neurologically based sleep disorders, the most common is deceptively simple -- many kids and adolescents don't get enough sleep.

There are myriad factors in delaying bedtime despite the need to get up early for school. Even when tired, children often find stimulation through exciting activities. Fighting off tiredness by going faster can turn into a habit -- and habits can be very hard to change.

Most important, as thrills displace needed rest, sleep-deprived kids have trouble with irritability, inattention and moodiness. Ironically, stimulants can seem to help children with these symptoms.

Our research also suggests that difficulties in turning down one's emotions after a stressful event may be a major factor leading to adolescent mood disorders. Constant access to high stimulation my also create patterns of emotional imbalance. an adolescent moving too fast emotionally for too long can experience the same sense of stillness as the airline passenger traveling at breakneck speed.

As I write this, fall is now moving toward winter, I am waiting for a flight home from a scientific meeting, and have a few quiet moments to reflect further on these questions of overstimulation and the pace of life. I fleetingly consider my own need to slow down. I feel the speed of life racing by, and the disturbing truth in the cliche that each year goes by more quickly. I sense the depth of sadness in how soon my children will be grown and gone, and know the burning fear that chapters of their childhood may be missed or relegated to blurred memories amidst my hectic, overly filled life.

In these images, I see, so clearly, the need to help our children find alternatives to the thrill-seeking fast lane by leading a slower version of ourselves. We need more pauses to think and feel, to savor small joys and to help our families achieve a more graceful flow to life before we all become burned out and bored to death. Nothing could be so important as finding a more balanced path with slower, simpler pleasures. I feel wistful just thinking about it.

Dr. Dahl is a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. A modified version of his commentary appeared in the Dec. 15, 1997, Newsweek.