After a botched vault at the Summer Olympics last year, Simone Biles dropped out of the games, citing mental health as an important factor. A few weeks earlier, tennis star Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the Wimbledon Championships for much-needed personal time. And while kids typically don’t bear a nation’s hopes on their shoulders, they can still feel immense pressure, with harmful impacts on their mental and physical health.
Ruby Yu, a mother of two in California, witnessed this firsthand. Several months ago, her seven-year-old was training for an elite gymnastics program when her behavior abruptly changed. “Penelope would get to the door to the gym and cry,” Yu says. One evening, her daughter retrieved a baby tooth from its keepsake book and placed it under her pillow with a note begging the tooth fairy for help because she was “really bad at gym.” Says Yu: “That was the moment when we realized something was very off.”
Pressure and its resulting stress can have pernicious effects on a child’s body and mind. When introduced before a child is developmentally ready, pressure-cooker environments such as overly academic school curricula or rigorous sports programs stifle kids’ natural creativity while reducing motivation and self-esteem. They also put them at risk for a host of issues—from anxiety and depression to insomnia and headaches. The drive to succeed can even disrupt relationships, leaving kids feeling disconnected from the world around them.