The Cost of Success: What the Pressure is Doing to our Kids
The first day of school is around the corner. As parents get kids ready for another year, they fill carts with supplies and new clothes, but what about emotional preparation? It isn’t a secret; our teens are hurting. The CDC reports more than 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and almost half of students felt “persistently sad or hopeless.” This is a 40% increase since 2009. While the pandemic has made things worse, teens have been struggling for years. One contributing factor is the pressure to succeed, especially in high-achieving school districts.
When deciding where to settle down, buy a house and raise kids, many families base their decision on one thing – the school district. After a quick visit to greatschools.org or similar websites, towns are quickly crossed off the list if the school’s grade isn’t good enough. While the intention is good – a parent is trying to do what’s best for their child’s future – the reality is, it’s not that simple. High-achieving districts may have higher standardized test scores, but that ranking doesn’t paint the full picture; It doesn’t tell you how well students are doing emotionally.
Professor and clinical psychologist, Suniya Luthar, has spent more than two decades studying the impact of affluent communities on the mental health and wellbeing of children. She began her research right here in Connecticut while she was studying at Yale. Her findings came as a shock to many; Children in high-achieving school districts had higher rates of substance misuse, depression and anxiety two to three times higher than those at schools in low-income communities. However, money isn’t the cause. The competitive culture and pressure to succeed are the factors driving this trend.
Where is the Pressure Coming From?
There are many sources of pressure in a child’s life; parents, coaches, teachers, friends, society and themselves. Even if a parent isn’t pushing their kid to the breaking point, kids may be putting intense pressure on themselves because they feel they need to compete with their peers in order to be successful in life. Many kids in these districts aren’t as worried about developing close friendships as they are about beating peers in academics and sports.
Years ago, kids may have had an idea of what they wanted to be when they grew up, but today they are worried about getting into college by the time they are in middle school. For so many kids in high-achieving districts, resume building begins at a very young age. They are encouraged to do as many activities as possible, excel at all of them and get good grades too, all so they can increase their chances of getting into the best college possible in order to have a successful future.
While the long-term goal of a successful life isn’t bad, the constant pressure is. A report from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows excessive pressure is as detrimental to adolescent wellness as poverty and trauma. Moreover, the data shows that integrity is the best predictor of future success. In Luthar’s studies, the kids who had parents who emphasized the importance of being a good person had higher test scores and better long-term outcomes than those whose parents placed the most emphasis on success and competition. In fact, one study showed that the kids at the age of 12 or 13 who valued their peers’ well-being and offered to help them got higher grades and SAT scores.
So what can we do? Here are five ways parents and caregivers can help alleviate the pressure.
1. Love Unconditionally
First and foremost, let your kids know you love them for who they are, not for their achievements. They need to know your love isn’t based on acceptance to an Ivy League college or a full-ride sports scholarship.
2. Give Them Room to Explore
Instead of looking to build a resume beginning in elementary school, let your kids explore the world and see what interests them. Let them try different things without pressure to excel. For example, if your son or daughter wants to try soccer, give them the opportunity to try it for a season, but let them take the lead when it comes to continuing beyond that. If they want to continue, don’t focus solely on their performance. Remember to focus on sportsmanship instead and not just competition to help alleviate the pressure. Activities should be enjoyable, not a source of stress.
3. Let Kids Know There is a Wealth of Opportunities
When communicating with your kids, don’t make it seem like opportunities are scarce because that reinforces the need to compete. There are thousands of colleges and universities out there, not just a couple. There are also many jobs that don’t require a typical college degree. Culinary school is a good example. There are multiple paths to success and they don’t all involve a degree from a prestigious university. Maintaining a child’s mental wellness will help them succeed more than anything.
4. Get Rid of the “Must-Do” Attitude
“I can therefore I must,” is how Luthar describes the attitude in high achieving districts. When kids grow up in communities where wealth and status are valued most, they feel they must do whatever necessary to follow suit and succeed in the future. Just because a child can work hard and do something doesn’t mean they have to. They may have the ability to go to Harvard, but maybe they don’t want to. Kids shouldn’t feel that their entire future rests on their academic achievements. It’s fine to expect them to work hard, but when they feel like they will be a complete failure in life with one bad grade or a degree from a lesser-known university, it’s problematic.
5. Step in When There are Signs of Trouble
If you see your child beginning to struggle, it may be time to intervene. If your son or daughter is up until 2 AM every night trying to finish their AP coursework and they are exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety, maybe it’s time to think about taking them out of the advanced class. Often, kids may want an out, but feel that everyone will be disappointed in them. Time management is also key. It may be beneficial to have a family rule of one activity per season. When kids are trying to balance multiple activities on top of their schoolwork, the pressure can quickly grow to an unbearable level.
If you think your child may be struggling with anxiety, depression or substance use, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. At Positive Directions, we provide individual outpatient counseling to teens and can work with families as an adjunct to individual counseling. We also offer medication management and have a number of free recovery and support groups.
New FREE Virtual Support Resource for Teens
In response to the teen mental health crisis and the known stress kids in our community are coping with, Positive Directions is offering a “High School Stressor” support group beginning September 6, 2022. The meeting is led by Karlene Barnett, LADC and offers a safe place for teens to talk with other teens about all things high school. Attendees will learn how to:
Identify stressors and learn coping skills
Deal with family and peer pressure
Explore anxiety around school violence
Develop strategies to maintain grades
RSVP to the event to receive the meeting link: https://www.positivedirections.org/support-groups
Peer Support for Teens and Young Adults
Positive Directions also offers FREE individual peer support by a trained Peer Support Specialist through TurningPointCT.org. A Positive Directions project, TurningPointCT.org is a mental wellness community by and for young people in Connecticut. Our Peer Support Specialist, Ally Kernan, uses her direct lived experience and in-depth training to support teens and young adults struggling with their mental health, psychological trauma, and/or substance misuse. Ally is trained as a Recovery Support Specialist (mental health), Recovery Coach (substance misuse), SMART Recovery facilitator, and a Drug and Alcohol Recovery Counselor.
To schedule learn more about peer support or to schedule an appointment with Ally, call Positive Directions at 203-227-7644 x842.
PBS.org, April 22. How today’s high school students face high pressure in a grind culture.
CNBC.com, March 09. How parents can encourage kids to follow their interests without being pushy.
New Canaan Cares, Nov. 18 (video). Under pressure: Dr. Suniya Luthar
Epoch Times, Aug 25. When is the ‘best’ school not the best?