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Our Overachieving Adolescents: Five Actions Parents Must Take

Recently, I wrote about the price women pay in the pursuit of perfection; today, I’m here to discuss the escalating pressure our children face the moment they step foot in high school.

The New York Times recently published a piece on Debora Spar, the President of Barnard College and the author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.  Spar describes the incoming students she sees as “exhausted.  The pressure in high school is killing these kids.  By the time they get to college, they have been fighting for three or four years to get the perfect SAT scores and get into A.P. classes.”

I know this all too well.  Most parents of teenagers and young adults do.  My daughter Isabella attended a prestigious, competitive high school in San Francisco that demanded a great deal from her.  Unlike my years in high school, which allowed time for idle afternoons, outings with friends, and the time and space to discover myself, Isabella’s were jam-packed with responsibilities.  Her schedule was downright rigorous, from sports practice five times a week to intense, long hours of homework that often kept her up past midnight.  On top of that, she studied diligently for her SATs, committed herself to extracurricular activities to increase her chances of getting into a reputable college, and interned.  She was under constant pressure to achieve high grades, perform brilliantly in class and on the field, look great, attend social events, discover a cure for cancer, and act as though she wasn’t about to topple over from sheer exhaustion at any given moment.

I’m only partly joking when I write, “discover a cure for cancer.”  Teenagers today encounter unusually high expectations from their parents, teachers, friends, prospective colleges, and society as a whole.  “It’s a much wider set of pressures than when you or I experienced growing up,” Spar said to Jodi Kantor at the New York Times.  “It’s not just grades, it’s extracurriculars.  I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve seen who have started their own NGO’s before they’re 18.”

We don’t have the ability to alter society, or what our kids’ teachers expect of them.  We can’t change what colleges and universities anticipate in an applicant.  We can, however, take action in other ways:

1)    Be vigilant about your child’s mental health.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 11% of adolescents have a depressive disorder, and females are more likely to experience depression than males.  Clinical depression can manifest in many ways, from cutting to anorexia, and the rate of suicide in young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 has nearly tripled since 1960.  If your child expresses behavior that’s symptomatic of depression, talk to him or her—and seek professional help in the form of a therapist or a school counselor.

2)   Stress the value of finding and maintaining balance.

It’s natural to have enormous pride for our children and their successes, but if their determination to be the best in every aspect of their life is keeping them from experiencing joy and enjoying their youth, suggest striving for equilibrium—and show them how to do so by maintaining balance in your own life.  Doing so might require your child to work fewer hours at their afterschool job, or volunteer less.  Remind them that it’s okay.  Their overall well-being is what matters most.

3)   Provide your child with a calming environment.

This is easier said than done but giving your teenager a warm, loving atmosphere away from the stresses they face from their teachers, coaches, and peers will encourage them to have a hopeful attitude and lead a healthy lifestyle.

4)   Be realistic with your child.

If your daughter is spending every waking moment of her weekends babysitting in order to buy that enviable (but expensive) prom gown, guide her towards a more affordable option.  If your son is determined to get into Harvard—and is starting to crack because he’s overwhelmed—point him towards esteemed colleges with higher acceptance rates.  Aim to show them that true happiness is found within, not in our society’s trademarks of success.

5)   Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms.

Urge them to take a walk or go for a run when their anxiety feels unbearable.  Inspire them to write, draw, or paint to deal with unwanted emotions.  Embolden them to participate in pro-social activities.  Embrace their desire to play, and they’ll find greater satisfaction in their endeavors and relationships.

Above all, be present for your child.  Listen.  Be patient.  Show compassion, and keep in mind that people, especially teenagers, need time and space to breathe, to listen to their internal voices, and to be creative, which our industrialized, fast-paced, and increasingly competitive society can often hinder.  Offering them the chance to find themselves amid all the noise of high expectations and peer pressure will empower them to connect with what is most valuable to them.  And that’s a beautiful thing.

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