High School (recent graduates): Fostering Academic and Social Engagement: An Investigation into the Effects of All-Girls Education in the Transition to University
Principal Investigator: Dr. Tiffani A. Riggers-Piehl, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at University of Missouri, Kansas City
Published in December 2018 Fostering Academic and Social Engagement: An Investigation into the Effects of All-Girls Education in the Transition to University focuses a lens on how graduates of all-girls schools today compare to female graduates of coed schools in terms of their academic characteristics and readiness for university. Drawing data from the well-known Freshman Survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles, the researchers used multilevel analyses to separate the effect of an all-girls education from other influences including socioeconomic differences, race/ethnicity, parent education, and the characteristics of the high schools attended. The data reveals a consistent portrait of girls’ school graduates who are more engaged academically and socially than their coeducated peers.
In summary, the researchers concluded that when compared to their female peers at coed schools, girls’ school graduates:
When I tell people I attended an all-girls school since age 4, I’m met with expressions of either confusion, shock, curiosity or some combination of the three. I get the same responses ad nauseum: Why? Was it horrible? But how did you meet boys?
Contrary to what many people immediately assume, judging from their looks of sympathy, I really enjoyed going to an all-girls school. Sure, there were times when I envied the promposals and homecoming dances I saw in movies and on American friends’ Instagrams but never actually experienced myself. But apart from that, going to a single-sex school shaped me in many valuable ways and allowed me to forge amazing friendships.
Many myths still need to be debunked when it comes to talking about single-sex education. First, I reject the idea that being in a single-sex environment renders one unable to interact with members of the opposite sex later in life. Despite this popular belief, everyone I knew at my school and other single-sex schools not only knew how to interact smoothly with members of the opposite sex, but they were also able to form actual friendships with those people outside of school time.
Although the majority of my close friends were girls, I wasn’t constantly cooped up away from the outside world. Being in a single-sex environment also encouraged me to make more friends outside of school and socialize outside of my fairly small school bubble. These experiences gave me invaluable skills, many of which I have used in my first few weeks here at Stanford in making friends and building relationships.
Another common belief about all-girls schools in particular is the overwhelming presence of drama and hostility between students. There is inevitably going to be drama in all schools and close-knit communities at some points, but I never noticed a correlation between single-sex schools and drama when talking to friends who went to coed schools. I would say that drama doesn’t depend on whether you’re at a single-sex or coed school, but rather on the personalities of the people you surround yourself with.
Coming to Stanford, I thought I would immediately notice intense differences between my 700-person, single-sex school in London, England and this 7,000-person coed college. I assumed it would feel really weird to be in classes with boys for the first time in my life.
Despite what I suspected, once on campus, none of these thoughts even crossed my mind until a few days ago. Out of the blue, I started to think about the fact that I’ve never been in a learning environment with boys before. It is sort of strange to consider that I basically learned everything I know purely surrounded by girls for 16 years of my life, despite the fact that in working environments and most other situations this will mostly not be the case. I will be forever grateful for the experiences I had and the relationships I formed in my all-girl school environment, but I’m equally so happy to be where I am now, experiencing new things every day and growing more and more in the process.
A few weeks ago, Neelam, a high school senior, was sitting in class at her Catholic school in Chicago. After her teacher left the room, a classmate began playing “Bump N’ Grind,” an R. Kelly song.
Neelam, 17, had recently watched the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” with her mother. She said it had been “emotional to take in as a black woman.”
Neelam asked the boy and his cluster of friends to stop playing the track, but he shrugged off the request. “‘It’s just a song,’” she said he replied. “‘We understand he’s in jail and known for being a pedophile, but I still like his music.’”
She was appalled. They were in a class about social justice. They had spent the afternoon talking about Catholicism, the common good and morality. The song continued to play.
That classmate, who is white, had done things in the past that Neelam described as problematic, like casually using racist slurs — not name-calling — among friends. After class, she decided he was “canceled,” at least to her.
Her decision didn’t stay private; she told a friend that week that she had canceled him. She told her mother too. She said that this meant she would avoid speaking or engaging with him in the future, that she didn’t care to hear what he had to say, because he wouldn’t change his mind and was beyond reason.
The term “canceled” “sort of spawned from YouTube,” said Ben, a high school junior in Providence, R.I. (Because of their age and the situations involved, The New York Times has granted partial anonymity to some people. We have confirmed details with parents or schoolmates.)
He talked about the YouTuber James Charles, who was canceled by the platform’s beauty community in May after some drama with his mentor, Tati Westbrook, also a YouTuber, and a vitamin entrepreneur. That was a big cancellation, widely covered, that helped popularize the term. Teenagers often bring it up.
Ben, 17, said that people should be held accountable for their actions, whether they’re famous or not, but that canceling someone “takes away the option for them to learn from their mistakes and kind of alienates them.”
His school doesn’t have much bullying, he said, and the word carries a gentler meaning in its hallways, used in passing to tease friends. Often, the joke extends beyond people. One week, after students were debating the safety of e-cigarettes and vaping, some declared that Juul was canceled.
It took some time for L to understand that she had been canceled. She was 15 and had just returned to a school she used to attend. “All the friends I had previously had through middle school completely cut me off,” she said. “Ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me.”
Months went by. Toward the end of sophomore year, she reached out over Instagram to a former friend, asking why people were not talking to her. It was lunchtime; the person she asked was sitting in the cafeteria with lots of people and so they all piled on. It was like an avalanche, L said.
Within a few minutes she got a torrent of direct messages from the former friend on Instagram, relaying what they had said. One said she was a mooch. One said she was annoying and petty. One person said that she had ruined her self-esteem. Another said that L was an emotional leech who was thirsty for validation.
“This put me in a situation where I thought I had done all these things,” L said. “I was bad. I deserved what was happening.”
Two years have passed since then. “You can do something stupid when you’re 15, say one thing and 10 years later that shapes how people perceive you,” she said. “We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.”
In her junior year, L said, things got better. Still, that rush of messages and that social isolation have left a lasting impact. “I’m very prone to questioning everything I do,” she said. “‘Is this annoying someone?’ ‘Is this upsetting someone?’”
“I have issues with trusting perfectly normal things,” she said. “That sense of me being some sort of monster, terrible person, burden to everyone, has stayed with me to some extent. There’s still this sort of lingering sense of: What if I am?”
Alex is 17, and she hears the word “canceled” every day at her high school outside Atlanta. It can be a joke, but it can also suggest that an offending person won’t be tolerated again. Alex thinks of it as a permanent label. “Now they’ll forever be thought of as that action, not for the person they are,” she said.
“It’s not like you’ll sit away from them at lunch or something,” she said. “It’s just a lingering thought in the back of your mind, a negative connotation.”
During a mock trial practice a couple of weeks before a big competition, the song “Act Up” by City Girls was playing. One of Alex’s teammates, who is of Indian descent, rapped along with the lyrics, which include a racist slur.
The students, who until that point had been chatty because their teacher wasn’t in the room, went silent. “I was the only black person in the room,” Alex said.
Alex and another friend on the team explained to their teammate why he shouldn’t have used that word. “We’re a team, so we can’t have tension exist there,” she said.
He said he understood why they were uncomfortable but that it wouldn’t necessarily prevent him from using it again when singing along. He wouldn’t take it back.
“You’re canceled, sis,” her friend told the teammate. It was partially to lighten the mood, but also partly serious.
“It’s a joke, but still, we understand you have that opinion now and we’re not going to get closer,” Alex said.
Despite his initial tough stance, the teammate didn’t rap the word again, and Alex said that he had remained respectful during practice. The team took ninth and 11th place at the competition.
It was orientation day for freshmen at Sarah Lawrence College, where one new student was unnerved by a social justice group’s presentation. The presenters discussed pronoun use and called on the entering freshmen to “‘battle heteronormativity and cisgender language,’” the student said.
Even if you accidentally misgendered someone, the new students were told, you needed to be either called out or called in. (“Called in” means to be gently led to understand your error; call-outs are more aggressive.) The presenters emphasized that the impact on the person who was misgendered was what mattered, regardless of the intent of the person who had misgendered them.
The freshman thought back to a time when her father had misgendered a friend of hers. Her father had asked her to apologize on his behalf. She did. “‘I only get mad when people intentionally try to misgender me because they feel like they have to correct who I am,’” she recalled her friend saying.
Sarah Lawrence has fewer than 1,500 undergraduates. One upperclassman she became friends with said that she had been canceled in her own freshman year.
But, this upperclassman said, the politics enforced through cancellation don’t always fit neatly into the social dynamics of college.
“I think where it loses me, we’re taking these systems that are applying huge abstract ideas of identity’s role and we’re shrinking it into these interpersonal, one-on-one, liberal arts things,” the upperclassman said.
Among the upperclassman’s friend group now, the idea of cancellation is “basically a joke.” Too many people had been canceled. At a recent party the upperclassman had attended, one guy said, “‘If you haven’t been canceled, you’re canceled.’”
One night during Mike’s freshman year at a New York state college, he and a group of friends were headed to a party downtown. As they were waiting for their Uber, someone cracked a political joke, and then the casual conversation turned confrontational. One of Mike’s friends asked his roommate, D, if he was a Trump supporter.
D had a history of making the group uncomfortable. Mike and their mutual friend Phoebe said that he would make sexist, homophobic and racist remarks in past hangouts.
D said he did support the president — an anomaly in their liberal friend group — and “blew up” at the friend who asked the question. When the friend tried to change the subject, he became more upset. Mike stepped between the two to defuse the situation. “He got in my friend’s face, and that was the last straw,” Mike said.
He tried to cool D down; it didn’t work. D called Mike a homophobic slur, multiple times. The group split up. Mike didn’t return to his dorm that night, staying at a friend’s place instead.
“Even before this, we could tell, if I weren’t roommates with him, we wouldn’t have been friends,” Mike said. “So that was the breaking point for me, him saying that when I was sticking up for him.”
D left an apology note on Mike’s desk, which mostly tried to “justify his actions,” Mike said. “That set in my mind that he didn’t really feel bad about what he did,” he said. “He just felt bad for himself, that he would be looked at in a different light.”
A couple of days later, Phoebe, Mike and D sat down and D repeated the apology. Phoebe and Mike heard him out but said it didn’t clear him of wrongdoing and that he would have to demonstrate that he was different now. Both said that while D appeared sad about losing his friends, tearing up during their discussion, he didn’t show remorse.
Other friends didn’t accept the apology. “We wouldn’t tolerate it anymore, we cut him out of our lives,” Phoebe said.
Thus canceled, D moved from sadness to frustration and anger, Phoebe said. He grew “very bitter,” she said. She noticed that he had unfollowed and blocked the group on Snapchat and other social media a few weeks later.
“He did feel bullied by this whole canceled idea,” she said. “But in this case, no one felt bad doing it, because he didn’t really take responsibility for a lot of the things he said.”
Mike, though, still lives with D. He had signed on to live with him before the ordeal. They don’t speak. D has stopped acknowledging Mike and most everyone from their old group. “I’m definitely not living with him next year,” Mike said.
Phoebe managed to keep things civil. “Every time we see him, I still say hi,” she said. Sometimes, but not always, he nods or says hi back.
(James Yang/for The Washington Post) By Phyllis FagellAugust 20 at 9:00 AM
My friend Michelle Hoffman’s son Alex, 13, was an open book when he was in elementary school. “If something good happened, we heard about it; if something bad happened, we heard about it,” she says. But in seventh grade, he entered what Hoffman calls “his grunting phase.”
“I’d ask, ‘How was school?’ and he’d say, ‘Eh.’ ” His processing shifted from external to internal, she explains, adding that, “suddenly, we weren’t part of it, and that felt really bad.”
Middle-schoolers need their parents’ support as much as — if not more than — when they were younger, but as a school counselor, I know this is when once-foolproof communication strategies can stop working. Tweens can bewilder their parents by toggling inconsistently between seeking affection and demanding privacy, soliciting advice and asserting independence.
Here are eight ways you can disrupt that dynamic, and stay connected to your child during a phase that’s defined by contradictions and flux.
Understand the developmental phase
Your middle-schooler is becoming less childlike, and “one of the forms this takes is wanting to share less with one’s parents because to kids, that can feel ‘babyish,’ ” says Lisa Damour, author of “Untangled” and “Under Pressure.” “A child who retreats to their room more often should be seen as a sign of developmental progress and not be taken personally.”
Tweens have to manage intense highs and lows and are micromanaged all day, so be prepared to talk on their time. “A lot of kids need time to restore themselves after school,” Damour says. “It’s not that they’re shutting the parent out, it’s that they need to not talk to anyone.” She adds that a common dynamic is that parents will pepper their child with questions when they first see them and the child is too exhausted to talk. Then, when the kid does want to talk about something that happened in math class or at lunch, the parent has turned their attention elsewhere.
Take the small stuff seriously
For middle-schoolers, even minor incidents can be distressing. When Sofia Flynn, now 16, attended a seventh-grade dance with friends from her old school, a few of them spent the evening making mean comments about kids across the room, saying one girl’s dress was “so ugly, it looks like a carpet.”
“I felt guilty for not saying anything, and also vulnerable, because I’d been excluded on and off in the past,” Sofia says. “That could have been me.” Later that night, she crawled into her parents’ bed and started crying. “I told my mom I felt like I didn’t belong, that I had known these friends since I was 5 and it was like outgrowing a favorite pair of pajamas.”
She still remembers how well her mother handled her distress. “She hugged me and let me blabber, and never once lectured me or said, ‘This is silly.’ ” Her mother also shared her own memories of feeling excluded. Sofia remembers thinking, “If my smart, awesome mom could be a teen and handle friend drama, then I could handle it, too.”
Recently, her mother told Sofia, “I felt like I was able to help you that night, and I wish I’d been able to do that for you more in middle school.” Sofia told her she did just fine, and the moment was meaningful precisely because it was small. “When you connect on the simple, relatable things,” she says, “you lay the groundwork for talking about the big stuff.”
Find a neutral zone
The prevailing myth is that middle-schoolers seek drama, but most hate it, and they definitely don’t want to deal with drama from parents. Before engaging in conversation, assess whether you’re able to approach your child from a stance of curiosity, not criticism.
Middle-schoolers tend to be exquisitely sensitive to any sign of disapproval, so adopt a neutral facial expression and tone, give them your full attention and don’t assume you know best. Don’t pry into their personal life or ask accusatory questions such as, “Why did you do that?” While you’re at it, eliminate the phrase “I told you so” from your language.
The middle school transition can be tough for parents, especially if they’re used to being more involved in their child’s life. Parents also may bring their own painful memories to the table. Rachel Simmons, the author of “The Curse of the Good Girl” and “Enough as She Is,”cautions parents not to over-identify with their child’s struggles, whether they relate to appearance, friendship, academics or athletics.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I revisiting my stuff or dealing with their stuff?’ ” she says. “What would you say if you knew everything would be fine? Say that.”
If you’re easily triggered, pay attention to the sensations in your body just before you lose your cool. Does your heart race? Are your shoulders tense? You may need to take a deep breath or process with a friend or partner before you talk to your child. If you do lose control, apologize.
Be clear your love is unconditional
Your middle-schooler is wrestling with identity issues and impossible cultural ideals at an age when they most want to belong and fit in. Make it clear your love is unwavering. Sofia recalls how good it felt when her parents sent her an article about LGBTQ+ issues right after she told them in seventh grade that she was questioning her sexuality.
“It was so validating,” she says, “especially in middle school, when it’s hard to know whether you’re experiencing romantic or physical attraction or a crush — or just want to be someone’s buddy.”
No matter what your child reveals, resist the temptation to say, ‘You’re too young to know.”
“If your kid is bold enough to talk to you, they just want to hear, ‘We support you no matter what, and it’s okay to try out different labels until you find the one that fits you best,’ ” Sofia adds.
Don’t put the burden on them to ask for help
Middle- schoolers often feel like an enigma to themselves, and they may not even recognize when they’re depressed, overwhelmed or need your help. That’s why 13-year-old Amelia Otte says parents should never ask a child, “Are you okay?”
“We’ll always say, ‘I’m fine,’ ” she says. “It’s the biggest lie we tell.” Once a child denies being upset, they may feel they’ve lost the chance to ask for support. Instead, Amelia advises saying, “Hey, I can tell you’re a little off. Let’s talk today.”
Experiment with different forms of communication
Talking isn’t the only way to connect. Identify interests you can explore together, whether it’s baseball, video games or dystopian novels. Sofia shares a love of music with her father and calls it “a neutral starting point for dialogue.”
“One sweet memory is the time we tried to introduce each other to the same indie rock band during a car ride,” she says, adding that her dad also once surprised her with tickets to see Taylor Swift. “He was obviously not interested in seeing Taylor Swift, but he went with me because he knew I wanted to go, and that meant a lot.”
Treat arguing and complaining as productive
“Middle-schoolers communicate by complaining, and that is them giving us a detailed account of their day,” Damour says. Rather than challenge or question their complaints, let them unload and then ask, “Do you want my advice or do you just need to vent?” One child told Damour, “When I tell my parents about my day, the only thing I want them to say back to me is, ‘That stinks.’ ”
“A complaining child is dumping the psychological trash of the day so they can go back in the next day unencumbered,” Damour adds.
Similarly, when your child argues with you, it’s because they respect you and want to know what you’re thinking.
Hoffman discovered a way to connect with her son by the time he finished seventh grade: “I told him we were curious about his day, period, and we weren’t looking for something to fix or to pry, because that’s what he believed.” She also stuck to impersonal questions, asking what his teachers had taught him rather than what he had learned. When that seemed to work, she said, “You’re talking to me again! Is it because I’m not asking anything too personal?”
“Well, yeah,” he responded.
Hoffman discovered it’s possible to connect with even the most uncommunicative middle-schooler — as long as it’s on their terms.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in the District, a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda and the author of “Middle School Matters.” She blogs at phyllisfagell.com and tweets @pfagell.
My friend Michelle Hoffman’s son Alex, 13, was an open book when he was in elementary school. “If something good happened, we heard about it; if something bad happened, we heard about it,” she says. But in seventh grade, he entered what Hoffman calls “his grunting phase.”
“I’d ask, ‘How was school?’ and he’d say, ‘Eh.’ ” His processing shifted from external to internal, she explains, adding that, “suddenly, we weren’t part of it, and that felt really bad.”
A star athlete at the college where I work recently stopped by my office. After committing a few unforced errors during a weekend match, she was — several days later — riven by self-criticism and distracted on the field.
“I can’t stop beating myself up,” she told me. “I’m at peak fitness, and I practice hard. How is this happening?”
This student, like many I teach, believes she should be able to control the outcomes of her life by virtue of her hard work. It’s a mentality verging on invincibility: a sense that all-nighters in the library, a jam-packed calendar and hours on the field should get her exactly where she needs to go in life. Nothing can stop me but myself.
I study and write about resilience in young adults, and I’m noticing a troubling spike in students like this athlete. Their faith in their own sweat equity confers a kind of contingent confidence: when they win, they feel powerful and smart. Success confirms their mindset.
The problem comes when these students fail. When they fall short of what they imagine they should accomplish, they are crushed by self-blame. If my accomplishments are mine to control, they reason, my failures must be entirely my fault, too. Failing must mean I am incapable, and maybe will be forever.This makes it incredibly difficult for students to move on.
We talk often about young adults struggling with failure because their parents have protected them from discomfort. But there is something else at play here among the most privileged kids in particular: a message transmitted to them by doting parents who have falsely promised them that they can achieve anything if they are willing to work for it.
Psychologists studying students in high-achieving schools have sourced this phenomenon to a misapplication of “mindset” research, which has found that praising children for their effort will increase academic performance. Developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and popularized in her 2006 bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, mindset education has infiltrated the classrooms around the world. But a 2018 meta-analysisfound that while so-called growth-mindset interventions, in which educators respond to their students’ challenges by praising effort (“You worked hard!”) over ability (“You’re really smart!”), may benefit high-risk or economically disadvantaged students, they do not necessarily help everyone.
One possible explanation comes from psychologists Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar, who argued in a research paper last year that teens growing up in wealthy, pressure-cooker communities are actually hurt by the message that effort equals success. For them, Luthar and Kumar wrote, “it is not a lack of motivation and perseverance that is the big problem. Instead, it is unhealthy perfectionism, and difficulty with backing off when they should, when the high-octane drive for achievements is over the top.”
The humbling, brutal, messy reality of life is that you can do everything in your power — and still fail.
When parents demand excellence in their kids while still promising them that effort is king, they tell them, wrongly, that they should be able to rise above any obstacle. But research has found that young people who push themselves onward in the face of unattainable goals experience physical and emotional stress. In a 2007 study by psychologists Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch, the authors determined that adolescent girls who refused to give up impossible goals showed elevated levels of CRP, a protein that serves as a marker of systemic inflammation linked to diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions. A 2012 study by Luthar and Samuel Barkin showed a correlation between the “perfectionist strivings” of affluent youth and their vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression.
The humbling, brutal, messy reality of life is that you can do everything in your power — and still fail. This is knowledge that comes early to underrepresented minorities on campus, including first-generation students and students of color. Their experience of discrimination and inequality teaches them early on to brace for what is, for now, largely beyond their control to change.
Yet for many others, the quixotic belief that success is always within their grasp is a setup. University of Chicago Professor Lauren Erlant calls this “cruel optimism,” or when the pursuit of a goal actually harms you because it is largely unachievable. The college admissions game promises young adults a meritocracy that will reward their hard work with entrance to the ivory tower – yet admissions scandals and ultra-thin acceptance margins make such a promise impossible to keep.
Adults help students pursue success in healthier ways in part by redefining failure as a feature, not a bug, of learning. At Smith College, where I teach, the Narratives Project asks students to explore how setbacks and missteps made them stronger or more effective. “It can be instructive to observe your own response when things don’t go your way,” said director Dr. Jessica Bacal. “It might reinforce your passion for the work you’re doing or send you in a whole new direction – and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Luthar and Kumar urge parents and teachers to spend time helping students find purpose, or goals they both genuinely love to pursue and that make an impact on the world. Researchers have found that adolescents with purpose report greater life satisfaction, have a strong sense of identity and are more psychologically mature.
Instead of allowing our kids to beat themselves up when things don’t go their way, we might all pause to question a culture that has taught them that being anything less than overwhelmed is lazy, that how they perform for others is more important than what actually inspires them and that where they go to college matters more than the kind of person they are.
The point is not to give our kids a pass on working hard and doing their best. But fantasizing that they can control everything is not really resilience. We are harming our children by implying that they can bend life to their will, and as students walk across commencement stages this year, we would be wise to remind them that life has a way of sucker-punching us when we least expect it. It’s often the people who learn to say “stuff happens” who get up the fastest.
But there is another reason for us to rethink our relationships with our devices. By chronically raising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, our phones may be threatening our health and shortening our lives.
Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.
This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.
Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.
These effects can be lifesaving if you are actually in physical danger — like, say, you’re being charged by a bull. But our bodies also release cortisol in response to emotional stressors where an increased heart rate isn’t going to do much good, such as checking your phone to find an angry email from your boss.
4 Hours a Day
If they happened only occasionally, phone-induced cortisol spikes might not matter. But the average American spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time, according to a tracking app called Moment. The result, as Google has noted in a report, is that “mobile devices loaded with social media, email and news apps” create “a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress.”
“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” says David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”
But while doing so might soothe you for a second, it probably will make things worse in the long run. Any time you check your phone, you’re likely to find something else stressful waiting for you, leading to another spike in cortisol and another craving to check your phone to make your anxiety go away. This cycle, when continuously reinforced, leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels.
And chronically elevated cortisol levels have been tied to an increased risk of serious health problems, including depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia and stroke.
“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Hacking of the American Mind.” “And our phones are absolutely contributing to this.”
In addition to its potential long-term health consequences, smartphone-induced stress affects us in more immediately life-threatening ways.
Elevated cortisol levels impair the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain critical for decision-making and rational thought. “The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s Jiminy Cricket,” says Dr. Lustig. “It keeps us from doing stupid things.”
Impairment of the prefrontal cortex decreases self-control. When coupled with a powerful desire to allay our anxiety, this can lead us to do things that may be stress-relieving in the moment but are potentially fatal, such as texting while driving.
The effects of stress can be amplified even further if we are constantly worrying that something bad is about to happen, whether it’s a physical attack or an infuriating comment on social media. (In the case of phones, this state of hypervigilance sometimes manifests as “phantom vibrations,” in which people feel their phone vibrating in their pocket when their phone isn’t even there.)
“Everything that we do, everything we experience, can influence our physiology and change circuits in our brain in ways that make us more or less reactive to stress,” says Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University.
Dr. McEwen also notes that our baseline cortisol levels ebb and flow in a regular 24-hour cycle that is thrown out of whack if we get less than seven to eight hours of sleep a night, which is all too easy to do if you’re in the habit of checking your phone before bed. This in turn leaves our bodies less resilient to stress and increases our risk of all the stress-related health conditions mentioned above.
Put this all together, and the hours we spend compulsively checking our phones may add up to much more than a waste of time.
Breaking the Cycle
The good news is that if we break this anxiety-driven cycle, we can reduce our cortisol levels, which in turn may both improve our short-term judgment and lower our risks for long-term stress-related health problems. Over time, says Dr. McEwen, it’s even possible to retrain our brains so that our stress responses are no longer on such a hair-trigger to begin with.
To make your phone less stressful, start by turning off all notifications except for the ones you actually want to receive.
Next, pay attention to how individual apps make you feel when you use them. Which do you check out of anxiety? Which leave you feeling stressed? Hide these apps in a folder off your home screen. Or, better yet, delete them for a few days and see how it feels.
And while you’re at it, start paying attention to how individual apps affect you physically, too. “If we’re not aware of our physical sensations, we’re not going to change our behaviors,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University and author of “The Craving Mind.” According to Dr. Brewer, stress and anxiety often manifest as a feeling of contraction in the chest.
Regular breaks can also be an effective way to rebalance your body’s chemistry and regain your sense of control. A 24-hour “digital Sabbath” can be surprisingly soothing (once the initial twitchiness subsides), but even just leaving your phone behind when you get lunch is a step in the right direction.
Also, try to notice what anxiety-induced phone cravings feel like in your brain and body — without immediately giving in to them. “If you practice noticing what is happening inside yourself, you will realize that you can choose how to respond,” says Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. “We don’t have to be at the mercy of algorithms that are promoting the fear of missing out.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to create healthy boundaries with devices that are deliberately designed to discourage them. But by reducing our stress levels, doing so won’t just make us feel better day-to-day. It might actually lengthen our lives.
As I read Lisa Damour’s latest book, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, I felt as if she had swooped into my counseling office and the schools where I consult to speak candidly about the girls I know. As a psychologist who specializes in adolescent girls, I counsel some patients whose symptoms—shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, rapid heartbeat, migraine headache, abdominal discomfort—are so debilitating they often spend extended periods in the nurse’s office or miss school altogether.
If you teach, advise, coach, or live with adolescent girls, then you are familiar with their unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. According to Damour, 31% of girls and young women experience anxiety compared with 13% of boys and young men. Under Pressure puts anxious girls’ otherwise perplexing behavior in context. It is a pertinent sequel to the 2016 bestselling Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. This time around, Damour—who is consulting psychologist at Laurel School (OH) and executive director of Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls—integrates her deep understanding of girls’ inner lives from her counseling work and immersion in school life with her facile knowledge of empirical literature on adolescent psychology.
After reading her book and seeing her speak about it, I noted some key takeaways for educators and school leaders.
Stress and anxiety. Stress is necessary for growth. And school, Damour notes, is actually supposed to be stressful, in the healthy way; it challenges students in order to facilitate their intellectual and emotional development. Pushing students beyond their comfort zones—academically, athletically, and socially—is what the most thoughtful independent schools do well.
“Stress becomes unhealthy,” Damour says, “when it exceeds what a person can absorb or benefit from.” The point at which that occurs is different for everyone. “Whether stress becomes unhealthy depends upon two variables: the nature of the problem and the person upon whom the problem lands,” she writes. This explains to all of us who work with students why some whose lives seem so privileged and secure might struggle emotionally while others in “objectively” difficult personal situations may seem calm and content.
She also describes how anxiety can serve as an important signal or warning sign. Damour tells a story of a patient who found herself inexplicably anxious at an ill-fated house party. In response to her nervous feelings, she (uncharacteristically) accepted a shot of liquor along with the beer she was already drinking, as she thought it would help her calm down. She ended up getting so drunk she landed in the emergency room. Damour explains how she helped the girl see that her anxiety at the party was acting as an ally, not an enemy, signaling to her that she was not in a good environment and needed to find an excuse to go home.
I’ve found that teen and even tween girls are remarkably good at understanding what might be driving their anxiety. But to use their anxiety as a friend and informant, girls need adults to be curious with them and to assume there’s probably a reason for their feelings. Using health class or advisory time to help girls reframe stress as important information encourages them to listen to themselves and restores them some control.
Coping strategies. Damour notes that while girls should avoid some situations that are truly dangerous, running away from situations that simply make them anxious is not helpful. She explains, “Everything we know in academic psychology tells us that avoidance only makes anxiety worse.”
My advice to schools is that when students have panic attacks, they should be given a space (the nurse’s office or infirmary, an advisor’s office) to let the physical symptoms such as racing heart, shaking, sweating, and dizziness subside. Once that’s happened, students should move right back into their usual routines. Otherwise, their avoidance of the place where the attack happened—a classroom, the gym, or cafeteria—can turn into habit. The fear of having another attack can become a reason to stay out of class, off the playing field, or away from school altogether.
At one school where I consulted, we assumed it best to send one student home when her panic attacks wore her out physically and emotionally (and distracted her friend group from their studies). After speaking with her outside psychologist, however, I learned that their treatment plan prescribed staying in school after panic attacks. We quickly reversed the school’s practice, and the therapist’s advice worked.
Negative stereotypes. Sometimes when members of a particular social group perform poorly on a task, it isn’t because they lack proficiency or knowledge but because they’ve internalized a negative stereotype about their group’s abilities. For example, if girls believe that they are, by virtue of their gender, not strong in math or science, they may undermine their own performance out of fear of confirming this negative stereotype. Girls often don’t know they’ve internalized the stereotype. Naming the phenomenon, Damour says, and even sharing ample evidence that contradicts the stereotype, can reduce its power over female students.
Sharing scientific evidence debunking this myth with faculty (and parents) can be useful as well. I encourage schools to assign psychologist Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi as a faculty summer reading book and to structure some conversations about how Steele’s research and concept of “stereotype threat” apply within the school community. I also recommend that schools offer a parent forum on the topic, with attention to how it affects girls and students of color in particular.
Sexuality. Damour encourages parents and teachers to talk candidly with girls about their sexuality. Talking to girls about their wishes and needs makes them less, rather than more, vulnerable to sexual coercion, she says.
High school (and some middle school) girls in my own practice describe boys requesting nude photos and sending unsolicited ones of themselves as a routine occurrence. Damour challenges schools to create technology policies that prohibit students from sending nude photos and requesting them.
I also recommend that schools include substantial technology training in a health and wellness class or advisory. This unit should detail the interpersonal and sexual aspects of digital communication and must be updated regularly, as this is a rapidly shifting and complex landscape. Keeping these conversations grounded in the complex dynamics of peer-to-peer relationships is important. According to Damour, “Experts note that adolescents aren’t enthralled by the technology—they’re enthralled by the peers at the other end of the technology they happen to be using.” I often remind parents and educators that students’ daily lives remain every bit as complex and challenging as they were before Instagram or cell phones existed.
Acknowledging that widespread anxiety affects at least one-third of female students’ ability to learn, work, and play can seem overwhelming for students and school administrators alike. Gaining a basic understanding of its mechanisms and effects can help school leaders support anxious students more effectively. Schools are uniquely positioned to help girls confront their fears and anxieties and to ensure they can utilize the stress they encounter to enhance their self-protection, motivation, and growth.
Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.
Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much timetending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.
The amount of money parents spend on children, which used to peak when they were in high school, is now highest when they are under 6 and over 18 and into their mid-20s.
Renée Sentilles enrolled her son Isaac in lessons beginning when he was an infant. Even now that he’s 12, she rarely has him out of sight when he is home.
“I read all the child-care books,” said Ms. Sentilles, a professor in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. “I enrolled him in piano at 5. I took him to soccer practices at 4. We tried track; we did all the swimming lessons, martial arts. I did everything. Of course I did.”
While this kind of intensive parenting — constantly teaching and monitoring children — has been the norm for upper-middle-class parents since the 1990s, new research shows that people across class divides now consider it the best way to raise children, even if they don’t have the resources to enact it.
There are signs of a backlash, led by so-called free-range parents, but social scientists say the relentlessness of modern-day parenting has a powerful motivation: economic anxiety. For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents. For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.
“As the gap between rich and poor increases, the cost of screwing up increases,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and inequality. “The fear is they’ll end up on the other side of the divide.”
But it also stokes economic anxiety, because even as more parents say they want to raise childrenthis way, it’s the richest ones who are most able to do so.
“Intensive parenting is a way for especially affluent white mothers to make sure their children are maintaining their advantaged position in society,” said Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University and author of “Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.”
Stacey Jones raised her two sons, now in their 20s, as a single mother in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood in Stone Mountain, Ga. She said she and other parents tried hard to give their children opportunities by finding affordable options: municipal sports leagues instead of traveling club teams and school band instead of private music lessons.
“I think most people have this craving for their children to do better and know more than they do,” said Ms. Jones, who works in university communications. “But a lot of these opportunities were closed off because they do cost money.”
“Parent” as a verb gained widespread use in the 1970s, which is also when parenting books exploded. The 1980s brought helicopter parenting, a movement to keep children safe from physical harm, spurred by high-profile child assaults and abductions (despite the fact that they were, and are, exceedingly rare). Intensive parenting was first described in the 1990s and 2000s by social scientists including Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau. It grew from a major shift in how people saw children. They began to be considered vulnerable and moldable — shaped by their early childhood experiences — an idea bolstered by advances in child development research.
The result was a parenting style that was “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive and financially expensive,” Ms. Hays wrote in her 1998 book, “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood.” And mothers were the ones expected to be doing the constant cultivation.
The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes hours in 1975 — and they worry it’s not enough. Parents’ leisure time, like exercising or socializing, is much more likely to be spent with their children than it used to be. While fathers have recently increased their time spent with children, mothers still spend significantly more.
Ms. Sentilles’s mother, Claire Tassin, described a very different way of parenting when her two children were young, in the 1970s. “My job was not to entertain them,” said Ms. Tassin, who lives in Vacherie, La. “My job was to love them and discipline them.”
Of her grandchildren, Isaac and his three cousins, she said: “Their life is much more enriched than mine was, but it definitely has been directed. I’m not saying it doesn’t work. They’re amazing. But I know I felt free, so free as a child. I put on my jeans and my cowboy boots and I played outside all day long.”
CreditAkasha Rabut for The New York Times
“My job was not to entertain them. My job was to love them and discipline them.”
Claire Tassin, 75
CreditDustin Franz for The New York Times
“There’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work.”
Renée Sentilles, 52
The new trappings of intensive parenting are largely fixtures of white, upper-middle-class American culture, but researchers say the expectations have permeated all corners of society, whether or not parents can achieve them. It starts in utero, when mothers are told to avoid cold cuts and coffee, lest they harm the baby. Then: video baby monitors. Homemade baby food. Sugar-free birthday cake. Toddler music classes. Breast-feeding exclusively. Spraying children’s hands with sanitizer and covering them in “natural” sunscreen. Throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties. Eating lunch in their children’s school cafeterias. Calling employers after their adult children interview for jobs.
The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes the idea that parents should be constantly monitoring and teaching children, even when the science doesn’t give a clear answer about what’s best. It now recommends that babies sleep in parents’ rooms for a year. Children’s television — instead of giving parents the chance to cook dinner or have an adult conversation — is to be “co-viewed” for maximum learning.
An American phenomenon
At the same time, there has been little increase in support for working parents, like paid parental leave, subsidized child care or flexible schedules, and there are fewer informal neighborhood networks of at-home parents because more mothers are working.
Ms. Sentilles felt the lack of support when it became clear that Isaac had some challenges like anxiety and trouble sleeping. She and her ex-husband changed their work hours and coordinated tutors and therapists.
“Friends are constantly texting support, but no one has time,” she said. “It’s that we’re all doing this at the same time.”
Parenthood is more hands-off in many other countries. In Tokyo, children start riding the subway alone by first grade, and in Paris, they spend afternoons unaccompanied at playgrounds. Intensive parenting has gained popularity in England and Australia, but it has distinctly American roots — reflecting a view of child rearing as an individual, not societal, task.
It’s about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis whose book, “Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving,” comes out in February. “It distracts from the real questions, like why don’t we have a safe place for all kids to go when they’re done with school before parents get home from work?”
In a new paper, Patrick Ishizuka surveyed a nationally representative group of 3,642 parents about parenting. Regardless of their education, income or race, they said the most hands-on and expensive choices were best. For example, they said children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.
“Intensive parenting has really become the dominant cultural model for how children should be raised,” said Mr. Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow studying gender and inequality at Cornell.
Americans are having fewer children, so they have more time and money to invest in each one. But investment gaps between parents of differing incomes were not always so large. As a college degree became increasingly necessary to earn a middle-class wage and as admissions grew more competitive, parents began spending significantly more time on child care, found Valerie Ramey and Garey Ramey, economists at the University of California, San Diego.
Parents also began spending more money on their children for things like preschools and enrichment activities, Sabino Kornrich, a sociologist at Emory, showed in two recent papers. Rich parents have more to spend, but the share of income that poor parents spend on their children has also grown.
In states with the largest gaps between the rich and the poor, rich parents spend an even larger share of their incomes on things like lessons and private school, found Danny Schneider, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues in a May paper. Parents in the middle 50 percent of incomes have also increased their spending. “Lower socioeconomic status parents haven’t been able to keep up,” he said.
Besides having less money, they have less access to the informal conversations in which parents exchange information with other parents like them. Ms. Jones recalled that one of her sons liked swimming, but it wasn’t until he was in high school that she learned about swim teams on which he could have competed.
“I didn’t know because I don’t live in a swim tennis community,” she said. “Unfortunately colleges and universities tend to look at these things as a marker of achievement, and I feel like a lot of kids who have working-class backgrounds don’t benefit from the knowledge.”
Race influences parents’ concerns, too. Ms. Jones said that as a parent of black boys, she decided to raise them in a mostly black neighborhood so they would face less racism, even though it meant driving farther to many activities.
This is common for middle-class black mothers, found Dawn Dow, a sociologist at the University of Maryland whose book, “Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood,” comes out in February. “They’re making decisions to protect their kids from early experiences of racism,” Ms. Dow said. “It’s a different host of concerns that are equally intensive.”
The growing backlash
Experts agree that investing in children is a positive thing — they benefit from time with their parents, stimulating activities and supportive parenting styles. As low-income parents have increased the time they spend teaching and reading to their children, the readiness gap between kindergarten students from rich and poor families has shrunk. As parental supervision has increased, most serious crimes against children have declined significantly.
But it’s also unclear how much of children’s success is actually determined by parenting.
“It’s still an open question whether it’s the parenting practices themselves that are making the difference, or is it simply growing up with college-educated parents in an environment that’s richer in many dimensions?” said Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and director of the Time Use Laboratory there. “I don’t think any of these studies so far have been able to answer whether these kids would be doing well as adults regardless, simply because of resources.”
There has been a growing movement against the relentlessness of modern-day parenting. Utah passed a free-range parenting law, exempting parents from accusations of neglect if they let their children play or commute unattended.
Psychologists and others have raised alarms about children’s high levels of stress and dependence on their parents, and the need to develop independence, self-reliance and grit. Research has shown that children with hyper-involved parents have more anxiety and less satisfaction with life, and that when children play unsupervised, they build social skills, emotional maturity and executive function.
Parents, particularly mothers, feel stress, exhaustionand guilt at the demands of parenting this way, especially while holding a job. American time use diaries show that the time women spend parenting comes at the expense of sleep, time alone with their partners and friends, leisure time and housework. Some pause their careers or choose not to have children. Others, like Ms. Sentilles, live in a state of anxiety. She doesn’t want to hover, she said. But trying to oversee homework, limit screen time and attend to Isaac’s needs, she feels no choice.
“At any given moment, everything could just fall apart,” she said.
“On the one hand, I love my work,” she said. “But the way it’s structured in this country, where there’s not really child care and there’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work? It isn’t what I think feminists thought they were signing up for.”
Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. @clairecm•Facebook
From the moment a baby is born, they start learning. They learn how to cry, eat, sleep, they poop. They start to walk and grasp their hands and, as they become little capable children who can build blocks and read short words and go on the real potty, they start to become confident beings. But that sense of confidence needs to be fostered as little kids become big kids and encounter more complex challenges and are tasked with overcoming more intense challenges. So how do parents make sure their kids have a healthy sense of confidence? We spoke to Dr. Roseanne Lesack, a certified child psychologist and director of the Unicorn Children’s Foundation Clinic at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, about five things that parents can do to instill confidence in their kids.
They Tie Their Kid’s Work Ethic To Their Success
Parents should always compliment their kids work ethic, even if they don’t get an A on their math test or win the soccer game. By making sure that parents compliment their kids on their efforts alone, kids will get a healthy sense of confidence that is tied to their own sense of being a hard working person, not on the results of those efforts. “Kids should be able to say: I’m confident in these areas, because I’ve worked hard. I’ve practiced a lot. I really want to get good at this. That’s a good thing,” says Lesack. If parents don’t stress this, kids might forget their worth if they fail at a math test despite their best efforts, which can lead to a crisis of confidence in their own self.
They Compliment Themselves In Front Of Their Kids
Confident kids come from confident parents. So don’t be shy about talking about personal qualities, skills, and successes.“Parents should talk about their own accomplishments: ‘I put in a lot of effort at this project at work, and I did a nice job because I spent time on it,’” Lesack says.When parents model positive self-talk, kids absorb that sense of self-confidence.
They Compliment Their Kids On Their Skills
Parents who want to raise kids who have a healthy sense of confidence don’t just shout “Great game!” at them until their kid knows they’re awesome. They compliment them on specific things that they did well, like, “When you made that goal in the second quarter, you had some really great footwork,” or, “At the end of the game, you played really great defense against number four.” By complimenting their kids on specific moments, they don’t give their kids an outsized sense of confidence that they’re a star for the entire game. They also, per Lesack, give their kids the tools to talk about their own strengths with specificity.
They Are Honest With Their Kids About Their Weaknesses
Parents who want to raise confident kids (who don’t become arrogant jerks) don’t lie to their kids about where they need to work harder. Now, it’s not like parents should walk around and say “You’re bad at math!” That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But parents might be able to say: “Some people need to practice more and work harder at math than the person next to them, and that’s okay.” Kids who know that they might have to put in more effort than their peers also continue to tie their self-worth to their work ethic, and don’t have an unearned sense of confidence. “Kids also need to know what they don’t know. You don’t always want your kid to be confident. In fact, you want the opposite. Because you don’t want them to be cocky,” says Lesack.
They Tie Success Back to Teamwork
Parents also don’t let their kids think that they and they alone were the reason they won the baseball or basketball game. When complimenting their kids all-star moments, they also mention their friends and say how good they did, too, and can even encourage their kids to compliment their friends on their efforts. According to Dr. Lesack, parents need to make sure that kids know that their own success didn’t occur in a vacuum — and that without the help of other, hardworking friends or study buddies, they might not have won the game or aced the test.
The news stories about parents bribing their children’s way into selective colleges is deeply unsettling on many levels, but there is—potentially—one small silver lining. These stories shine a light on what has become endemic among today’s affluent youth and their families: a single-minded, even frenzied drive to succeed in the college admission race. This pursuit of a narrow definition success is making our children sick.
In child development research, we have been watching this problem for many years. In 2009, child psychiatrists coined the term “affluenza” to refer to the costs, for children and their parents, of lifestyles excessively oriented to maximizing personal success.
The health consequences of this focus on success are real. Since the late 1990s, my colleagues and I have documented elevated rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among teens at “high-achieving schools.” These are public and private schools with excellent test scores, rich extracurricular offerings, and students heading to the best colleges. These are schools that serve mostly well-educated, relatively affluent families.
We have learned, however, that it’s not necessarily family wealth, but rather the unfettered drive to succeed that seems to be at the heart of the high distress. It is living in a culture where there is inordinately high emphasis on personal achievement and status.
The pressures related to college admissions have ramped up considerably over the years as competition has grown. There are many more talented young people applying to the same number of highly sought-after spots, and too many youngsters live by the credo, “I can, therefore I must.” Kids feel compelled to take on one extra AP course, one more sport, one more round of tutoring for the SATs, simply because they can (their schools provide them, and parents can pay for them).
The problem is intensified when high-achieving schools overly focus on “just do more” messages for their students. In the rush to get those top-notch SAT scores and college acceptances, teachers, coaches, and administrators tend to want ever-more accolades. It is rare to have adult gatekeepers who deliberately stop talented but exhausted children from taking on one extra commitment, even though these children often show clear signs of fraying. Instead, the message most commonly conveyed to kids is, believe in yourself and your efforts, and keep at it. Persevere. Do more! Is it any wonder that rates of serious depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are on the rise among students aspiring to go to the most selective colleges?
There are some who talk of today’s young as being overprotected and lacking in perseverance. I believe, quite to the contrary, that in fact these kids are terribly overworked. There is little to no time for play, just for fun; even sports and dance become just a means to an end, with successes to be pursued with grim determination. By the end of high school, too many of our young people are exhausted. And too many have not formed healthy personal relationships, which is the most fundamental ingredient for resilience in the face of stress; they simply have not had the time to develop these.
At the end of the day, what does this frenzied pursuit accomplish for kids who do get into the most selective colleges? Increasingly, there are reports of serious mental health issues in some of our nation’s most prestigious universities and colleges. So it’s not as though kids who “win the prize” become happy; in fact, by all accounts, the distress levels remain as high, if not greater.
We could react to the recent news stories by saying this is the fault or problem of a small group of wealthy parents, but that is simply not true. This insane “college pressure” is in fact much more widespread; it is a problem that generalizes to all communities with mostly white-collar professionals. As a recent report in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology shows, increases in rates of serious depression among adolescents have been particularly pronounced in high income groups ($75,000 or more), with rates growing from 7.9 percent in 2010 to 14.1 percent in 2017; a relative change of 79 percent.
That this problem is reaching serious proportions is evident in a recent report on adolescent wellness from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Listed here were the top environments that compromise teens’ well-being. The first three, in order, were exposure to poverty, trauma, and discrimination; the fourth was exposure to high pressures to achieve, usually, though not always, seen in relatively affluent communities.
Addressing this epidemic will need collaborative efforts from all adults involved. Parents and educators must closely examine how intensely they prioritize academic and extracurricular excellence—and at what cost to students’ mental health. School communities need to come together to foster greater connectedness and less rank competitiveness among students. And universities must examine their admission criteria, ensuring greater transparency and fairness, reducing “legacy” admissions, for example, from wealthy donors, and considering lottery-based selections among equally qualified applicants.
About 20 years ago, the term “privileged but pressured” was tentatively suggested in child development circles in relation to family affluence. Today, the data clearly show that the problem of pressure is real, and it is in fact very serious. The well-being of a generation is at stake here. We adults must come together to do all we can, collaboratively, to re-examine the values and goals we hold up for our children.
Listen to a recent American Psychological Association podcast episode featuring Suniya S. Luthar talking about the college admission scandal and the pyschology of affluence.