We Tell Our Kids That Hard Work Always Pays Off. What Happens When They Fail Anyway?

Time

BY RACHEL SIMMONS MAY 23, 2019

Rachel Simmons is the director of the Phoebe Reese Lewis leadership program at Smith College and the author of Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Happy, Healthy & Fulfilled Lives.

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.

Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer

By raising levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, our phone time may also be threatening our long-term health. CreditRaúl Soria

ImageCreditCreditRaúl Soria

By Catherine Price

  • April 24, 2019
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If you’re like many people, you may have decided that you want to spend less time staring at your phone.

It’s a good idea: an increasing body of evidence suggests that the time we spend on our smartphones is interfering with our sleep, self-esteem, relationships, memory, attention spans, creativity, productivity and problem-solving and decision-making skills.

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.

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.

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.

Catherine Price (@catherine_price) is the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” and creator of Screen/Life Balance.

Reflecting on Lisa Damour’s New Book About Stress and Anxiety in Girls

April 29, 2019

By Deborah Offner

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.