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.
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.
Here’s an article about one school’s efforts to limit student stress. Stress and anxiety continue to be issues of concern for us at Sacred Heart as we have hard working and accomplished students who take their work extremely seriously. We have made much progress in this area over the years through our concentration on wellness; we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist, have instituted meditation and breathing exercises, have limited the amount of homework, have created many opportunities for the girls to receive exercise and no longer publicly share our high honor’s list in grades 5-7. Are there additional areas that you think we should be concentrating on?
Crying jags over B’s and test scores are common at Lexington High School. To lift spirits, students decorated rocks that they gave to friends.CreditGretchen Ertl for The New York Times
Small rocks from the beaches of eastern Massachusetts began appearing at Lexington High School last fall. They were painted in pastels and inscribed with pithy advice: Be happy.… Mistakes are O.K.… Don’t worry, it will be over soon. They had appeared almost by magic, boosting spirits and spreading calm at a public high school known for its sleep-deprived student body.
Crying jags over test scores are common here. Students say getting B’s can be deeply dispiriting, dashing college dreams and profoundly disappointing parents.
The rocks, it turns out, were the work of a small group of students worried about rising anxiety and depression among their peers. They had transformed a storage area into a relaxation center with comfy chairs, an orange/peach lava lamp and a coffee table brimming with donated art supplies and lots and lots of rocks — to be painted and given to favorite teachers and friends. They called it the Rock Room.
“At first it was just us,” said Gili Grunfeld, a senior who helped with the effort. “Then everyone was coming in.”
So many rocks were piling up, they had to be stored in a display case near one of the cafeterias. The maxims seemed to call out to students as they headed to their classes in conceptual physics, computer programming, astronomy and Advanced Placement Music Theory.
And they became a visual reminder of a larger, communitywide initiative: to tackle the joy-killing, suicide-inducing performance anxiety so prevalent in turbocharged suburbs like Lexington. In recent years, the problem has spiked to tragic proportions in Colorado Springs, Palo Alto, Calif., and nearby Newton, Mass., where stress has been blamed for the loss of multiple young lives. In January, a senior at Lexington High School, who had just transferred from a local private school, took her own life.
Residents in this tight-knit hamlet, with its high level of civic engagement, are hoping to stem the tide. Mary Czajkowski, the district superintendent, was hired in 2015 with the mandate of “tackling the issue head on.”
Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues. Last October, more than 300 people crammed into the town hall for a screening of “Beyond Measure,” a sequel to Vicki Abeles’s documentary on youth angst, “Race to Nowhere.”
“We want to be a model,” said Jessie Steigerwald, a longtime school board member.
But it has not been easy.
Claire Sheth, a mother of four who had invited Ms. Abeles to town, describes Lexington students as “tired to the core.” Students say depression is so prevalent that it affects friendships, turning teenagers into crisis counselors. “A lot of kids are trying to manage adult anxiety,” said the principal, Laura Lasa.
The problem is not anecdotal. In a 2015 national health survey, 95 percent of Lexington High School students reported being heavily stressed over their classes and 15 percent said they had considered killing themselves in the last year. Thinking about it most often were Asian and Asian-American students — 17 percent of them, as is the case nationally.
The town’s growing Asian community has not been timid acknowledging the problem. Through college forums and chat rooms, a group of parents and leaders of the local Chinese-American and Indian-American associations have been working to lower the competitive bar and realign parental thinking. Others are pushing back. They don’t want the workload reduced — they moved here for the high-rigor schools. At association meetings, where the tension is most pronounced, discussions about academic competition in the district have brought some to tears.
Indeed, reversing the culture is complicated in a town that prides itself on sending dozens of students to the Ivy Leagues: 10 went to Harvard last year and seven to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Young people are lauded at school board meetings and online for having published academic papers or performed at Lincoln Center. Last year, the varsity team placed second in the 2016 History Bowl nationals and fourth in the National Science Bowl. The robotics team has qualified for the FIRST Championship, an international technology and engineering competition, for five of the last six years.
After school recently at the public library, which was packed with students poring over textbooks, calculus work sheets, lab reports and term papers, a sophomore looked up from her world history textbook and said, “You see all these people? They want the same thing — that’s really overwhelming.” What they want: Entry into a top colleges when acceptance rates are at an all-time low.
Lexington looks and feels like a lot of other affluent suburbs: serene, stately, with a whiff of muted money. Minivans and aging Volvos are packed with violins and well-worn soccer gear. There are meticulously restored Colonials and Tudor revivals. Walk along the red brick sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue, which cuts through the center of town, and Lexington’s Brahmin past is evident: a statue on the Battle Green of a musket-toting Captain John Parker, who led the fight against the British in 1775.
In evidence as well are signs of the burgeoning biotech industry, and the changing face of America’s elite.
Since 2000, the Asian population has ballooned from 11 percent to an estimated 22 percent of Lexington’s 32,000 or so residents, surpassing Newton (at about 13 percent) and Cambridge (15 percent). Today, more than a third of Lexington’s students are Asian or Asian-American. The demographic mirrors the migration of Asian families to suburbs across the country.
In the Crafty Yankee or the Asian bakery across the street, you are likely to bump into electrical engineers from Seoul, physicists from Beijing and biochemists from Boston. They teach at Harvard (10 miles away) and run labs at M.I.T. (11 miles). They hold top positions in the pharmaceutical companies that dot the Boston-area tech corridor. More than half of the adults in Lexington have graduate degrees. And many want their children to achieve the same.
In many ways, students in Lexington are the byproduct of the self-segregation that Enrico Moretti writes about in his book “The New Geography of Jobs,” which addresses the way well-educated, tech-minded adults cluster in brain hubs. For their children, that means ending up in schools in which everyone is super bright and hypercompetitive. It’s hard to feel special.
Best-selling authors and child psychologists have long urged parents to divest themselves from their child’s every accomplishment, thereby sending the message that mental health matters more than awards. In Lexington, the attack is more comprehensive, involving schools, neighborhoods, churches and synagogues. It is riffing off research that shows that resilience and happiness, reinforced by the entire community, can be just as contagious as stress and depression.
“You need to bring along everybody,” said Ms. Abeles, whose campaign has taken her to towns with similar communitywide efforts, including Elkins Park, Penn., San Ramon and Burbank, Calif., and New Rochelle, N.Y.
Peter Levine, associate dean for research at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, says that communities that bond to promote pro-social behavior can be powerful inoculators for young people.
“Family problems are often community problems,” he said. “They need community solutions.”
No one is more aware of this than Ms. Lasa, who grew up here, earned degrees from nearby Springfield College and Lesley University, and then returned to the district — watching all the while as the population morphed from relatively laid back to Type A. She often wakes to emotional emails from parents delivered to her inbox after midnight. Most, she says, are about their children’s academic standing, and the tone is often disappointment.
Last fall, as 557 bright-eyed freshmen gathered in cushioned folding chairs in the auditorium for orientation, she gave a speech that over the last few years has come to focus more and more on stress reduction. She begged the students to make mistakes. “Do not believe that you must acquire straight A’s to be a successful student,” she said. “If you and/or your parents are caught up in society’s picture of success, let us help you change the focus.”
Students are now required to meet with counselors when choosing courses to talk about their academic loads. The practice is largely seen as a way of keeping students from overscheduling to beef up their college transcripts.
“We are trying to change a culture that is deeply rooted here,” Ms. Lasa told me in a sunny Boston accent as she barreled through the school. She was showing off the 45-minute free period she instituted this year, allowing — or in some cases, forcing — students to take time to unwind. Some were playing basketball in the gym. Others were talking with teachers. A few hung out in classrooms, chatting with friends. An awful lot, though, were getting a head start on homework.
Ms. Lasa says she is trying to “balance all the messages” they are getting about success and happiness. The one she wants to most impart is: “Slow down.”
The paradox of Lexington High School is that while indicators of anxiety abound, so too does an obsession with happiness. A large banner from the town’s newly formed suicide prevention group, a chapter of the national organization Sources of Strength, greets students as they enter the sprawling red brick building, proclaiming: “Be a Part of Happiness.” There are close to 50 students in the group. Below the banner are remnants of their project to spread positivity. Students were asked to write down their sources of strength, which were then posted beneath the banner and on Facebook. Some named their pets or friends. One wrote: “My mom.” Another: “Trip to Israel!” A girl with green hair: “Chicken curry.”
One morning in February, students in “Positive Psychology: The Pursuit of Happiness,” a popular elective, were following up on a discussion about the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory, which posits that negative emotions like anxiety and fear prompt survival-oriented behaviors, while positive emotions expand awareness, spurring new ideas, creativity and eventually building skills.
“Today, we are going to look at pretty simple ways to make it more likely that you experience positive emotions on a day-to-day basis,” Matthew Gardner told his “Happiness” students as they pulled out notebooks and pencil cases. The class discussed the benefits of exercise and eating foods that release feel-good hormones. The students also learned that smiling and being smiled at releases dopamine, which has an uplifting impact.
Mr. Gardner offered an alternative to smiling: “Our brains are not so perfect that, sometimes, if you hold a pen or pencil like this” — he held a pencil between his teeth — “you activate some of the same face muscles. You might get a little bit of a dopamine effect, too.”
Several students held pencils between their teeth to test the theory.
At one point, the class practiced laughter yoga, raising their arms slowly as they breathed in, then lowering them as they breathed out, and bursting into peels of laughter. Afterward, the students recorded changes in their pulse rate to demonstrate research from the HeartMath Institute that shows heart rates slow down and smooth out after bouts of good feeling.
“It’s not just that your heart rate goes down and you become very calm,” Mr. Gardner explained. “It’s that the shape of your heart rate is smooth and more controlled. Frustration is more jagged.”
Their homework assignment: Do laughter yoga or “smile at five people you wouldn’t normally smile at.”
The effects of smiling are also taught in the A.P. Psychology class that Gili Grunfeld is taking, and it has informed her thoughts on stress. On a winter afternoon, she and several classmates were uncoiling in the Rock Room, making friendship bracelets and sketching in fat coloring books. A Post-it that read “Unplug” was taped to the wall clock. The students were bemoaning how so many of their peers develop “tunnel vision,” in Gili’s words, about schoolwork and extracurricular activities, sacrificing sleep and time with friends.
“They isolate for academics,” she said glumly.
Soon the students had changed topics, and were discussing the ice that had caked the school parking lot that morning and how to balance on it. The subtext, once again, was well-being: How much can friends support each other if both feel overwhelmed?
“Are we more likely to fall or are we more steady if we hold onto each other?” asked Jocelyn Geller, a junior.
“I feel like if you have a friend with you, you feel safer,” said Millie Landis, a sophomore, pulling Jocelyn up and wobbling on the floor with her to demonstrate. “But you could pull each other down.”
The district has increased the number of counselors and social workers, including those working in the district’s elementary schools, and expanded the training they receive in identifying and supporting at-risk students.
Cynthia Tang, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, has been a counselor at Lexington High for 12 years. Warm and well-liked, she organizes workshops addressing the pressure on Asian students to succeed, borrowing insights from the childhood discord she experienced with her own parents as well as research on biculturalism. Studies show that the less assimilated parents are to American culture, the more stressed the children.
Adding to the pressure, she says, are cultural differences in how parents, raised abroad, and their offspring, raised in the United States, are expected to process setbacks and strife: American educators routinely encourage students to share their feelings; not so in Asia.
“I really see a lot of this being bicultural conflict,” Ms. Tang said. “When you have one side of the family holding one set of values and the other embracing a new set of values, that inherently creates a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of tension.”
Ms. Tang says that the disconnect is compounded by a lack of knowledge about the various routes to success available in the United States. Last year, she was brought in by the vice president of the local Chinese-American Association, Hua Wang, to help plan the college forum, a three-hour event on Father’s Day. Dr. Wang, an engineering professor at Boston University, wanted to shift the focus away from a guide on applying to top colleges.
Despite resistance from the organizers, he and Ms. Tang prevailed. At the forum, she presented a slide show celebrating the academic trajectories of respected Chinese-Americans: the fashion designer Vera Wang went to Sarah Lawrence College; Andrew Cherng, the founder of the fast-food chain Panda Express, went to Baker University in Kansas; the best-selling author Amy Tan, San José State University. Parents were surprised. But, Ms. Tang said, “I think a lot of parents felt like: ‘What do I do with that information?’”
This year, organizers will delve deeper into the differences between the Chinese and American systems, and are planning to add another new element: a panel discussion on combating stress. Dr. Wang said they want to showcase families who have adopted a more “holistic view” of education. Selected parents of graduating seniors will be asked to talk about how they encouraged their children to get enough sleep, comforted them when they came home with B’s and discouraged them from skipping ahead in math to be eligible for higher level classes earlier.
This would not be the only time that Dr. Wang has engaged in this kind of dialogue. Using the Mandarin words “danding,” which means to keep calm and steady, and “ruizhi,” which means wise and farsighted, he has initiated conversations on WeChat, an online chat room popular among Chinese parents. Recently, he told them: “Calmness and wisdom from the parents are the Asian child’s greatest blessings.”
But the message was not well received by everyone. Among the posted responses: “If your child gets a C, how do you get to a point of calm? You think we should be satisfied because at least he didn’t get a D?” And: “But my heart still whispers: Am I not just letting my child lose at the starting line?”
One parent, Melanie Lin, found herself, too, in a heated conversation on WeChat after early-admissions decisions arrived last school year. She urged the other parents to stop bragging on the site about acceptance letters to top-tier schools: “If it’s only those students who are attending the big-name schools that are being congratulated, then the idea being passed on is that only those students are successful, and attending a big-name school is the only way to become the pride of your parents.”
Dr. Lin, who works at a pharmaceutical company, emigrated in the 1990s from Beijing to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Arizona State University. She says her rebuttal annoyed even close friends, whose online responses accused her of trying to deny parents and their children their moments in the spotlight.
Recounting the conversation with me brought Dr. Lin to tears. “There is just so much pressure,” she said. For her, the struggles are not theoretical. On the home front, she too can be just as obsessed as her peers, she says.
Her daughter, Emily, would agree. During junior year, she dreaded car rides and family dinners — any time, really, that she was alone with her parents — because conversations routinely veered back to college. Now a senior, Emily has eight A.P. and 13 honors classes under her belt. She is also a violinist, choral singer, competitive swimmer and class vice president.
For a chunk of her high school career, Emily was one of those who “isolated for academics,” working into the early morning hours on homework and waking up, sometimes before dawn, after only five or so hours of sleep. She skipped birthday parties and lunch to squeeze in more studying. “I was never doing anything for pure fun,” she said. “I put my head down and I was always running somewhere with some purpose.”
But as a member of a youth board for a teen counseling center in town, she realized that her study habits were unhealthy. To get support for herself and others, she helped launch the town’s Sources of Strength chapter. She has assisted in planning student outreach events and spoke up at a town meeting about “the dog-eat-dog” competition that still persists at the high school.
Homework remains heavy, students say, particularly in high-level classes. Class rankings may be gone but students have a pretty good sense of where they stand. And while there has been talk of a later start time to the day so students can get more sleep, the idea is on hold.
In December, when early decisions came in, Emily found out she was deferred to the regular admissions pool by Yale, her top choice. Parents on WeChat were more sensitive this time around, but accepted seniors still bragged on Facebook.
Since then, Emily has been admitted to nine universities; rejected by three, including Yale; and waitllisted by Harvard and the University of Chicago. She is deciding between Columbia and Duke.
Through it all, she has wondered if it’s worth it.
“I lost out on a lot of high school,” she had told me as she waited for college decisions. What she hopes is that students who come after her find some balance before their time at Lexington is up.
Almost four million American teenagers have just started their freshman year of high school. Can they learn better ways to deal with all that stress and insecurity?
New research suggests they can. Though academic and social pressurescontinue to pile on in high school, teenagers can be taught effectivecoping skills to skirt the pitfalls of anxiety and depression.
David S. Yeager, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading voice in the growing effort to help college students stay in school, has been turning his attention to younger teenagers to help shore up their resilience at an earlier age.
His latest study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found a surprisingly effective technique. At the beginning of the school year, students participated in a reading and writing exercise intended to instill a basic, almost banal message to help them manage tension: People can change.
The students who completed the exercise subsequently had lower levels of stress, reported more confidence in coping and achieved slightly higher grades at year’s end, compared to a control group. These results were measured through the students’ self-reporting in online diaries and through cardiovascular and hormone measurements.
The studies are small. Some 60 students, recruited from the Rochester, N.Y., area, participated in the first trial; the second involved 205 ninth graders from a high school in suburban Austin, Tex. In 2017, researchers will try to reproduce these results on a larger scale, in some 25 high schools across the country.
Adults played no significant part in the exercise, researchers said. Students essentially taught themselves this mental buffer, and when they were inevitably rattled by social stress, they had a reassuring interpretation ready to frame it.
John R. Weisz, a psychology professor at Harvard who was not involved in the research, found the approach efficient and powerful. “If you’re an adolescent and you experience social harm, it’s not fixed that you will always be a target. You can change,” he said. “And over time, others can change, too. They may mellow and not be so cruel. That’s an interesting twist for kids to learn, and a good one.”
First, students read a short, engaging article about brain science, describing how personality can change. Then they read anecdotes written by seniors about high school conflicts, reflecting how they were eventually able to shrug things off and move on. Finally, the students themselves were asked to write encouraging advice to younger students.
Dr. Yeager and his colleagues have so far tried this intervention in five schools. In one study, 300 high school freshmen used this same method; nine months later, the prevalence of depression they reported was 40 percent less than in a control group.
If the results remain robust after the 2017 trials, Dr. Yeager plans to release the intervention material for free through a Stanford University project that provides learning support for students.
The breadth and depth of adolescent depression and anxiety is well established. A 2015 study found that nearly 11 percent of teenagers experience depression; other reports have even higher figures. Between sixth and 10th grade, the rate of depression doubles for boys and nearly triples for girls. And studies show that while a large percentage of teenagers face high stress on a daily basis, rates of coping skills are weak.
Dr. Yeager’s intervention suggests that if teenagers can hold onto a long view, they can soldier through immediate mortifications at the cafeteria lunch table. The takeaway: You are not doomed to be excluded forever. Neither your personality nor that of your tormentor’s is frozen.
The latest results from Dr. Yeager’s study are drawn from two related trials.
In the first, 60 students, ages 14 to 17, were assessed for baseline cardiovascular activity and levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Then half the students received the following intervention:
First, they read the science article, which was chatty and informative and presented as new, insider information about how personality could evolve. Next, they read accounts by seniors which, in effect, proved the article’s thesis.
“When I was a freshman,” one wrote, “I felt left out when everyone got invited to one of my friend’s house and I didn’t. It’s like … they forgot about me. Or even worse that they thought about me but didn’t think I was cool enough to get invited.”
But, the writer continued, “No matter how much it hurt, it wasn’t going to last forever. … They might even realize how much pain they were causing others and decide to change.”
The student made friends outside of school, became involved in clubs and sports and, in time, “things definitely improved.”
After reading the science article and the older students’ narratives, the students in the study were asked to reflect on a time when they felt rejected. Then they were given a writing assignment: Looking back, what advice about change would you pass on to younger students?
Finally, both the intervention group and the control group were assigned stressful tasks: Give a five-minute speech about what factors make teenagers popular. Then, count backward, aloud, from 996 — by sevens.
Afterward, students who received the intervention showed half the cardiovascular reactivity of the control group. Their levels of cortisol dropped by 10 percent; they were coping. By contrast, the cortisol levels in the control group increased by 45 percent.
Dr. Yeager believes it helps that the teenagers learned coping skills in a lecture-free zone. “The more adults tell kids how to deal with their social life, the less kids want to do it that way,” he said.
“We’re asking kids to persuade other kids,” he added. “That feels respectful to them, and motivating. It’s a chance to matter. As these freshmen reflect on how they coped in middle school, the exercise forces them to put things in perspective.”
The second study compared 205 ninth graders in one school, half of whom received the intervention. All of them filled out a standardized online diary for a week, noting each day’s stressful events.
On days recorded as stressful, the intervention students showed a 10 percent decrease in cortisol and said they could manage the stresses. In contrast, the control group showed an 18 percent increase in cortisol on stressful days and said they “couldn’t handle” the stress.
At the end of the year, the intervention students had grades that were slightly higher than the control group’s.
Laurence Steinberg, a professor of adolescent psychology at Temple University, said there has been much discussion about what schools can do to bolster students’ social and emotional skills.
Research has shown, he said, that “if kids believed intelligence was fixed, they would believe nothing could be done. But if you could change their belief to think that intelligence was malleable and incremental, their academic performance would improve.”
Dr. Yeager, he added, has been applying this idea to personality.
“This intervention is not a self-esteem enhancer, which is a failed model,” Dr. Steinberg said. “But it does boost kids’ self-confidence by changing their belief in their own ability to change.”
It’s long been known that meditation helps children feel calmer, but new research is helping quantify its benefits for elementary school-age children. A 2015 study found that fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in a four-month meditation program showed improvements in executive functions like cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility — and better math grades. A study published recently in the journal Mindfulness found similar improvements in mathematics in fifth graders with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And a study of elementary school children in Korea showed that eight weeks of meditation lowered aggression, social anxiety and stress levels.
These investigations, along with a review published in March that combed the developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience literature, illustrate how meditative practices have the potential to actually change the structure and function of the brain in ways that foster academic success.
Fundamental principles of neuroscience suggest that meditation can have its greatest impact on cognition when the brain is in its earliest stages of development.
This is because the brain develops connections in prefrontal circuits at its fastest rate in childhood. It is this extra plasticity that creates the potential for meditation to have greater impact on executive functioning in children. Although meditation may benefit adults more in terms of stress reduction or physical rejuvenation, its lasting effects on things like sustained attention and cognitive control are significant but ultimately less robust.
A clinical study published in 2011 in The Journal of Child and Family Studies demonstrates this concept superbly. The research design allowed adults and children to be compared directly since they were enrolled in the same mindfulness meditation program and assessed identically. Children between 8 and 12 who had A.D.H.D. diagnoses, along with parents, were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-training program. The results showed that mindfulness meditation significantly improved attention and impulse control in both groups, but the improvements were considerably more robust in the children.
Outside of the lab, many parents report on the benefits of early meditation. Heather Maurer of Vienna, Va., who was trained in transcendental meditation, leads her 9-year-old daughter, Daisy, through various visualization techniques and focused breathing exercises three nights a week, and says her daughter has become noticeably better at self-regulating her emotions, a sign of improved cognitive control. “When Daisy is upset, she will sit herself down and concentrate on her breathing until she is refocused,” Ms. Maurer said.
Amanda Simmons, a mother who runs her own meditation studio in Los Angeles, has seen similar improvements in her 11-year-old son, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum. Jacob also has A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder, but Ms. Simmons said many of his symptoms have diminished since he began daily meditation and mantra chants six months ago. “The meditation seems to act like a ‘hard reboot’ for his brain, almost instantly resolving mood swings or lessening anger,” Ms. Simmons said. She believes it has enabled him to take a lower dose of Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder.
Whether children are on medication or not, meditation can help instill self-control and an ability to focus. Perhaps encouraging meditation and mind-body practices will come to be recognized as being as essential to smart parenting as teaching your child to work hard, eat healthfully and exercise regularly.
Student wellness is constantly in our thoughts at Sacred Heart. The topic is especially compelling as independent schools, especially in the Northeast, tend to be pressure cookers as students vie for admissions to the best colleges, and as the parents of our students tend to be hard working over-achievers. As a school, we feel compelled to have outstanding programs in so many different areas – academics, arts, athletics and service. Many of our students then feel the need to be involved in and excel in many different areas, which then leads to stress.
We have also worked hard at Sacred Heart to ensure we are promoting balance for our students. The unique mission of a Sacred Heart school gives us “permission” to concentrate on other activities that promote wellness – such as faith, service, fun and the ability for our girls to be themselves without worrying about how boys will react. Like the school in the article, we’ve implemented nightly homework limits and have eliminated homework over vacations. Health classes, advisory activities, arts, sports and physical education also promote balance with our girls. Despite these many efforts, we know some girls still find our environment to be rather stressful. Our hope is that our small community and nurturing faculty will help us recognize those who are feeling pressure. Parents should contact us immediately if they feel their daughter is experiencing an unhealthy amount of stress.
STUART SLAVIN, a pediatrician and professor at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, knows something about the impact of stress. After uncovering alarming rates of anxiety and depression among his medical students, Dr. Slavin and his colleagues remade the program: implementing pass/fail grading in introductory classes, instituting a half-day off every other week, and creating small learning groups to strengthen connections among students. Over the course of six years, the students’ rates of depression and anxiety dropped considerably.
But even Dr. Slavin seemed unprepared for the results of testing he did in cooperation with Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., a once-working-class city that is increasingly in Silicon Valley’s orbit. He had anonymously surveyed two-thirds of Irvington’s 2,100 students last spring, using two standard measures, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. The results were stunning: 54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.
“This is so far beyond what you would typically see in an adolescent population,” he told the school’s faculty at a meeting just before the fall semester began. “It’s unprecedented.” Worse, those alarming figures were probably an underestimation; some students had missed the survey while taking Advanced Placement exams.
What Dr. Slavin saw at Irvington is a microcosm of a nationwide epidemic of school-related stress. We think of this as a problem only of the urban and suburban elite, but in traveling the country to report on this issue, I have seen that this stress has a powerful effect on children across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control. On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life. Children living in poverty who aspire to college face the same daunting admissions arms race, as well as the burden of competing for scholarships, with less support than their privileged peers. Even those not bound for college are ground down by the constant measurement in schools under pressure to push through mountains of rote, impersonal material as early as preschool.
Yet instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children’s health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick.
Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.
At the other end of the age spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure.
“I’m talking about 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds who are coming in with these conditions. We never used to see that,” says Lawrence Rosen, a New Jersey pediatrician who works with pediatric associations nationally. “I’m hearing this from my colleagues everywhere.”
What sets Irvington apart in a nation of unhealthy schools is that educators, parents and students there have chosen to start making a change. Teachers are re-examining their homework demands, in some cases reviving the school district’s forgotten homework guideline — no more than 20 minutes per class per night, and none on weekends. In fact,research supports limits on homework. Students have started a task force to promote healthy habits and balanced schedules. And for the past two years, school counselors have met one on one with every student at registration time to guide them toward a manageable course load.
“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” said one Irvington teacher, who has seen the problem worsen over her 16 years on the job.
A growing body of medical evidence suggests that long-term childhood stress is linked not only with a higher risk of adult depression and anxiety, but with poor physical health outcomes, as well. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study, a continuing project of the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, shows that children who experience multiple traumas — including violence, abuse or a parent’s struggle with mental illness — are more likely than others to suffer heart disease, lung disease, cancer and shortened life spans as adults. Those are extreme hardships but a survey of the existing science in the 2013 Annual Review of Public Health suggested that the persistence of less severe stressors could similarly act as a prescription for sickness.
“Many of the health effects are apparent now, but many more will echo through the lives of our children,” says Richard Scheffler, a health economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We will all pay the cost of treating them and suffer the loss of their productive contributions.”
Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping, our kids’ prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn’t escaped their professors, only 14 percent of whom believethat their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 report. Just 29 percent of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today’s workplace. Both of those numbers have plummeted since 2004.
Contrary to a commonly voiced fear that easing pressure will lead to poorer performance, St. Louis medical school students’ scores on the medical boards exams have actually gone up since the stress reduction strategy was put in place.
At Irvington, it’s too early to gauge the impact of new reforms, but educators see promising signs. Calls to school counselors to help students having emotional episodes in class have dropped from routine to nearly nonexistent. The A.P. class failure rate dropped by half. Irvington students continue to be accepted at respected colleges.
There are lessons to be learned from Irvington’s lead. Working together, parents, educators and students can make small but important changes: instituting everyday homework limits and weekend and holiday homework bans, adding advisory periods for student support and providing students opportunities to show their growth in creative ways beyond conventional tests. Communities across the country — like Gaithersburg, Md., Cadiz, Ky., and New York City — are already taking some of these steps. In place of the race for credentials, local teams are working to cultivate deep learning, integrity, purpose and personal connection. In place of high-stakes childhoods, they are choosing health.
With extracurricular-driven“superkids” and homework horror stories driving media headlines, it begs the question: Are today’s students truly overworked to the point of mental and physical health risks? Research suggests that the rigors through which we push many students are not enough to warrant panic, though that may not be true across the board.
In 2006, three researchers—Joseph Mahoney, Angel Harris, and Jacquelynne Eccles—evaluated whether students truly were overscheduled. They hypothesized that the pressures from families and schools to succeed academically and professionally would push the average student to overextending his or her commitments, leading to health and social adjustment problems. Their study encompassed some 5,000 families nationwide with students ages 5 through 18 from a broad socioeconomic range.
The study found that there was, in fact, “very limited empirical support for the overscheduling hypothesis.” Only 3-6% of students spent 20 or more hours a week participating in extracurricular, organized activities. The average American student, in comparison, spends about 5 hours weekly enjoying organized activities, and 40% of studied students spend no time in extracurriculars at all.
The researchers also found that those students who spend 20 or more hours in an organized activity tended to be at least as well adjusted socially as “youth who did not participate” in extracurriculars. This finding runs counter to the image of highly motivated students as isolated hermits, scribbling on papers from dawn until dusk after five hours of soccer practice.
The study went on to verify the commonly held belief that participation in extracurriculars is good for a developing child’s well-being, including “academic achievement, school completion, post-secondary educational attainment, psychological adjustment, and lowered rates of smoking and drug use, to the quantity and quality of interactions with their parents.” Plus, the more a student participated in organized activities, the researchers found that the benefits of those activities either accrued or plateaued—not decreased.
The research team revisited their conclusions in 2012. They found that not only did their original conclusions continue to hold true, but also continued into early adulthood. Heavily involved students from the first study exhibited “lower psychological distress, and higher educational attainment and civic engagement” later in life.
Of course, not all studies concur with the conclusions drawn by Mahoney and his compatriots. In 2006, Dr. Shawn Latendresse, professor at Baylor University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, ran a similar study specifically examining the relationship between affluence and parenting styles and its subsequent influence on students’ social maturity.
His conclusions indicate that, on average, students from affluent families gradually became less socially well-adjusted over their academic career, with some cases showing greater maladjustment than adolescents in low-income, high-risk neighborhoods. Dr. Latendresse further demonstrates correlations between overbearing parenting styles—including overscheduling of extracurricular activities—and an increased risk of impeded social development.
So while overscheduling may not be a problem for the majority of students (even students coming from higher socioeconomic backgrounds), the possibility of overburdening students exists and should be considered when discussing the benefits of extracurricular activities and challenging courses with families.
PALO ALTO, Calif. — PALO ALTO HIGH SCHOOL, one of the nation’s most prestigious public secondary schools, is sandwiched between two stark and illusory paths. Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal, a symbol of the road to Google, the White House, the mansion on the hill. To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.
Suicide clusters are relatively rare, accounting for about 5 percent of teenage suicides. Startlingly, this year’s is the second contagion to visit this city. Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.
Experts say such clusters typically occur when suicide takes hold as a viable coping mechanism — as a deadly, irrational fashion. But that hasn’t stopped this community from soul searching: Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame for this cluster?
The answer is complex, bordering on the contradictory: No, the pressure to succeed is not unique, nor does it cause a suicide cluster in itself, but the intense reflection underway here has unearthed a sobering reality about how Silicon Valley’s culture of best in class is playing out in the schools.
In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.
“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”
Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”
But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.
“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.
Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.
“We are not teenagers,” Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an editorial in the local paper in response to the suicides. She described students as “lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition” and wrote of going to the emergency room to deal with stress, missed periods and having “a panic attack in the middle of a 30-person class and be forced to remain still.”
There has been lots of talk in the community about what to do, she wrote, but action has not followed. (The district is providing counseling services, offering a suicide-prevention kit and urging teachers to limit homework hours.)
“Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises,” she wrote, and noted: “We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.”
THIS curious idea of a rhetorical divide came up in a number of recent discussions with parents and their children. In one conversation about the suicides, a mother at a Bay Area school in a similarly high-achieving community told me how little pressure she puts on her teens and noted by way of an anecdote how she had succeeded: Her daughter, she proudly recounted, was so well balanced that she decided last year not to go to the best college she got into but, rather, the school that best fit her passions. The school was Vassar.
In this subtle linguistic slip, Vassar qualified as a second-rate school.
Esther Wojcicki, the teacher who oversees the Palo Alto High School newspaper, lamented the competitive environment but noted seconds later that the school paper had just won a “Gold Crown” award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and that the two dozen students sitting at computer terminals at 4 p.m. that day were thrilled to stay until 9 p.m. to put out the school magazine because they have so much fun doing it.
Alan Eagle, a sales director at Google whose 17-year-old son, William, is a junior at Gunn, was frank about the distance between what he tells his son and what he means.
“I can say all I want that it doesn’t matter where my son goes to college,” Mr. Eagle told me. But “I’m sure that as much as I preach that, I’m not being 100 percent authentic and frank.”
He added: “I personally went to Dartmouth and it did help. I look at the economy, the difference between haves and have-nots, and I believe a college education is critical.”
And a rich high school experience, too. A few minutes later, while acknowledging that his son had given up playing on the basketball team to study more, Mr. Eagle noted that “at least he’s still got track.”
Glenn McGee, the district’s superintendent, also seemed to struggle to walk the line between celebrating the exceptional nature of this area while urging students to relax. Sitting in his office and looking across the street at the Stanford campus, he mourned the fact that some parents feel that such a school is the only acceptable outcome.
“In many cases, people have made a big sacrifice to live in this community,” Dr. McGee said, referring to exorbitant housing costs (the median housing price last year was $3.3 million, making it the fourth most-expensive ZIP code in the country, according to Richard Florida, an academic who studies demographic trends). Characterizing the attitude of many parents, Dr. McGee said, “To be blunt, what is my return on investment?”
“My job is not to get you into Stanford,” he said he tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”
Some parents hear it, he said, but “a lot of families and parents don’t hear the message and say: compete and compete.”
Dr. McGee said he had interviewed 300 students and found that half would be “really embarrassed” to tell their friends they got a B. But the truth is that it’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve: The SAT scores are so high on average that a student who finishes in the 75th percentile in the district has a 2,200, the 99th percentile in general for college-bound seniors.
Soon after lamenting the pressure, Dr. McGee raved about a student who was part of a math team that finished first in January in a national competition, and about the new performing arts center under construction, and about the coming $24 million athletic facility funded by a private family foundation.
And why wouldn’t he rave? Why not be thrilled by achievement?
Because the bar for academic success here has become so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.
It puts enormous pressure on a school, or a community, when such consistent, across-the-board greatness becomes a baseline of sorts — what Mr. Eagle described as a culture of “not just excellence but uber-excellence.”
Perhaps that explains some of the doublespeak: Parents are searching for language to encourage their children, even push them, but not crush them.
One solution, said Ms. Pope of Stanford, is “downtime, playtime, family time.” For parents, too. In other words: Take a leap of faith (well supported by science) that downtime will lead to a healthier perspective.
Dr. Morton Silverman, a psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggested that another answer is recognizing that the doublespeak also betrays a sense of terror about the future among both students and parents.
With the economy in flux and the income gap growing, parents don’t see a clear path anymore to financial stability — even here, maybe especially here, where things move fast and competition is fierce. In addition, many of the fortunes made here have been based on creating things that destabilize traditional businesses and their workers.
So confront the new realities, Dr. Silverman suggested, urging parents to say something like: “I can’t tell you which path to take or how to get there, but I will support you,” he said. “I’m here to back you up.”
It’s a hard message to hear in a can-do place like this.
Walking near the train tracks where the children laid themselves down, Dr. McGee said this community, if any, should have answers.
“Can we put sensors up there?” he mused quietly to me, maybe to alert the train operators that someone has climbed onto the tracks. “This is Silicon Valley. There ought to be something we can do.”
To many a frazzled Canadian parent, the days seem shorter and the expectations higher. Our teens have hopped on the racing treadmill, facing a bleak job market and doubling down on university degrees, juggling the insatiable, and intrusive, demands of social media. The result: Nearly 7 per cent of Canadian teens suffer from serious anxiety, with symptoms that cause them to miss school or avoid peers – and behind them is a whole cohort of stressed-out adolescents, trying to juggle all their obligations. (In a 2008, Statistics Canada study, four of 10 teenagers reported being under “constant pressure to accomplish accomplish more than they could handle.”) But if anxiety thrives in the conditions confronting the modern teen, there are some steps that parents can take. The good news is that mom and dad might feel the load lighten too.
1. Keep them busy (but bite your tongue): A common refrain of modern parenting is that young teens are being overscheduled. And while downtime is important, research suggests that it’s not the extracurricular activities themselves that are anxiety-inducing – in fact, pursuing a favourite hobby or sport by choice is mentally sustaining. What heightens stress are the achievement goals parents attach to the activities, says Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who conducted the study in 2006 with Grade 8 students, and replicated the same findings with older students last year. “It’s not the number of hours, it’s the pressure they feel” to be MVP or star of the school play, she says. What’s more, this pressure may spill over into their friendships: If you are being taught, even unconsciously, to see teammates, or co-stars, as rivals for the big scholarship, Luthar asks, how does that impact your relationships? “We have to to be hypervigilant about our kids being drawn into this [attitude of] ‘achieve more, and excel more at all costs,’” says Luthar, “The message in that is so overpowering, that parents need to work extra hard to show our kids the importance of kindness, connectedness and integrity.” That’s an easier endeavour when parents aren’t counting goals in the stands, or plotting the next résumé-building endeavour. “It’s about who’s calling the shots,” says Carl Honoré, author of The Slow Fix and the parenting book Under Pressure. His advice: Drop your teen at hockey practice and go relax over a latte.
2.Find your teen an “auntie”: Modern families are shrinking, more mobile and time-crunched – and that means teens, distancing themselves from parents, who might otherwise have spent time with adult relatives in the past, may turn to peers to fill the gap. But Steve Biddulph, an Australian psychologist and the author of the new bookRaising Girls, says that girls, especially, who are more susceptible than boys to media messages about their appearance and sexuality, can benefit from time with an older woman, who can impart important life lessons that focus on character, not fashion sense. That person doesn’t need to be a relative. In Britain, Biddulph notes, there’s a trend of groups of moms intentionally creating relationships with each other’s daughters, to serve as a sounding board beyond their own moms. A wise auntie can pass on advice in a way a parent might not be able to, especially in the crucial early teen years. And they are also another adult to watch for warning signs when the stress of adolescence becomes more serious.
3. Encourage them to face their fears (even if they fail): “Life is the rough and the smooth; and part of the problem now is we just want the smooth,” says Honoré. “This is a Photoshop culture we live in. We want to edit out the bad stuff.” But teens need to understand that feeling anxious is a normal human reaction to stress – a physiological response designed to warn of danger, and, in healthy measure, improve performance and focus. Avoiding or postponing an activity, such as the dreaded science test, actually enhances anxiety the next time around. A key component of therapy for anxious teens (and adults) is forcing them outside their comfort zone. In one of her group sessions, Dr. Alexa Bagnell, a child psychiatrist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, directs her young patients to stand in front of the sign for the Halifax Public Gardens – and ask for directions to the public gardens. “People will laugh at them and they have to process that and realize the world didn’t end.” Missing school, says Bagnell, can be especially problematic – because teens become increasingly anxious about falling behind, or how their peers might be judging their absences. Better to encourage a nervous teen to prep for the stress-inducing event – practise party small talk for instance – than skip it altogether.
4. Sleep, eat, sweat and be merry: In adolescence, melatonin, the hormone in the brain that initiates sleep, is released later at night, so teenagers “are already fighting their biology” to get good rest, explains Bagnell. Add in the constant white noise of electronics, energy drinks and homework, and the average high-school student, who needs between nine and 10 hours of sleep, is only getting about seven hours. “Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to manage our emotions and make decisions, and increases our stress level.” A good night’s sleep, Bagnell says, in a dark room – along with eating well and exercising – is a proactive de-stresser, and it’s important for parents to monitor bedtime, including when their teen actually falls asleep. Research also shows that students who get good rest before a test perform better overall than those who cut into their mental rest with a few more hours of cramming.
5. Tune out the (media and Internet) message: This week, a new Ipsos Reid survey found that 84 per cent of Canadian families feel technology keeps them better connected. But teenagers may be too connected. Another online Ipsos Reid survey last year found that 21 per cent of Canadian teens between the ages of 12 and 17 had witnessed someone they knew being bullied through a social-networking site. Half reported a negative experience themselves, including an embarrassing photo or someone hacking their site and pretending to be them. What’s more, teenagers, and girls in particular, are inundated with media that set an impossible standard for beauty and success. Biddulph says that, particularly in the early teens when social time on the Internet increases, parents need to monitor their child’s activity, discuss the ethics of social behaviour online, and educate them about marketing tricks such as airbrushing.
6.Reduce your own anxiety: Anxious parents are more likely to pass on the trait to their kids, both genetically and with their own behaviour – a link supported in a study published by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center last fall. “You can only help your kids if you are significantly less anxious than they are,” says Biddulph. Positive mental health develops when active and even stressful periods are followed by an opportunity to relax. Make sure your teen has a quiet space to escape, and spend time as a family that isn’t goal oriented – a weekend meal, for instance, minus the scheduling flowcharts. “Ideally, your home should be a haven because the outside world has gotten faster, and probably nastier,” says Biddulph.
Parents looking for worthwhile activities for their children may want to consider dance classes, especially for daughters who don’t seem interested in sports that come off as “too physical,” or may be experiencing low self-esteem or lack confidence.
Some 140 girls, ages 13 to 18 years, participated in the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics. The girls selected for the study had visited the school nurse with complaints often associated with stress or low self-esteem, symptoms not serious enough to warrant a mental health referral. About half of the girls were randomly assigned to the intervention group, where they were given dance classes twice a week for 8 months. Each class lasted 75 minutes with an emphasis on the joy of movement, rather than performance, the study says, with various themes like African dance and jazz.
By the end of the program, 48 girls remained and were surveyed on their experience, with 43 of the girls rating it as a positive experience, three girls rating it neutral, and only one girl who found it to be a negative experience.
Adolescence is the time of life where everything seems awkward, and all that can go wrong, seems to go wrong. This and other stressors have an effect on how young people perceive themselves, and according to Statistics Sweden, girls are three times more likely than boysto rate themselves to have poor health.
The Swedish study does acknowledge some limitations to its research however, noting that evaluating self-rated health is very subjective and the participants may have reported higher values to please their instructors.
Regardless, the potential influence dance has on young girls who are experiencing emotional problems appears to be significant. It’s also important to consider the factors that make dance an appealing physical activity to girls.
Based on survey responses, the study found three possible key factors explaining why the girls reported feeling better:
• The dance intervention was enjoyable and undemanding,
• There were opportunities for girls to offer input in music selection and dance choreography, and
• The opportunity allowed them to make new friends who had similar interests, which may be the most critical factor in maintaining interest in the program or activity.
While all physical activity of some kind is important for the overall well-being of a child, dance programs may be the ideal ticket for some parents who have children—daughters and sons—who want to participate in a social activity without the overbearing competitive nature of sports like soccer and basketball.