The Frenzied College Admission Race is Making Our Children Sick

NAIS

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. 

The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off

NPR

Kids in elite high schools face increasing pressures from peers, teachers and parents.

Francesco Zorzi for NPR

On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.

“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”

Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”

Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.

“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ”

Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.

She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.

From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.

From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.

But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school – and at elite high schools across the country – she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.

“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.

No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.

Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.

A wake-up call

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.

“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”

But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.

Tips To Dial Back The Pressure

Start a conversation — and keep it going

“Ask your kids the question ‘Am I pushing you too hard?’ ” says Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator. Don’t just ask once, she says, ask it periodically and keep the line of communication open.

Don’t supervise everything

“It’s OK to let them out of your sight,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that promotes childhood resilience. Let kids choose activities to do by themselves, like going to the store or walking to the park. Try this exercise from Let Grow for giving kids more control, which can buffer anxiety and foster self-confidence.

Let them play

Unlike supervised activities, Skenazy says, free play teaches kids how to negotiate, compromise, make friends and communicate. “When we deprive children of unstructured playtime, they don’t learn how to mature or deal with frustration or fear,” she says.

Underschedule

“Try to counterbalance the highly competitive culture,” says parent Vanessa Elias. Resist the temptation to overschedule your kids. Encourage them to limit their organized activities, and emphasize family time and downtime.

“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.

Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.

In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.

On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.

Clearly, many kids here excel. But the results of the mental health assessment showed that a lot of kids struggle, too.

“The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School’s rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages — significantly higher,” says school principal Robert O’Donnell. He says he was surprised and concerned.

About 1,200 students — almost the entire student body — took the survey, known as the Youth Self-Report. The survey found that compared with a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton High School students had above average levels of internalizing symptoms. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. It also includes physical problems that can be linked to emotional distress such as headaches or stomachaches. Often, kids may hide these feelings.

The survey also found that rates of alcohol and drug use among Wilton students were higher than average, too. We asked the psychologist who did the assessment whether she was surprised by what she found.

“This is by no means unique to Wilton. It’s a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and founder of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that aims to build resilience in communities and schools.

Luthar has been studying adolescents for more than 20 years. She has published several studies that document the elevated rates of drug and alcohol use by kids who grow up in privileged communities — where incomes and expectations are high. Surprisingly, she says, the rates rival what she has documented in low-income, urban schools.

“What we’ve found is that kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids and levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate — if not greater,” Luthar says.

Her most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that rates of substance abuse remain high among upper-middle-class kids, as they enter early adulthood. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication.

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, says she is not surprised by Luthar’s findings.

“People choose communities like this to give their children opportunities, but it comes at a cost,” Eason says.

The survey findings have been a wake-up call for the community of Wilton. “A lot of people were in denial,” says Vanessa Elias. The mother of three children is the president of the Wilton Youth Council, which aims to promote the emotional well-being of the community.

“People don’t talk about these things,” Elias says. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends’ or neighbors’ kids are experiencing the same struggles. “So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important,” she says.

Dialing back the pressure

The community has lots of ideas about how to tackle these issues.

The high school is focused on continuing to train counselors, and student-directed initiatives are aimed at raising awareness about anxiety and depression.

Wilton is also offering a resilience training program — GoZen! — to elementary school students. It’s a research-based program that teaches coping and happiness skills. There’s a body of evidence to show that resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children.

At home, Elias says, she has tried to create a low-stress environment for her children. For instance, she limits the number of after-school activities her kids participate in so they don’t spend every afternoon being driven around, overscheduled. She also limits homework time in the evening for her youngest daughter — a third-grader. As a result, “there’s a lot less friction in the household,” she says.

And when she realized that the focus on standardized testing was making one of her daughters anxious in first grade — and giving her stomachaches — she opted her two youngest children out of standardized testing.

Elias says she has been influenced by the book How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which aims to help parents break free of what the author dubs the “over-parenting trap.”

But to really change things — to dial back the focus on academic achievement at all costs — will require a culture shift, says Eason.

“We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success,” she says.

For Eason’s daughter, Savannah, this means forging a new path.

“I don’t want to work on Wall Street; that sounds miserable to me,” Savannah says.

She enrolled in culinary school, and she is training to be a pastry chef.

“I’m never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up,” Savannah says, “I’m not going to make that much money, but that’s OK.”

She has her own set of priorities. “It’s not about how big your house is and what kind of car you drive. It’s about happiness and peace.”

This is a different kind of success, one that her parents are now celebrating with her.

“I spend hours making a cake, and my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it,” Savannah says. “That’s the part when you bring joy to people, and that’s what’s important to me now.”

The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off

Kids in elite high schools face increasing pressures from peers, teachers and parents.

Francesco Zorzi for NPR

On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.

“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”

Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”

Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.

“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ”

Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.

She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.

From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.

From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.

But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school – and at elite high schools across the country – she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.

“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.

No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.

Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.

A wake-up call

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.

“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”

But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.

“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.

Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.

In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.

On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.

Clearly, many kids here excel. But the results of the mental health assessment showed that a lot of kids struggle, too.

“The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School’s rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages — significantly higher,” says school principal Robert O’Donnell. He says he was surprised and concerned.

About 1,200 students — almost the entire student body — took the survey, known as the Youth Self-Report. The survey found that compared with a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton High School students had above average levels of internalizing symptoms. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. It also includes physical problems that can be linked to emotional distress such as headaches or stomachaches. Often, kids may hide these feelings.

The survey also found that rates of alcohol and drug use among Wilton students were higher than average, too. We asked the psychologist who did the assessment whether she was surprised by what she found.

“This is by no means unique to Wilton. It’s a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and founder of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that aims to build resilience in communities and schools.

Luthar has been studying adolescents for more than 20 years. She has published several studies that document the elevated rates of drug and alcohol use by kids who grow up in privileged communities — where incomes and expectations are high. Surprisingly, she says, the rates rival what she has documented in low-income, urban schools.

“What we’ve found is that kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids and levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate — if not greater,” Luthar says.

Her most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that rates of substance abuse remain high among upper-middle-class kids, as they enter early adulthood. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication.

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, says she is not surprised by Luthar’s findings.

“People choose communities like this to give their children opportunities, but it comes at a cost,” Eason says.

The survey findings have been a wake-up call for the community of Wilton. “A lot of people were in denial,” says Vanessa Elias. The mother of three children is the president of the Wilton Youth Council, which aims to promote the emotional well-being of the community.

“People don’t talk about these things,” Elias says. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends’ or neighbors’ kids are experiencing the same struggles. “So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important,” she says.

Dialing back the pressure

The community has lots of ideas about how to tackle these issues.

The high school is focused on continuing to train counselors, and student-directed initiatives are aimed at raising awareness about anxiety and depression.

Wilton is also offering a resilience training program — GoZen! — to elementary school students. It’s a research-based program that teaches coping and happiness skills. There’s a body of evidence to show that resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children.

At home, Elias says, she has tried to create a low-stress environment for her children. For instance, she limits the number of after-school activities her kids participate in so they don’t spend every afternoon being driven around, overscheduled. She also limits homework time in the evening for her youngest daughter — a third-grader. As a result, “there’s a lot less friction in the household,” she says.

And when she realized that the focus on standardized testing was making one of her daughters anxious in first grade — and giving her stomachaches — she opted her two youngest children out of standardized testing.

Elias says she has been influenced by the book How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which aims to help parents break free of what the author dubs the “over-parenting trap.”

But to really change things — to dial back the focus on academic achievement at all costs — will require a culture shift, says Eason.

“We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success,” she says.

For Eason’s daughter, Savannah, this means forging a new path.

“I don’t want to work on Wall Street; that sounds miserable to me,” Savannah says.

She enrolled in culinary school, and she is training to be a pastry chef.

“I’m never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up,” Savannah says, “I’m not going to make that much money, but that’s OK.”

She has her own set of priorities. “It’s not about how big your house is and what kind of car you drive. It’s about happiness and peace.”

This is a different kind of success, one that her parents are now celebrating with her.

“I spend hours making a cake, and my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it,” Savannah says. “That’s the part when you bring joy to people, and that’s what’s important to me now.”

Tips To Dial Back The Pressure

Start a conversation — and keep it going

“Ask your kids the question ‘Am I pushing you too hard?’ ” says Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator. Don’t just ask once, she says, ask it periodically and keep the line of communication open.

Don’t supervise everything

“It’s OK to let them out of your sight,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that promotes childhood resilience. Let kids choose activities to do by themselves, like going to the store or walking to the park. Try this exercise from Let Grow for giving kids more control, which can buffer anxiety and foster self-confidence.

Let them play

Unlike supervised activities, Skenazy says, free play teaches kids how to negotiate, compromise, make friends and communicate. “When we deprive children of unstructured playtime, they don’t learn how to mature or deal with frustration or fear,” she says.

Underschedule

“Try to counterbalance the highly competitive culture,” says parent Vanessa Elias. Resist the temptation to overschedule your kids. Encourage them to limit their organized activities, and emphasize family time and downtime.

Moms’ Middle-School Blues

The Wall Street Journal
Mothers feel most stressed about parenting when their children are in middle school, new research shows
All mothers have their ups and downs, but their children’s middle-school years are when they feel most empty and unfulfilled, a large new study shows. WSJ columnist Sue Shellenbarger joins Tanya Rivero to discuss.

By SUE SHELLENBARGER
Updated May 17, 2016

Mothers feel more anxious, dissatisfied and doubtful about their own parenting skills when their children are in middle school than at any other stage, new research shows.
The turbulence that hits sixth- through eighth-graders often begins with the onset of puberty, bringing physical changes and mood swings. Also, many students transfer from close-knit elementary schools to larger middle schools. Childhood friends may be separated, classes are often tracked by ability and teachers are more demanding.

Mothers often lose touch with other elementary-school parents who became friends. School officials often press them to back off and give students a longer leash. As a result, some parents may withdraw from others and bottle up the stress and sadness they feel if their children rebel at home or hit a rough patch at school.

The finding that moms of middle-schoolers have greater distress and lower well-being comes from the most ambitious and carefully targeted look yet at mothers’ well-being from childbirth until their children’s adulthood. The study of more than 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers was published in January. Those with infants and grown children are happiest, says the study, led by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Mothers were recruited for an online survey by word-of-mouth, fliers, media reports and lectures. Researchers asked them to respond to validated scales measuring anxiety, depression, stress, emptiness, loneliness, parental guilt, overload and perceptions of their children’s behavior. Researchers took pains to compare only mothers whose oldest and youngest children were in the same age group. This avoided any distortion that might result if there was also a happy baby or successful young adult in the household to mitigate the depressing impact of a rebellious teen.
Researchers expected to find that mothers of infants were almost as stressed as mothers of middle-schoolers, and were surprised by the result, Dr. Luthar says. “Infancy is of course trying, with the physical exhaustion and the nights up, but it’s also very rewarding to hold that baby. It’s magical and sweet,” she says. Fewer offsetting rewards come in middle school.

Mothers’ and fathers’ confidence in their ability to be good parents, including disciplining, influencing and communicating with their child, falls precipitously in middle school, says another study, a three-year look at 398 parents of children ages 11 to 15, published last year by researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

BN-OA949_workfa_M_20160516165110

Jeff and Jennifer Grosman of Washington, D.C., with their children Max, now 11, and Hannah, now 14. Dr. Grosman felt isolated at first after Hannah began pushing for more independence last year. PHOTO: LISA RAYMAN GOLDFARB
Researchers knew from previous studies that parents of teens have less confidence in their parenting ability than parents of younger children. To explore when and why those declines occurred, they recruited parents of 11- and 12-year-olds from two middle schools and had them complete interviews and written questionnaires at three one-year intervals. Among triggers for parents’ loss of confidence, the study says, were puberty-related physical changes in the children, a decline in the quality of parent-child communication and a parental belief in negative stereotypes about teenagers.

“Middle school is a gray zone—that difficult time when you don’t feel like you have the skills to handle the challenge” of parenting, says Patti Cancellier, education director for the Parent Encouragement Program, a Kensington, Md.,-based parent-training nonprofit.

Jennifer Grosman felt isolated after her daughter Hannah, now 14, began pushing for more independence last year. In middle school, “parents aren’t hanging out and bonding at the kids’ birthday parties anymore, so there isn’t an informal opportunity for conversations about parenting,” says Dr. Grosman, a Washington, D.C., psychologist. It is easy to assume your child is the only one struggling, she says. “And when people say, ‘How’s your kid doing?’ you feel like you have to say, ‘Uh, fine.’ ”
She and her husband Jeff took a 10-week class on parenting teens at the Parent Encouragement Program. They learned that other parents were having similar struggles and that much of what their daughter was going through was normal.

Dr. Grosman and two other parents also started an informal discussion group for parents of sixth-grade classmates of her younger child, Max, who is 11, to give parents a chance to build trusting friendships early in middle school. About 10 to 15 participants have met monthly since last fall to discuss topics suggested by group members, Dr. Grosman says. The group has gone so well that she plans to start a similar one for parents in her daughter’s ninth-grade class.

While worry and guilt about a child’s behavior are factors in the middle-school blues, personal needs for close friends and acceptance and comfort from others are often a more powerful predictor of mothers’ distress, Dr. Luthar says.

Having close friends you see often is a potent antidote, Dr. Luthar says, but many parents lack time for friendship “because their kids are in 10,000 activities and they’re busy ferrying them across town, worrying about college admissions” and other stressors, she says.

BN-OA952_workfa_P_20160516165111

Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. ENLARGE
Colin, Kimberly, Annie, Michael and Tim Hicks. Colin is 12, Annie is 13, and Tim is 15. Ms. Hicks fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. PHOTO: STEVEN DYMOWSKI

Dr. Luthar is testing a workplace program for employed mothers that encourages them to build close friendships. Participants must find at least two people who will agree to be their “go-to committee,” meeting with them weekly to listen and provide mutual support, she says. “The premise is basically that the same love we give to our kids, we all need for ourselves. That’s what the women are encouraged to do for each other.”

Kimberly Hicks began feeling isolated, sad and ineffective as a parent last year after her daughter withdrew from the family emotionally during middle school, arguing and criticizing family members and spending more time in her room alone, says Ms. Hicks, of Burtonsville, Md. She enrolled in a parenting class and learned that stepping back and letting her daughter make more decisions for herself might ease her rebellion.

Ms. Hicks, who is trained as a counselor, battled the urge to bottle up the stress. When she told a friend that “deep down, I’m afraid I’m not doing everything I’m supposed to do as a parent,” Ms. Hicks says, she took comfort in the friend’s empathetic reassurance that she’d felt the same way with her own children.

Ms. Hicks also fights the urge to withdraw from socializing when she feels stressed. She attends a weekly women’s group at her church. She also gets together every week or two with a friend, another middle-school parent who has similar views on child-rearing. As they work for two or three hours together on household projects, such as cleaning the garage, “we’re talking the whole time,” she says.

BN-OA950_workfa_P_20160516165110
Al Watts, a dad in South Elgin, Ill., has found his kids’ middle-school years harder than he expected. He doesn’t talk about the challenges with other dads as often as he suspects a mother would, he says, but he calls other dads or joins message boards to share problems. Left to right, Anna, 13; Ben, 9; Macy, 11; Rachel, 7; Shirley and Al Watts. PHOTO: KATHY ELKEY
Men share parenting problems, but they tend to be “much more direct and to the point,” says Al Watts, an author in South Elgin, Ill., who stays home to care for his four children, ages 7 to 13.

Mr. Watts says he worries about keeping communication open with his two oldest children—Anna, 13, and Macy, 11. “I thought middle school would be easier, and I was totally wrong,” he says. “The problems are much more complicated.”

When a boy asked Macy out on a date, Mr. Watts called his brother, who has a son in sixth grade, for advice. His brother’s response: “I’m glad I don’t have that problem.” Still, Mr. Watts says, talking it over helped him stay calm.

He enrolls in parenting classes offered by his school district. He also logs onto a Facebook group run by the National At-Home Dad Network, a fathers’ group, frequently, to read others’ posts and comments.

Mr. Watts has trouble finding time to see friends. When a close friend from Nebraska recently came through town, however, he made a point of meeting. “Dads need that connection too,” he says.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

 

 

Middle School: The New High School for Moms

(CNN) If you had to guess what are the most difficult years for a mother, what might you say?

Infancy? Sure, dealing with a newborn is beyond stressful, as you try to figure out how to care for an infant and adjust to a new role all on zero sleep. It would be no surprise if those years were the most taxing. But I — and probably many of you reading this — would guess adolescence, namely the high school years, which I might add I am already dreading.

But it turns out the most stressful time for moms is middle school, at least according to a new study by Arizona State University researchers published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology.

Suniya Luthar is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

“I was a little taken aback to see that apparently preadolescence is the new adolescence or junior high school or middle school is the new high school,” saidSuniya Luthar, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of psychology at Arizona State University.

The study involved analyzing surveys from more than 2,200 well-educated moms across the country (more than 80% had a college or graduate degree), with children ranging in age from infant to adult. Researchers then compared how mothers who only have children in one age group (infant, preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and adult) rated their feelings about their lives.

Across the board, mothers of only middle-school-age children reported the highest levels of stress, loneliness and emptiness, and also the lowest levels of life satisfaction and fulfillment. Mothers of infants and adults were found to be the most satisfied, Luthar said.

This probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Think about what’s happening to children in middle school: raging hormones, changing bodies and brains, exposure to peer pressure and risky behaviors like experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and a clash between a desire to be independent, but still feeling dependent on Mom and Dad.

“You see this person who is almost but not quite grown-up physically, saying at one moment, ‘Leave me alone. I’ve got this figured out. Let me do it my way,’ or ‘Don’t ask me questions,’ and so on, and on the other hand, they (are) crushed in tears, and looking to you for comfort just like a child. They might cry like the children they used to be, but being able to actually comfort them is nowhere near as easy,” said Luthar, who is also professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

‘It’s like I woke up with an alien’

What makes this so hard for parents is that the changes often happen so quickly, said Cynthia Tobias, co-author of the book “Middle School: The Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us, But Don’t Tell You.” which involved interviews with hundreds of middle school students across the country.

“For a lot of parents, it’s just almost overnight. You hear a lot of times, they’ll say, ‘It’s like I woke up with an alien this morning. Yesterday I had a child who loved to snuggle. Today I have a kid who can’t even stand to be around me,’ ” said Tobias.

The biggest conflicts come when parents don’t realize their children are starting to see themselves as young adults and don’t respond accordingly, said Sue Acuña, who co-wrote “Middle School: The Inside Story” with Tobias, and who has been teaching middle school for more than 20 years.

“When the parents try to treat them as if they’re still 8 or 9 years old, there’s pushback … and that catches the parents off guard and then sometimes they panic, ‘Oh no. This is what I’ve always feared in adolescence,’ and they come down harder instead of softer,” said Acuña, who also writes a blog on middle school.

Michelle Icard has been working with middle school children and teachers for over 10 years and developed a special middle school curriculum targeting boys and one targeting girls that is used at schools around the country.

Michelle Icard is author of "Middle School Makeover."

“I see these moms … you can read it on their face,” said Icard, who is also author of “Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years.” “They’re highly stressed. They’re nervous. They don’t know what to do.”

Icard said parents would benefit by knowing the facts about middle school, how children are going through what she calls “the middle school construction project” as they start to develop a new body, new brain and new identity around age 11.

“If you know that, for example, your kid has to create an identity apart from you when they are in middle school so that they can form healthy relationships with people in the future, it makes it a little easier to bear so it’s not for nothing that your kid is separating and relying on their peers. That’s how they figure out their way in the world,” said Icard, founder of the blog Michelle in the Middle.

At the same time our children are going through this “perfect storm” of changes, said Icard, many moms are kind of going through “a middle age construction project.”

For moms who chose to stay at home during the elementary school years, this might be the time when they consider going back into the work force, which can be stressful. Mothers are also adjusting to getting older themselves and feeling a bit superfluous, no longer being the center of their child’s lives. Some research also shows that marital satisfaction is lower during the teenage years versus the years after a child is born.

For all these reasons, Icard suggested moms make sure they have a passion, hobby or something that they enjoy for themselves when their children are in middle school. “You’ll be modeling good self-care for your kid and when things get really tumultuous and they’re illogical and they’re unpredictable, you have something to dive into that makes you happy and that does a lot for stress reduction.”

The ‘Botox brow’

What parents might not realize is that their children may act like they don’t want a relationship with them during the middle school years but they really do, said Tobias and Acuña, who heard over and over again from children who wanted their parents to be involved in their lives.

Cynthia Tobias (left) and Sue Acuña, co-authors of "Middle School: The Inside Story"

The quandary is that on the one hand, kids will say their mom is always asking them questions such as who are they texting, but on the other hand, they’ll say their mom never wants to know what’s going on in their lives and never listens, said Acuña.

“I say to them, ‘Well, do you want your parents asking questions or not?’ ” she said. Their reply? “Well, they just have to know when it’s a good time to ask a question.”

I can hear mothers of middle school children screaming at this very moment: How are we supposed to know when it’s a good time to ask a question?

Acuña, who has three sons, all now in their 20s, described how she would find one of her sons during the middle school years slumped in his bedroom with the door open. She’d walk by and ask if he was OK. Then she’d say, “Is this where I’m supposed to be concerned parent and talk to you or is there where I’m supposed to give you your space?”

Her son would usually say he was alright, but then as soon as she started to walk away, he’d say something like, “It’s just that I don’t understand why people act the way they do,” she said. That was her cue to slink back into his room, sit on the floor and be prepared to listen.

Icard, who has an eighth-grader and a sophomore in high school, said mothers should learn how to listen and become more neutral in their responses by adopting what she called a “Botox brow.”

“I say to parents. You don’t actually have to get Botox. … but you have to have that look like your brow doesn’t wrinkle,” she said.

“Studies show that kids cannot read facial expressions and their default is thinking you’re angry when you’re not,” she said. “So adopt a ‘Botox brow’ and have a really neutral face when you’re talking to your kid. You’ll be surprised how much your kid opens up to you and starts coming to talk to you more.”

Middle-schoolers often feel their parents don’t take them seriously and sometimes we, as parents, don’t, said Tobias, who along with Acuña put together free guides for parents, including “The No-No List” for talking to kids in middle school.

“We’ll catch ourselves saying, ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, wait until you’re old enough and you have to pay a mortgage and then you’re going to think it’s no big deal,’ but to them, their whole world right now is middle school so they can’t even think in terms of what we’re talking to them about sometimes,” said Tobias, who taught high school for eight years and has written 13 books about learning styles and strong-willed children. “So I think they just want a little chance to be heard. They want to be understood and listened to and they want to make sure that we do take them seriously.”

The importance of not giving up

Acuña, who teaches eighth grade, said parents should also realize other communication mistakes they often make with their middle-schoolers, such as interrupting them or finishing their stories. Think how you would feel if someone did that to you as an adult, she said. That is how a child will feel.

The most successful kids, she said, in her experience, are the kids who feel their parents have their back no matter what and that even if they mess up, their parents will be supportive.

She described her parent-teacher conferences, which are led by the student presenting his or her work to the parent. “The successful kids, they’ll tell their parents, ‘Yes, I messed up here. This is what I’m going to do to work on it’ and their parents are very supportive,” she said. “The anxious kids are the ones who when they say to their parents, ‘Well, here’s a test I didn’t do well on,’ the parents go off on them. … The parents are upset and critical and (say), ‘Well you are going to be grounded for that.’ These are the kids who are afraid to take risks because they don’t feel that their parents will support them.”

Figuring out how to talk to your tween or teen and how involved to be could make even the most relaxed parent a tad crazy, but the bottom line from the middle school experts I talked with is that parents should do everything in their power to resist the urge to toss up their hands and give up.

“The parents have this tendency to just (say), ‘Fine. You don’t want to talk. Just don’t talk,’ and walk away,” said Tobias, who has twin 24-year-old sons. “But the kids themselves, they told us over and over, ‘We do want to keep a relationship with our parents. There’s so much going on we just can’t do it. We hope that they don’t walk away.’ “

Middle school is not a time to “tread water and wait out until they go through it,” said Acuña. “It’s not just a phase they’re going through. There are some key things happening and it’s a really important time to develop a relationship that will carry you through the teen years and into young adulthood.”

Luthar, the researcher and psychology professor who has two kids of her own, ages 21 and 25, agreed and also urged mothers to reach out to other moms of middle-schoolers for support.

“If ever there were truth to the saying, ‘It takes a village,’ it’s now,” she said. “It’s not it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to raise a preteen.”

Why do you think middle school is the most stressful time for mothers? Share your thoughts withKelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Health on Twitter or Facebook.