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Homework Stress: How Can Parents Help an Overachiever?

PARENT | Evan Mermelstein

In my experience, parenting a toddler, a child, and a younger adolescent involves direct instructions and responses. Parenting a teenager, on the other hand, involves more indirect participation.

I want to allow my teenager to have independence, to try new things, and have new experiences, but the flipside is that she is still a child and needs parental assistance on major decisions that may impact her future.

Homework Stress

My daughter, a high school sophomore, is trying to maintain a delicate balance between overloading herself with things that will impress colleges and what she can successfully handle, stress-wise.

She is an overachiever who will accept responsibility for too many of these supposedly impressive things. When she eventually gets overwhelmed, she has a meltdown because she is unable to complete them all to her exacting standards.

It appears to me that she is not alone: High-achieving high schoolers are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to satisfying college admissions offices. Because they want to gain admission to the best possible college, they cannot enjoy their high school years.

With my daughter, I have found that my simple counseling will not change her internal drive. For example, I have suggested that she either learn to be okay with not completing everything, or find a new friend group—as her friend group generally includes similarly driven individuals. But neither solution is acceptable to her.

I also had her meet with a college counselor to get an independent opinion about her college application readiness. The counselor told Ilana that she is in great shape for admission to a high-level college, but this has not lowered her desire to overachieve.

Thus, I have become more reactionary than proactive: My daughter gets overwhelmed and has an emotional meltdown. We try to talk through it and figure out how best to overcome it, and, eventually she moves past it. We then await the next situation which will lead to a similar breakdown.

I am hopeful that there is something I am missing that can help her avoid or reduce this vicious cycle.


Evan Mermelstein is fortunate to both like and love his two children, ages 18 and 16. When not working, he likes to write poetry, listen to ‘70s music, and hang out with the family dog, Ruby, and the family cats, Zeus and Lilo.


TEEN | Ilana Mermelstein

I’m currently trying my best to get through my sophomore year of high school, although high school is seemingly becoming less and less about high school—and more about college.

Everything we do is to prepare us for the next step, whether it be the PSAT, the SAT, or end-of-course testing. Whatever that next step may be, the end goal is always college.

Being an Overachiever

Sure, it seems a bit unnecessary so early on, but the sad part is that it isn’t. College has become so competitive that doing your best doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. If you aren’t piling on more than you can handle, you’re behind. All this competition and preparation and stress is quite overwhelming. Nevertheless, we all feed into the culture of preparing for college because there isn’t really another option.

What is it like to cope with the pressure of the impending college process? Stressful, but in a weird way. I look forward to researching the place where I’ll be spending four years. Writing college essays sounds thought-provoking and inspiring. Touring possible schools looks like an interesting time of exploration and discovery.

It’s all the stuff in between that creates stress. Knowing that I won’t attend the college of my dreams if I don’t meet certain standards is a weight on my shoulders. The goal, I guess, is to lift that burden off my back to get to the fun part. But that burden is heavy—really heavy.

I guess I’d compare it all to riding a bike uphill. The closer you get to the peak, the harder the ride becomes. One wrong move, and you’re sent flying backwards down the hill. Once you manage to get over the peak, though, everything comes easy, and you’re able to enjoy the ride for the first time thus far.

Right now, I’m nearing the peak of the hill. My pace is strong and steady, but my legs are burning. I refuse to give up because making it over that hill is the only thing I have. I feel like a setback would send me backwards down the hill, and it would be near impossible to get back where I was. So I keep pedaling, no matter how hard it gets.


Ilana Mermelstein is a sophomore from Alpharetta, Georgia. She blogs at youngandthoughtful.weebly.com. In addition to writing, she enjoys petting dogs and playing her ukulele.


EXPERT | Sean Grover, LCSW

Dear Evan,

I want to congratulate you on raising such a determined daughter. Here are some tips for helping your overachiever:

Advice for Parents

1. Schedule Downtime

Make it a priority to schedule downtime with your daughter, no talk of college or academics. During these times, unplug as a family—no technology. Constantly checking messages or social media dulls the senses, fuels anxiety, and undermines peace of mind.

2. Maintain Healthy Home Structures

Hold fast to routines and schedules. Structure soothes anxiety and reduces stress. When teenagers complain about stress, they are usually caught in a reactive loop—obsessing, ruminating, and not sleeping enough. Setting limits is unpopular, but you can’t be a good parent and be popular all the time.

3. Limit Discussions about the Future

Be mindful not to spend too much time speculating about college. Anxiety usually springs from unknowns, and a teenager’s future is full of them. Do your best to adopt a chill attitude and say, “Let’s talk about this tomorrow.” Don’t let discussions drag on. If possible, schedule a day to review college essays instead of endless everyday discussions.

4. Maintain Balance

Academics is a part of teenagers’ lives—not their whole life. Rather than talk about school problems all day, go for a run or hit the gym. For example, a cardio workout of 30 minutes or more lowers anxiety and depression in teens up to 70%. Your daughter will feel better, think more clearly, and sleep more soundly afterwards.

5. Keep a Positive Attitude

Don’t be a fixer. Rather than solve your daughter’s problems, which increases dependency, listen more than you talk. Listening is curative, the basis of all therapies. Help your daughter come up with her own solutions. Remember, she won’t have you beside her in college to guide her.

Advice for Teens

Dear Ilana,

Clearly, you’re intelligent, articulate, and ambitious! You’re destined to succeed in life, regardless of what college you attend.

Follow these simple suggestions to lower your stress levels.

1. Keep College in Perspective

Don’t buy into the hype—your entire future does not depend on getting into a particular college. Some teenagers are accepted to their dream college, only to be disappointed, and others attend one of their safety schools and love it.

2. Strive, Don’t Stress

Professional athletes rarely use the word “stress.” When you call something stressful, you increase tension in your body and create psychic pressure. Strive, don’t stress.  It will sharpen your mind and lower your anxiety.

3. Aim for Balance

Exercise, diet, be creative. Academics are a part of your life—not your entire life. An unbalanced life breeds unhealthy obsession and rumination. Mindfulness practices such as yoga or meditation are great ways of bringing more peace into your life.

4. Take Regular Breaks

Many brilliant thinkers came up with their best ideas while on vacation. They understood the value of releasing pressure. Maintaining a brutal schedule leads to burnout. Self-care and academics are equally important.

5. Put “Fun” Back in Your Planner

Schedule “fun-breaks” and “academic-free” zones in your week. Reboot creative activities. Visit friends, go to a concert. Playfulness lowers tension and reinvigorates.

Sean Grover

Sean Grover, LCSW is a psychotherapist, author, and speaker with over 25 years of experience helping parents fend off nervous breakdowns. He is the author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully – and Enjoy Being a Parent Again.To contact Sean or arrange for a parenting workshop for your school or youth center, visit www.seangrover.com.