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Academic Pressure and the Race to Success: Advice from an Expert

In many affluent communities, it’s safe to say that achievement is in the air we breathe. But while striving to achieve—at school, in sports and so on—is laudable, it can also be harmful when striving to achieve is taken too far and becomes academic pressure. In this issue, Your Teen caught up with Tori Cordiano, a Consulting Psychologist and Assistant Director for the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to find out how we can, as our teenagers might say, chill.

Academic Pressure

Q: Why do we get so caught up with achievement?

Cordiano: Often, there’s a group-think mentality at play. I see many adolescents from wealthier suburbs who are in emotional distress. They’re in rigorous academic programs and can spend up to six or seven hours doing homework each night. Parents will say their teens are the ones motivated to get good grades, but I think teens can receive mixed messages from their parents and schools. Even though they may not be telling their teenagers they have to achieve at such a high level, that may be the message the teen is getting, especially at school.

Q: So how should we think about the message we send?

Cordiano: It’s important for parents to think about how they communicate their values. These communities value academics highly, and they should. But, parents need to focus less on the end product—the grade—and more on the process. When kids focus on the process of learning, they are much more willing to take risks and better able to handle failure and academic stress. This is what we want from our teenagers.

Q: Why do we care so much that our kids are the best? It’s embarrassing to admit, but sometimes we just do.

Cordiano: It’s really natural for parents to want to see their children excel at the activities they do.

Q: But then we get upset when they’re not the best?

Cordiano: Again, parents need to focus on the process and not the product. If you see your kid on the field or in a theater production and they’re not putting out the best effort, you need to ask yourself: ‘What’s going on here? Is this an activity my teen wants to do or values?’ That can change. Your kid may have liked it in fourth or fifth grade, but as a sophomore or junior, they might be burned out.

Q: How do we step back?

Cordiano: Think about what your student’s day looks like. Many adults work, come home to downtime and go to bed at a reasonable time. But, we expect our teenagers to put in a long day at school, then sports and clubs after school and then do five hours of homework. No wonder so many adolescents don’t get enough sleep. A lot of teenagers will say it’s just physically impossible to do everything they have to do without staying up late. If your student is that over-scheduled, if you think you are seeing academic stress negatively affecting your teen, you need to step in.

Q: How do we have that conversation?

Cordiano: You need to ask: “What are you getting out of this, from a quality of life perspective?” Sit with them and think about what areas of their life are suffering because of all the effort they put in at school and elsewhere. One area is most certainly sleep. Teenagers are resistant to changing their sleep patterns, even if they are tired all the time. But, teens need about nine hours of sleep a night, and the symptoms from lack thereof can present like ADHD. For some kids, that explanation alone is a hook for prioritizing. For older teens, talk about long-term goals. Help them understand that there are lots of different ways to get to that goal. It’s not just going to one college or getting an A in a class.

Q: How much does college play a role here?

Cordiano: Getting into these elite colleges has become such a guessing game over the past 10 or 15 years. Before, you could get where you wanted with a few extracurriculars and very good grades. Now, it’s different, and we don’t really have control over it. Unfortunately, the way we approach this whole college application process has started to consume every waking moment of a kid’s life. We need to send the message that there’s lots of ways to get that right. For one thing, we know that colleges are not just looking for perfect grades; they are looking for well-rounded kids who bring a sense of engagement and enjoyment to the table. Colleges don’t want to see 20 activities. It’s much better to have a small handful of activities that your kid is truly engaged in. We also need to focus on helping kids find colleges that are a good match for them instead of pursuing the “right” colleges.

Q: When is it appropriate to push kids?

Cordiano: As you know, we are talking about kids who are motivated, almost to a fault. But if you have a kid who isn’t motivated to do homework or take challenging classes, you can say to them: “Our goal here is not for you to master this right off the bat. Our goal is for you to go in and gain some understanding and grow in this area.” Again, take the focus off the end result and put it more on the process.

Q: We don’t eat together, take vacations, even hang out because our teens are too busy. What are your thoughts?

Cordiano: Research shows that family dinners are really helpful, especially for adolescents. It doesn’t have to be sitting down with the whole family five days a week. Even dinner with one parent a few times a week is helpful. If you have to cross off all forms of family time, that’s a red flag for you to assess where you can do less. If you are feeling this way, imagine how your kids are feeling. This is a real quality of life issue.

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.

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