Reducing high school stress
By Randye Hoder
Ten years ago, psychologist Madeline Levine published The Price of Privilege, a book whose central theme was that bright, socially skilled, affluent teenagers were suffering from serious emotional problems.
Since then, it seems, things have only gotten worse. Adolescents from well-off families are experiencing high rates of depression and anxiety, much of it in service of getting perfect grades and perfect standardized test scores so as to get into the “perfect” college. This relentless pressure—to meet an impossibly high bar that continues to move upward—comes from all quarters: their parents, their schools, their peers, and themselves.
“Children are mortgaging their childhood for the slim chance to get into an elite college,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, a parent of two teenagers and former dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Lythcott-Haims explored the growing mental health crisis at colleges in her 2015 book, How To Raise an Adult. “At the end of it, they are scathed, they are brittle, and they are harmed.”
In the process, the true meaning and value of an education are lost.
“We are now consumed with status, prestige, and rank instead of character, curiosity, and compassion,” says Lloyd Thacker, executive director of The Education Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring sanity to the college admissions process. “That is distorting students’ relationship to learning, and it’s harming their mental health.”
Yet, importantly, parents can do things to alter this trajectory. “We have more agency than we realize,” says Lythcott-Haims, whose children attend Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, home of the widely reported Silicon Valley suicide clusters. (Eight students from the school have committed suicide in the past seven years.) “The system is broken, but we are not at its mercy. We can make different decisions.”
School Stress: 6 Ways Parents Can Help
To that end, here are a half-dozen practical things that parents can do to help their teens better manage school stress, especially during the college-focused junior and senior years.
1. Understand the difference between stress and real anxiety.
Kavita Ajmere, Ph.D., a psychologist who works with students at Harvard-Westlake, a private college preparatory school in Los Angeles, says it’s important to make a distinction between these two terms—stress and anxiety—that are often lumped together.
“Clinical anxiety is qualitatively different than stress,” Ajmere says. Students across the nation are handling a variety of stressors, but they are not all suffering from anxiety.” Indeed, for many adolescents, school stress is normal and healthy.
“When stress is giving way to growth, that is a good thing—you get stronger by lifting weights that are uncomfortably heavy,” says Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. “But if a kid is overwhelmed every day, and the stressors are inhibiting his ability to cope, it’s too much.”
2. Make sure your kids eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.
This recipe seems like a no-brainer, but most teenagers are not taking care of themselves in these simple ways. Damour calls sleep the “silver bullet.” Adolescents are supposed to get nine hours of sleep a night. “Any amount under that,” she says, “and they’re going be more stressed, more reactive, and sadder.” Indeed, a new study from George Mason University shows that teenagers who lack adequate sleep are at greater risk of depression and suicide. The study found that “each hour of sleep lost was associated with a 38 percent increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness among teens.”
3. Advocate for best practices at your teenager’s school.
This can include everything from campaigning for a later start time so your child can get more sleep, to urging your school to have resources in place for those kids who need it. At Harvard Westlake, for example, a team of psychologists, counselors, and trained clergy work with students in tandem with administrators and faculty.
But its most impressive program is its peer-to-peer counseling, which attracts some 300 students every Monday evening. In groups of 15 or so, students meet with juniors and seniors who have participated in a two-year training program. During training, they learn to ask open-ended questions and are taught about confidentiality, crisis intervention, and recognizing depression and suicide risk.
“Kids like talking to each other,” Ajmere says. “And we know the kids who are struggling on campus in part because of this program. It’s the biggest wellness program we have.”
4. Be honest with your teen (and yourself) about the potential costs of competing for admittance at selective colleges.
Damour, who is also the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio, says schools know precisely what it takes to compete at the highest level: the hours of homework and number of Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities required.
“If a parent and a kid are set on admission to an Ivy League, it’s important to pause about what the emotional costs will be,” she says. “They are not the same costs as 20 years ago.” It’s important to remember, too, that a great education can happen at all kinds of places, including colleges with more reasonable admit rates. When teenagers are not competing to get into the most selective schools, they can focus instead on deep learning, creativity, a sense of purpose, and personal connection with friends and family.
“A lot of people want the brand,” says Harvard-Westlake’s Ajmere. “But what good is it having those designer jeans if they don’t fit well? Quality of fit is what really matters.”
5. Recognize the warning signs of serious mental health issues—and intervene.
Some things to watch out for: Your child is becoming withdrawn or anti-social, suffering a drop in grades, having panic attacks or persistent stomach aches, or giving up something they used to love. You may also notice your teen becoming visibly depressed or lethargic or turning toward self-destructive measures to cope, like eating too much or not enough, using drugs or alcohol, or cutting.
“If a kid has a bad week, it’s a bad week,” says Damour. “That’s a normal part of being a teenager. But if your kid has persistent school stress and anxiety—several weeks in a row of not sleeping, being teary or overreactive—that’s concerning.” There are many ways, from therapy to medication, to get help. The bottom line: If you’re worried about your teenager, seek professional advice.
6. Make sure your teens know they are valued for who they are and not for what they achieve.
Spend time together that isn’t focused on grades or their college application essays. “Kids in this demographic feel that their worth as a human is based on how well they do in school,” says Lythcott-Haims. “I try to let my kids know that I love them when they get A’s and I love them when they don’t.” Thacker adds that it is vital to allow high school kids to live a life where the stakes are not always high. “Allow them to make mistakes, allow them to play, allow them to have unstructured time,” he says. “Love your kids enough to allow them to be kids.”
Randye Hoder writes about the intersection of family, politics, and culture. Her articles have appeared in the The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, Time, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Twitter @ranhoder.