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Dr. Madeline Levine Talks Back to School Stress In Teens

Understanding Stress In School Students

These days, teenagers are under way more academic stress than we (parents) ever experienced in our day. But is it helping our teenagers develop the skills they’ll really need to be successful in college and beyond? Not really, says Dr. Madeline Levine, a psychologist and New York Times bestselling author of Teach Your Children Well. Recently, Your Teen caught up with Levine to hear more.

For many teenagers, “back to school” means “back to stress.” Why?

Historically, it was family or peer problems that stressed teens. Now, school is the number one stressor. We buy into the mythology that success in life begins with prepping yourself to be attractive to a narrow group of colleges.

What’s the result?

We now treat school as a day-by-day crisis, as if each and every moment decides the future. Many teenagers won’t even take a class they think they’ll get a B in. But that’s not the way the world works. Every talk I give, I do the same thing. I draw a straight line and ask, “How many people in the audience have followed a straight trajectory to success?” It’s always between one and ten percent – that small group of people who stay on track the whole time, like what they do, make money, and are successful. But 90-99 percent of us don’t do it that way.

Even if we (parents) get that, it’s hard not to turn around and pressure our teenagers.

Parental anxiety has been ratcheted up by our culture. This is new to the last 15 years or so. Is it human nature to want your teenager to be a successful person? Yes, but we correlate this with metrics – grades, scores, salaries, etc. There are other equally important measures of success.

The pressure also comes from teenagers themselves.

Yes. When I started talking about this, it was all coming from the parents. That trend is starting to change. Ten years ago when a parent said, “It’s not me,” I didn’t believe them. Now, I do. The next conversation must be directed at our teenagers. They are not getting the message that putting so much pressure on themselves is a bad thing.

What’s one way we can help?

Teenagers are at school all day long. So, make home a haven. Don’t have the first question be, “How much homework do you have?” or “How did you do on your test?” Your teenagers have an entire other life and set of developmental tasks, like figuring out what they want to do, who their friends are, or what kind of person they are. That’s not to say you don’t say, “It’s time to do your homework,” but avoid the constant drumbeat of “How are you doing?” when that really means, “How are you doing in terms of your grades?”

What’s the goal, really?

You want a teenager who is engaged in learning. I’ve talked to enough CEOs—who, by the way, are disproportionately learning disabled and did not go to Ivy League schools—and got where they are because of their profound interest in something. So, help your teenager find something they love doing. And, broaden the scope of what that means. It’s not just engineering or science and technology. You want to constantly be falling on the side of the learning, not the performance or outcome. I don’t really care what grades teenagers get. If your teenager loves what he’s doing, that’s a good thing. At the end of the school year, should your teenager be tired? Of course. But you want enthusiasm and optimism about school as opposed to exhaustion and disengagement.

Madeline Levine

Madeline Levine, Ph.D. is a psychologist, New York Times bestselling author, and a frequent keynote speaker for schools, parents and business leaders. Dr. Levine lives just outside of San Francisco with her husband and is the (extremely) proud mother of three sons.