By David Hafter
Recently I gave a talk on Stress Management for Teens at Davis High School for about a hundred students and parents. I went over sources of stress for teens and how it affects their bodies, moods and behaviors. We looked at different kinds of stress: the routine kind – unavoidable and normal responsibilities; stress from change – moving, family illnesses, breakups with boy or girlfriends, social stress, family stress – like chronic arguing and divorce; and finally, traumatic stress – a death in the family, experiencing or witnessing domestic violence, a major accident, physical or sexual abuse, assault or natural disasters.
We covered healthy diets, exercise, creative activities, good sleep hygiene, and accessing therapeutic help when needed. We looked at healthy and unhealthy ways of handling stress; lots of good stuff. Stress management is not a fun topic but stress is something we all share and have to learn to effectively manage if we are to stay healthy.
Talks like this always become most interesting to me when it is time to take and answer questions. In preparing a presentation, I am always anticipating the audience’s needs; during the Q and A, anything I missed or didn’t say enough about gets brought up for discussion. One of those topics needing more attention was the stress from pressure Davis kids often feel regarding academic achievement. That pressure on them is complicated by (perceived) expectations that they excel in other areas, as well – in sports, the arts, clubs, volunteer work and so on.
Good intentions do not always produce good outcomes. This is a mantra I have used in family therapy sessions for over 30 years. Of course parents are right to want their teens to do well in school and become well-rounded individuals who leave high school with a variety of useful skills and experiences under their belts. Achieving these very reasonable goals give teens more options in life, including college and subsequent career choices.
So, some appropriate parental pressure to achieve these goals makes sense and is part of responsible parenting. The questions to consider are: How much pressure is too much? How is the teen interpreting the attention to his or her academic, personal and social success? Moreover, is the pressure coming from more than just the parents and/or guardians? Does our community itself contribute to the pressure our kids feel?
In the Q and A session, parents talked with some dismay about pressures their teens put onto themselves to ‘be perfect’ or to over-extend themselves in pursuit of the perfect profile for college applications. These are parents who consciously try not to go overboard in this area only to have their teens respond as though they are being raised in an atmosphere reminiscent of a scene from The Great Santini.
What is going on here? It appears that some of this pressure is indeed coming from the overall community. Davis’ proud reputation for producing high achieving students is well known and well deserved. It also has an inadvertent darker side. I asked the teens present, perhaps a third of the audience, if they feel strong pressure from the community to succeed and up went their hands. As one parent pointed out, telling your child to do his or her best is often interpreted as ‘be the best.’ Here is an analogy that might ring a bell: The desire by a teen to be ‘Hollywood slender’ may not come from fat-shaming parents but that doesn’t keep the teen from being unduly influenced by popular culture which worships a model’s figure. A parent’s admonition, then, to eat your vegetables and stay clear of junk food, which is just healthy parenting advice, could be misinterpreted by a teen as being told s/he is fat.
Good intentions do not always produce good outcomes.
When our children were born, many of us held them in our arms and declared, with all sincerity, “I just want him/her to be happy! I don’t care what s/he grows up to be!” And at that moment, we mean it. As our kids grow up, however, our messages can change. Here is a typical message: “Do well in school so that you can go to a good college; then, excel there so that you can get into a good grad school; then become a professional, get a great job and do well for yourself and your family.” Those are all good, well-intentioned thoughts but they put a lot of pressure on a 9th grader facing a hard Spanish test. And when that pressure turns into stress, kids, like adults, need to find a way to handle it. Sometimes the choices they make are to engage in any number of distracting or self-destructive behaviors. Other kids become overwhelmed with anxiety (the most common complaint of kids in therapy) or become depressed.
Davis prides itself on being a highly educated town filled with graduates bound for places like Stanford, Berkeley or the Ivy Leagues – but at what price? Is there also acceptance for other types of kids, and if there is, how well do we, as a community, communicate it? Not all kids are temperamentally wired up to become doctors or lawyers. Not all kids want to go to college, or at least not necessarily right out of high school. There are lots of legitimate ways to earn a living and many possible definitions of success. Can kids be considered a success and a source of pride to their parents and community if they take a less ambitious approach to life? If that question makes you wince, even just a little, then know two things: You are not alone and our kids are picking up how we really feel – and they are feeling stressed in reacting to it.
I don’t have any magic answers to any of this, other than to encourage honest conversations between parents and kids about these tender subjects and to engage them with an open mind and heart. Good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes but they are always good start.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.