While high school has long been a place for teens to learn, grow, develop and prepare for their future, today it’s also become a pressure cooker, and some high-achieving students are about to explode.
With only 24 hours in a day, high-achieving students are trying to pack their days with AP courses, sports, extracurricular activities, and community service. Downtime is non-existent. Add a pandemic to the mix and the challenges of social distancing and cancelled group activities. With record-low acceptance rates at top colleges, they are doing whatever they can to differentiate themselves from their peers and snag those spots.
“There has been a societal shift to raise the bar in education—speeding up academics at younger ages—and this pressure is being felt by kids both mentally and physically,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “They are getting pressure from their parents, from coaches and even administrators who are being judged by the success of their students.”
“When a child’s sense of self-worth is dependent on what they achieve, it can lead to anxiety and depression and other risky behaviors,” said Bahar Altaha, a licensed child and adolescent psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital.
Today’s teens are reporting higher levels of stress than adults. According to the American Psychological Association, teens reported worse mental health and higher levels of anxiety and depression than all other groups. And, science shows this level of stress long-term can have consequences on their health and wellness too.
What Can You Do to Support a Struggling Teen?
As parents, it’s not always easy to convey that academics are only a small part of life. Dr. Altaha gives these tips for parents to help their high-achieving teens navigate the stressors and pressures of high school.
Create a Supportive Environment
Your teen needs you now more than ever, even if you may get an occasional eye roll or two. Check-in daily with them, ask questions, be supportive, and listen. Remind them of the support they have both at school (virtually or in-person) and at home.
“We all have very busy schedules but taking time every day to check-in can help you gauge how your teen is doing,” Dr. Altaha said. “In doing so on a regular basis, you can notice changes in behavior and academics.”
Emphasize the Importance of Self Care
Whether you are a teen or an adult, when you are stressed, the essentials, such as self-care, are neglected. Make sure they are getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy and exercising regularly. You can help by limiting the amount of caffeine and late-night activity, taking devices out of the room at night, and enforcing bedtime routines.
Help Them Find Balance
Work together with your teen to stay organized, manage time and set realistic goals that include family time and downtime. “Doing things as simple as mandatory family dinners and fun family activities together can have an impact,” Dr. Altaha said. “This makes clear, in your home, what your family values are.”
Discuss the Future
As we’ve seen with many brilliant minds, such as Steve Jobs, hard work and determination can go a lot further than having an Ivy League education. Remind your child that feeling unsure or worried about the future is normal. While going to one of the Ivy League schools or your alma mater may have been a dream of theirs (or yours) since they were little, explain that there are many ways to thrive and live a happy life.
“Help your teen work toward a future that is meaningful to them,” Dr. Altaha said. “Just because they may not get into a school of choice, doesn’t mean their dreams are over. There are different ways to get to where they want to go and no linear path to get there.”
Broaden Their Idea of Success
Success should be measured over a course of a lifetime, not on their last test grade. By over-focusing on grades and performance, we as parents may be sending the wrong message to our children—emphasizing we care more about grades than anything else. Remember to praise their effort and hard work and how this type of dedication will take them far in life, not whether they get an A on a test or not.
“Research has shown that teens who believe their parents value character traits as much as or more than achievement, can have better outcomes at school and greater mental health,” Dr. Altaha said.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get Help
While some stress and pressure is natural, ongoing stress can build up and sometimes lead to mental health issues. If you’re concerned that the weight and pressures of high school could be getting the best of your teen, please contact one of Banner Health’s trusted child and adolescent specialists for help.
If your child is contemplating suicide or self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.