De-Stress Your Teen: Four Ways To Turn Down the Academic Heat

By Guest Blogger Madeline Levine

It’s September- Back To School is in full gear. If you’re the mom of a teen, you know how tough the school year can be. Intensive AP classes. Mountains of homework. Sports practices that take hours. This seems to be the new normal, and that’s true whether your teens are headed for the local community college or a powerhouse university.

No wonder today’s kids say school has displaced family or peer problems as the greatest stressor in their lives.

As a mother and as a clinician, I find this terribly sad. Adolescence brings with it many tough tasks already—adjusting to a foreign body, learning to talk to the pretty girl next to you, worrying about peer pressure to experiment with drugs and sex, finding out that your parents don’t know everything (or some days, anything!) Add the tremendous pressure kids feel to succeed academically, and just getting through the school year can be a truly daunting task.

Fortunately, there’s quite a bit you can do to alleviate this over-the-top stress. A lot of it has to do with changing your mindset.

Academic success isn’t everything. Indeed, a singular focus on perfect grades is crippling many kids in ways that won’t show up until they’re adults.

I’m not saying good grades don’t matter. They do. But the skills and qualities needed to thrive in the global workplace—self-reliance, motivation, problem-solving, the ability to collaborate, persistence in the face of adversity—are also critical. And these are the very things that get lost when we push our kids too hard.

Here are a few things you can do right now to help your teen become a more genuinely motivated student while alleviating stress:

1. Don’t let them skimp on sleep.

No matter how grown-up your teen may act, they still need at least nine hours of sleep. In fact, studies show that teens who get less sleep have more difficulty with concentration and memory and are more susceptible to depression and even suicidal thoughts. Teens whose parents actively set appropriate bedtimes are significantly less vulnerable.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do the things our culture tells us need doing. Sacrifices may have to be made. Maybe they’ll have to give up a sport, or maybe take fewer high-level classes. It’s okay. Sleep is too important to your child’s long-term health, resilience, social adjustment, and yes, academics, to skimp on.

2. Re-examine extracurriculars.

When older kids aren’t studying, they may be busily pursuing one or two extracurriculars, often chosen to “look good” on a college application. This leaves virtually no time to rest, to grapple internally with challenges, and to get to know their own strengths and weaknesses. No down time means no time to develop a healthy sense of self, and that can result in debilitating depression later in life.

Talk to your teen about prioritizing activities. This is a good chance to help him/her practice collaboration skills (which the workplace rewards!) by working with you to determine what constitutes a healthy amount of extracurricular activity for them.

3. Lay off the perfection pressure.

We all want our kids to make good grades. But an exclusive focus on performance can force out the attention and time needed to develop the 4 known protective factors of healthy child development—enthusiasm, intrinsic motivation, collaborative skills, and genuine interest in learning. If every mediocre grade is met with headshakes and handwringing, you’re creating perfectionism in your child and that’s not good: next to genetics, it’s the strongest predictor of clinical depression that we know of.

Life is full of mistakes and imperfections. By keeping kids from learning a healthy sense of perspective, we’re setting them up for future unhappiness.

4. Reconsider the “Gotta-Get-In” schools route.

Sure, prestigious universities are great—for some students. Yet, they are not the be-all, end-all that grades-obsessed parents tend to think they are. Far more of our country’s CEOs were educated at state schools than at Ivy League schools. The fact is that no school guarantees success and no school eliminates it.

I went to the University of New York at Buffalo (actually, the only school I applied to). My freshman year teacher was Robert Haas, later to become the poet laureate of the United States, and a masterful teacher. Opportunities abound at most colleges.

The question parents need to ask themselves is this: “What are you willing to do to your kids to make them into perfect students?”  There is a risk/reward ratio that needs to be considered. And when parents truly understand what kids have to give up in the pursuit of academic success, they may come to realize the price is just too high for some kids.

Finally, consider the big picture. Authentic success rarely happens on a predictable path; it occurs in fits and starts, back-tracking and detours, with plenty of successful failures thrown in. It isn’t about what our children look like at the end of the day, the semester, or the school year. It’s about what they look like some 20 years down the road.

When that day comes and your child has grown into a happy, healthy, self-sufficient, and internally motivated adult, he will be a success—no matter what he does for a living or how much money he makes. Then you’ll know you did your job well.

About Madeline Levine

Madeline Levine, Ph.D. is a psychologist with close to 30 years of experience as a clinician, consultant and educator, as well as the New York Times bestselling author of The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well. She is the cofounder of Challenge Success, a program founded at the Stanford School of Education that addresses education reform and student well-being. She is one of the few talking heads featured in the documentary Race to Nowhere and the go-to person for producers and journalists across the country who report on education and parenting. She lives outside San Francisco with her husband and is the proud mother of three newly minted adult sons.

About the books:

Her New York Times bestseller, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her new book, Teach Your Children Well, released July 31, 2012, outlines how our current narrow definition of success unnecessarily stresses academically talented kids and marginalizes many more whose talents and interests are less amenable to measurement. The development of skills needed to be successful in the 21st century- creativity, collaboration, innovation – are not easily developed in our competitive, fast-paced, high pressure world. Teach Your Children Well gives practical, research- based solutions to help parents return their families to healthier and saner versions of themselves.

For more information, please visit www.MadelineLevine.com.

Tell us, do you think teens have too much pressure placed upon them today? Is your teen struggling? How are you dealing with this in your home? What are the answers to the high-pressured society our teens are living through today?

xoxEDxox

9 Comments
  1. I think children and teens are all under tremndous pressure. It’s coming from the parents and teachers in my opinion. I don’t know the answer here. It’s tough because all parents want to see their children succeed.

  2. I agree, we, as a society put way too much pressure on our young people! I suspect that it is unfulfilled parent’s who push their children to be what they aren’t. Something I have told my fourteen year old daughter, and continue to repeat to her is this,”I don’t care (within reason), what you do for a living! If you are passionate about what you are doing and happy with what you are doing, that is all I care about. No amount of money is worth it if you are not enjoying what you are doing!”
    Subsequently, my daughter know’s that mark’s are not the finite definition of who she is, but she did receive an Honour’s award for her overall mark’s for her first year in high school. I continue to tell her that as long as she is doing the best that she can, that is all I care about. Well she was quite satisfied with the work she has done, I love her soooo much!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. As the mother of a teenage girl, I work hard to ensure she eats, sleeps and has some fun in between the school work and competitive soccer that she plays. The need to be perfect is the last thing we worry about and I tell her constantly that I am happy as long as she believes she’s done her best.

  4. My daughter is completely stressed out. She suffers from headaches and everything that goes with too much pressure. I try to and tell her we are happy with her no matter what so long as she tries her best. This doesn’t seem to work. She is obsessed with getting good grades. It has been a tough year.

  5. Until it’s laid out like this, one doesn’t realize how much stress a teen really has to deal with. These are great tips, which hopefully all moms (and dads) will follow. If I may add another: eat well balanced meals and get some exercise.

  6. Wow. I love this post. My 13yr old is under school work pressure and has made it verbal to me last night.. At dinner, she told me her ideas of speaking to her assistant principal about having a quick dialogue session with her peers about their own pressures and how they deal with them. Gather their information and be able to share do’s and don’ts thru maybe a weekly 30 second loud speaker announcement, monthly news letter or an afterschool activity. I’m so proud of her!!! I thought it was a great idea… As for my support as a parent, I normally encourage her to plan ahead with her schedule, wind down before bedtime, and better eating habits, down time for family and friends.

  7. Our middle school has recently implemented an online tool called School Loop where parents and students can see grades on tests and assignments. We were encouraged by teachers to check the Loop often to ensure that a slippage in grades isn’t gone too long without parental intervention. I’ve decided to not check on the Loop at all. First, this constant bombardment of grades gives me anxiety. Second, I’d like my child to go to their teacher if they didn’t do so well on a test. Third, when did our educational system become such a police state? Children need time to process a bad grade so they can come up with their own solution before parents tell them what path they should take.

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