Whether the pressure is self-induced, coming from parents or a competitive school atmosphere, or from a host of other factors, stress is an increasing problem in communities with highly motivated student populations. Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J., has been exploring such issues for the past year through a series of programs given the overall title "Parenting Teens — It's a Growing Season." On Jan. 10, the issue was stress.
Temple Emanuel invited Dr. Richard Selznick, a psychologist and director of the Cooper Learning Center at Cooper Children's Regional Hospital in Voorhees, N.J., to commandeer a discussion called "Stress and Structure — What Is the Right Balance in Your Home?" The evening was aimed at parents to alert them about how intense lifestyle choices can negatively affect their children.
Students in high-achieving situations are often caught in a vicious cycle, the therapist argued; parents, worried about the competitive nature of school and college admissions, push their kids to work to be the best. At the same time, noted Selznick, students themselves see admission to elite universities as the pinnacle of achievement.
When students pile on more and more activities, they're not just being active young people, said Selznick, they're building credentials and crafting résumés — something previous generations wouldn't have considered necessary for a 13-year-old.
"Kids can get the wrong message," he said. They begin linking their scholastic achievement to self-worth and their parents' love." Selznick reminded audience members that not every kid is destined for acceptance at the most exclusive universities.
If students are solely focused on that Ivy League letter of acceptance, they can miss out on a lot along the way. For those driven students — with their parents behind them gently (or not-so-gently) applying the pressure — the enjoyment of the high school years can be lost.
Moreover, the reality of college life can come as a shock, said Selznick. After years of a highly structured life manipulated by parents, young people often cannot cope with the open nature of a college environment. Students may find themselves overwhelmed by the ample free time that college provides, and can wind up neglecting classwork and other obligations.
Plus, other important skills can be overlooked as well, said Selznick. How to cook or even how to write a check may be a mystery to students entering a new world without the guiding hand of their folks. "Are you preparing them now for life skills?" asked Selznick. "Think of those basic life skills they're going to need," he said, adding that one acquaintance of his refused to let his children leave for college until they could all prepare at least one substantial dinner.
Selznick also noted that parents must examine how they deal with stress in their own lives. "Look in the mirror — what's your stress level?" he asked the group. When parents scream at home because they carry office anxiety with them, kids do not learn good coping skills, he said.
Finally, a culture that places success above all else can leave many teenagers without coping skills when they face disappointment. "From a very young age, we're applauding on the sidelines," said Selznick. "We buffer them from any hurt."
But, he noted, disappointment is a part of life, and dealing with it is a necessary skill — one that should not be learned too late.