GFM MAY 2016
How parents can help to turn down the heat on overstressed kids to free them up to lead happier lives
From government-mandated standardized test scores to “tiger parents”, kids are facing immense pressure to perform. For many students during the school year, every minute of the day is devoted to school, studying, homework, and other ‘necessary’ activities ranging from sports to service work—to the exclusion of free time and fun. There’s a great deal of fear from parents that their kids just won’t be able to compete . . . and kids themselves are at risk of being overwhelmed by what’s expected of them.
Across our country, there’s an epidemic of teens and even pre-teens suffering from anxiety and depression, cutting themselves, and using prescription medications just to get through their day-to-day lives. Also, kids are drinking to excess and doing drugs on the weekends in order to escape this incredible pressure. Most worrying, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death in the 15–24-year-old age group.
“Those realities are absolutely unacceptable,” Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, states, “If we truly have our children’s well-being at heart, we need to face the fact that forcing them into a mold of perfection isn’t working. If we really want our kids to grow up to be capable, creative, and inspired problem solvers, we need to focus less on their scores and grades and more on their happiness. It’s not going to be the experts who lead the way on this one—it will be ordinary people changing what we are doing in our homes.” He offers the following tips on how parents can free their disengaged kids heading for burnout:
Realize you are doing damage.
It’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity, but parents’ high expectations cause the most stress. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat himself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied.
“We should all ask ourselves the following questions when our sons or daughters come home with four great grades and one that’s not so good (for example, four As and one B): Do we focus on how great the As are? Or is our first response, ‘What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?’” Patkin instructs. “It’s important to realize that by celebrating the As, you’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier and celebratory way than by being immediately disappointed over the one grade that was lacking.
Accept that not all kids are the same.
Who hasn’t said something along the lines of: “Your big sister took pre-calculus her junior year; so should you”? Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other and to their peers.
“The most important thing you can do to help your children is to love them for who they are,” Patkin shares. “Never forget that kids develop at different rates, and that they also have different talents and abilities. No two children are ever going to be alike, and that’s a good thing! Our world needs variety and uniqueness. And trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So, I’m sorry if you wanted your son to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a straight-A student as well as a star athlete. If he is not so good at school and prefers the arts, you’d better love him for that just as well.”
Seek balance and happiness.
“Determine what your child’s personal best looks like,” Patkin instructs. “If your child is putting in a reasonable amount of effort at school, accept that B if it’s the best he can do in a particular class. Don’t push for more. It’s funny—if you focus on your teen’s overall happiness rather than on his report card, he’ll feel that his life is not overbalanced by stress . . . and he’ll probably learn and achieve more.”
Get help if it is needed.
You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.
Teach kids to be easier on themselves.
In any given high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life. “Try to direct your child’s attention to all of the things he does well instead of allowing him to fixate on his few slip-ups and shortcomings,” instructs Patkin.
Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be 16- (or more) hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected.
“Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them the most joy,” says Patkin. “In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at—and maybe even passionate about—will help them much more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen starting to become overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he or she makes.”
Discuss perceived vs. real stress.
Stress and anxiety are insidious: Once they take root in your mind, they tend to grow and spread. “Explain to your child that yes, it can be productive to worry a little bit about his upcoming biology test because that worry will prompt him to study and prepare,” Patkin suggests. “However, point out that it’s not productive—and actually unhealthy—to worry that he might get too many Bs and Cs, which might prevent him from getting into the college he wants. It’s helpful to talk about what reasonable expectations look like for each week, grading period, and year.”
Help kids work toward the big things.
You don’t want your kids to make themselves sick over things like end-of-year exams or college applications, but at the same time, they can’t ignore these big tasks altogether and live a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna existence. Help them learn to approach major milestones with a plan and a realistic perspective.
“It’s a good idea to sit down with your child at least a few times a year to talk about major changes and goals that are coming down the pike and how best to approach them,” Patkin asserts. “This is a great opportunity to teach her how to break a big project down into manageable chunks that won’t be overwhelming and instead will give her a sense of accomplishment when she completes them.”
This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great, natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find an enjoyable way to be active.
Encourage kids to spend time with positive people.
Your teen’s friends might be good kids, but if they’re constantly worrying about grades, their conversation topics probably aren’t adding to your child’s quality of life; instead, she’s probably picking up these unhealthy attitudes herself. While no child wants to hear from her parents that she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, you can encourage her to spend time with people who approach life with positive attitudes and healthy perspectives.
Lead by example, and stop having gripe-fests at the kitchen table with your own friends if you want your child to spend more time around happy people! “Always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success,” Patkin concludes. “Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s well-being.”