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Why pressure on teens to be high-achievers can be harmful

By The Health News Team | May 5, 2023
Student asleep with books and laptop computer

If you are the parent of a teen, you’ve likely received a message or two — or 10 — from your child’s school about AP classes, college test prep, varsity tryouts and a number of “looks good on your application” type of activities.

The seemingly endless list of teen must-do activities can be overwhelming — and expensive. It might also be unhealthy for some kids.

From 2016 to 2019, the rate of anxiety and depression grew by 27% among children and by 24% among teens. By 2020, 5.6 million kids had been diagnosed with anxiety problems and 2.4 million had been diagnosed with depression.

Could the pressure to do all the activities, take advanced classes, play competitive sports and get into top colleges be the reason for this? If so, why do parents, society and the kids themselves continue to push the importance of high achievement? When did average — defined as “not out of the ordinary” — become unacceptable? And when did exceptional become, well, average?

The normalization of exceptional

“Society has normalized high achievement in teens by encouraging each generation to perform better than the one before,” says Erynn Macciomei, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Recent generations have experienced significant pressure to attend college, highlighting this as the only pathway to a successful career and happy adulthood. As attending post-secondary schools has become more common, expectations to take AP classes or attend exclusive colleges have encouraged teens to do more than just the status quo.”

And what about the students who struggle with academics or whose families are unable to afford the steep costs? These families may see their teen’s performance in competitive sports as an alternate opportunity to receive scholarships to prestigious universities.

“Everyone wants to be admired in some way, whether it is as the valedictorian or award-winning athlete — or as the parent of one,” Dr. Macciomei says. “Bragging rights matter in this society, especially when they can be posted on social media for all to see.”

But are the bragging rights worth the damage acquiring them might cause? According to Dr. Macciomei, the pervasive high pressure to achieve impacts kids’ overall level of emotional stress, which can prompt greater concerns of depression and anxiety.

Pressure also impacts kids’ overall self-concept, or their general beliefs about who they are or will be. “With pressure to achieve, kids connect their worth to what they achieve or succeed at, which can have dangerous consequences,” she says.

What parents can do to relieve some pressure

Dr. Macciomei suggests that it is vital to remind kids that each person has different strengths and journeys and develops at a unique pace. Parents should put emphasis on a child’s effort, not the outcome. They should also monitor their child’s mood and recognize when commitments and activities provide stress rather than enjoyment.

“Parents may not always be the ones pressuring their children to excel at school and sports,” Dr. Macciomei says. “Teens can place this pressure on themselves, either because they generally have perfectionistic personality traits or fears of failure, or they are plagued by comparisons to their peers.”

Regardless of where the pressure is coming from, parents should watch for signs that their children are feeling overwhelmed, which can include:

  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable

  • Isolating

  • Challenges in regulating their emotions, such as having a short fuse or easily crying

  • Closing off emotionally

  • Eating and sleeping too much or not enough

  • Challenges with attention and concentration

  • Changes in performance in school, sports and activities

“These signs may not always be apparent,” Dr. Macciomei says. “So regularly checking in with your teen is important.”

How kids can help themselves

Parents should also help teens learn how to recognize when they are feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Macciomei says. It is important they have the tools to express how they are feeling, can identify the cause of their stressors, and know how to problem-solve ways to alleviate them.

Some stressful tasks, such as starting the college application process, might be required. So, problem-solving can include structuring their time, taking breaks and scheduling pleasant activities — all important ways to cope.

Other stressful tasks may be voluntary and cause more stress than they are worth. Dr. Macciomei recommends that teens have open discussions with their parents about their stress level and the pros and cons of their voluntary commitments, and set good boundaries to safeguard their self-care time.

“Downtime is important for all people, not just teens,” Dr. Macciomei says. “Recharging can allow us to be more effective and intentional about how we use energy and attention. When we actively choose to take a break, we are practicing self-compassion and communicating to ourselves that we are enough, just as we are.”

What needs to change in the big picture

What’s more, according to Dr. Macciomei, it’s not just teens and their parents who need to take steps to relieve some of the pressure. Society, she says, must begin to encourage a culture of “enoughness,” allowing people to celebrate differences, not continuously create cause for comparison and competition.

“We would all benefit from slowing down, practicing gratitude for what is, and not jumping to the next thing,” Dr. Macciomei says. “Society needs to stop reinforcing burnout as an indicator for achievement, and instead encourage balance and self-compassion.”

Dr. Macciomei encourages parents to talk regularly to their teens and reach out to their teen’s doctor if they are experiencing excessive feelings of overwhelm, anxiety or stress for an extended period. Seek emergency care or call 911 if they may be at risk for self-harm or suicide.

Learn more about adolescent mental health services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.

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