Silent Assassin: Teen Stress


It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Colleges are getting more selective every year, and you have to get those scholarships to avoid excessive student loans. Good jobs are getting harder to find, too, unless you constantly perform at the top. Getting that high GPA while managing extracurricular activities- all while keeping a great attitude and avoiding distractions- seems to be the only path to college and career.

So, if our kids are going to compete in the world, they must push themselves- hard. And if we are good parents, we need to be fully behind them, pushing, too. Right?

Well, in fact, wrong. Wrong, that is, unless we want our children to fit the new breed of high-achieving American youth, kids who are totally stressed out and worn out before they ever finish high school. Many are exhausted and frustrated even before leaving middle school.

Study after study has shown that for our darling “adultlings,” the simple joys of life and learning have been completely sucked out of our school’s academic “achievement” process.

We’re telling our kids, ‘Forget the journey; keep your eyes on the prize’-a stellar SAT score, a starring role on the playing field, first chair in the youth symphony. And hey, why not all three? You can do it. Don’t be lazy!

Sure, we must help our children discover their talents, which isn’t easy when the flow of life stays quickened. We have to support their opportunities and desires to excel. Most importantly, we should encourage them when they need a boost or a reminder of their worth.

But I think today’s culture has taken a wrong turn. Don’t you? Our teens are chronically sleep-deprived from studying or practicing, worried sick (literally) about their performance in sports or on stage, and so determined to make grade that they’ll cheat to do it. (A recent study found that 90 percent of middle-schoolers and 95 percent of high-school juniors and seniors admit to having cheated on a test.)

Let there be no doubt: Our kids are stressed. Too stressed. This stress often manifests itself through self-destruction. Experts call it “self-medicating”- stress-induced risky behaviors. Drinking and drug use. Cutting. Attempted suicides. Rampant sexual activity. Constant engagement in high-risk activities. All these behaviors are on the rise. And the number of teens and tweens being treated for depression has doubled in the past five years alone.

Yes, society has changed. Our whole world has changed. But something hasn’t- the “wiring” in a teenager’s brain. You see, that wiring is not complete yet. It isn’t equipped to handle the sort of load modern America seems to promote, with our craze for perfection and persistence without fail. So what happens when you plug 220-volt stress into a 110-volt brain? See the previous paragraph.

Here’s what you need to know about teens: Emotions rule their day. You think school is about academics? Think again. For them, going to school is all about relationships. About falling in and out of love. About friends. Not math and science. And everything that happens in life- in the classroom, on the soccer field, with homework and studying- is affected by what’s going on in their relationships.

Homework, tests, being grounded for every little thing, falling in and out of love, trying to win a game, being sleep-deprived because most school schedules don’t synch with teenagers’ natural sleep patterns- all these things can cause teens to lose it. When their brains overload emotionally, they lash out, act out, or fold in on themselves. They won’t explain their behavior because they can’t. It’s up to parents to understand, at a deep level.

So if you want to be a really good parent, look for the signs of stress: Moody boys. Mean girls. Long silences. Constant rages. Plummeting grades. Ignoring friends. Giving up. Talking down (about being fat, flat, weak, ugly, hated, useless). Drinking. Cutting. Unprotected sex.

Then stop the groundings and pay attention. Help your teen lighten his load. Help her make sense of her worth, her opportunities, and her world (not yours).

And for the long haul, take a look at yourself. Do you dream of your child being on the Olympic team, getting that music scholarship, and inventing the cure for cancer someday? Keep in mind that it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve perfection in any particular activity. Do you need a serious reality check?

Here’s my recommendation: Dream instead of a child who is happy, well-rounded and enjoying life…not someday, but now.



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