I hear the word “pressure” often in my counseling sessions with teens and young adults. They express feeling pressure related to academics, sports, and life direction. What is causing this pressure? Are we asking too much?
Adolescence has always been a time of change and transition. There’s a lot to figure out. It’s a time of rapid discovery about self, sexuality, and growth – social, emotional, and physical. Getting comfortable with those changes can be hard. The teenage years have historically been met with the stress of dealing with friendships and the related peer pressure of sex, drugs, and alcohol. School, learning disabilities, and bullying have always been common obstacles. Navigating relationships with their parents and step-parents leads to confusion and at times contention. That’s the baseline stress of adolescence.
Now, though, life seems much more stressful for teens. The change has been gradual, increasing with each passing year. If we really think about where we have ended up compared to even five years ago, it’s a major difference and our kids are feeling it. Standards for success in school, sports, and just about everything else seem to be reaching higher and higher levels. Teens and young adults feel pushed to do more. They feel overwhelmed by the demands they face and have little understanding of “how to deal.” Most tell me they think it is just them who don’t know how to deal with all that is thrown at them. They talk of seeing others (primarily through social media) who seem to handle everything with ease. These comparisons can cause them to feel worse about not knowing how to handle it all themselves.
What happens as we ask them to perform at new levels in sports?
Let’s start by looking at sports performance and expectations. Sports were once extracurricular activities, meant to help kids experience something fun, exercise, join a team, feel a sense of belonging, and learn to work with others. Sports may still be all that, but the intention beyond participation is much more intense now.
Children are encouraged to specialize in specific sports very early on. They are encouraged to make that their main or only focus in high school. Practicing five times plus a week for 2-4 hours, sweating it out at additional conditioning practices, and showing up to perform at multiple games per week is the average dedication required. Further, it’s not just a seasonal endeavor but a year-round commitment.
If teens ever need to take time off to study and miss a practice, they may get benched for a game – because they aren’t making their team a priority. Even tournaments are now scheduled on holidays as opposed to allowing for breaks to spend time with family and friends.
Parent conversations on the sidelines go something like this:
“Are you getting your kid extra one-on-one training? Do they have a nutritionist? Do they have a conditioning program? What sports camps are they going to? Is your kid going to play in college? What colleges have you visited?”
These conversations escalate expectations of what “should be done.”
What about academics?
When it comes to academics, the early focus is on getting into a good college. They must get “good grades,” and that term’s meaning has changed. When just comparing what was considered a good GPA in the past, a 4.0, to now 4.5, it’s a big difference. I am hearing that a 4.0 will close the door to some opportunities.
Homework means at-home assignments in approximately 8 classes per day. Assuming 10 minutes (which is a low estimate) per class, that’s up to 2 hours a night or more. Some research suggests that homework increases engagement, yet can actually negatively affect students’ overall health.
“… students who did more hours of homework experienced greater behavioral engagement in school but also more academic stress, physical health problems, and lack of balance in their lives. And that’s in affluent districts. … It seems antithetical, but some research suggests that homework can actually hinder achievement and, in some cases, students’ overall health.” SOURCE: popsci.com
Imagine going to work all day and getting home after a long workout or league game… then having to do 2-3 more hours of work. Every day. Further, they have less control over their schedule and environment than adults do. A typical day begins around 6:30 am, taking classes all day, dealing with many people who they wouldn’t necessarily choose to be around, in loud, crowded hallways, followed by sports or extracurricular practices, then studying till past 10 pm, sometimes midnight. Sounds stressful, doesn’t it?
Teens are told they need to take advanced courses and college-level courses (AP or IB) in order to stand out. Piling on to the stress, they must test well on standardized tests, then fill out lengthy digital college applications and write numerous college essays. They may have tutors and college placement advisors, too.
Further, today’s teens are well aware of the high cost of any college, let alone a top-tier school. The premium price tags AND knowing the high cost of college simply adds more pressure. They’re often applying for scholarships and funding alongside admissions applications. Their first big decision comes along with a huge price tag. They must decide where to spend an average of $37,650 per year for four years – totaling $150,600.00. That’s approaching the price of a small home in middle America. Have we been teaching them to make decisions along the way?
Teens are expected to be “well-rounded.” This means they need to show other parts of their lives align with the high-pressure trajectory, too. In addition to sports, they are encouraged to become active members of clubs and to do volunteer work in their spare time. Basically, they’re building a high-stakes resume from a very early age.
The current environment leaves little room for trial and error, which is how teens learn. Teens worry that one bad grade will ruin their future. The pressure to perform at such a high level all the time doesn’t allow for experimentation and growth. Instead, we’re creating an unrealistic need for perfection.
Where is the pressure coming from?
The pressure can come from numerous places.
Some parents are the driving force behind the pressure to excel. They may mean well, believing the pressure will help their kids on their way to “success.” In practice, though, good grades seem to mean parents are happy while bad grades translate into unhappy parents, relationship strife, and even punishment.
Sometimes teens perceive the pressure from their parents or simply want to make them proud. If expectations are not clearly discussed, it leaves teens to make assumptions about their parents’ expectations. It seems logical to them that a harder class and better grades would bring more praise and make their parents proud. Kids also work hard believing it will lead to college scholarships to help alleviate financial stress.
Teens can feel external pressure from peers and others (of any age) on social media. Their own competitive nature can lead to perfectionism and self-induced pressure.
How are they connecting with family to cultivate stability and belonging?
Time spent doing academics and team sports leaves little time for connecting with the family.
Kids get home from practices late and then head to their rooms to do homework until midnight. When they do connect with their parents, it is largely about keeping them on track with academics, sports training, scheduling, and logistics.
There is no space for quality time together – relaxing, de-stressing, and cultivating that feeling of connectedness that is invaluable to the mental and physical well-being of us all. Teens often spend more with coaches than with family.
Any downtime is left to video games or mindless scrolling on social media, which provides a temporary dopamine hit and seems like a relaxing outlet – but time spent on social media can often lead to distress. Social media bombards teens with information and images that shake their uncertainty. Adolescence is already filled with change and transitions, and no one likes the feeling of uncertainty. It feels like there is no floor to stand on.
Social media also chips away at their time and attention. If they try to avoid it, they may worry about keeping up with their friendships. They develop FOMO – fear of missing out on something important.
Are their brains ready for the demand of this high standard?
We are asking teens to manage a lot at a young age. It feels like by the time they are Freshmen in high school we are requiring them to perform at the level of a college student. Recognizing that their brains and executive functioning skills are still developing, we might be asking them to do more than they can do.
Somewhere it has gotten a little fuzzy about what they are capable of during adolescents. And we keep piling on. Maybe we have lost sight of the developmental course for our kids. It is easy to see the developmental milestones and their capabilities when our kids are younger. They smile, roll over at a certain age, eat solids, walk, have language abilities, and read at specific age ranges. We know this and our pediatricians tell us if our kids are on target for these milestones. By the teenage years, we tend to lose sight of developmental milestones.
Maybe some teens are ready for the demands they face. Others start to feel like a failure at every turn. If they feel they just “can’t make the cut” or aren’t doing “enough,” they get down on themselves. Some continue to push themselves. Others give up, becoming unmotivated – resigning themselves because the bar is so high in every endeavor that they just don’t see a way to get it all done. Their own achievements seem to lose value because there is always someone who is doing it better. Either way, their mental health suffers.
Are they equipped to Problem Solve their way out of the stress?
When the challenge is so great or the reach is too far, that’s when stress spills over into toxic unmanageable places, causing psychological distress.
The frontal lobes of teenage brains that house executive functioning are still developing, as mentioned above. Teens are being asked to organize, stay on task, plan, juggle multiple tasks, problem-solve, and tolerate stress. Yet executive functioning of the brain isn’t completely developed until the early to mid-twenties. That’s like asking a young child to …. take over the carpool before they can even see over the dashboard, much less be of age to get a driving permit.
Stress to an adult feels very different than stress to an adolescent. They have more impulsive behaviors and greater susceptibility to stress than adults. This is because the brain’s region for reasoning matures later than the part that reacts to fear and anxiety. The amygdala operates in overdrive, with less input from the rational, problem-solving frontal lobe.
So, are we asking too much of our teens?
I am not sure many parents see how different the world is for teens today than when they were growing up. I think of stress in layers. Teens already have a baseline of stress, just by being a teenager. Each new stressor is added on top: highly competitive sports, high-stakes academics, increased school shootings, new technology (and social media, which brings increases in bullying incidents, lack of belonging, comparison pool of false perfection), changes in home life (often including divorce or contentious divorce), and social life (increasing disconnection at home or with peers).
Do we really need to add more stress at their age they can’t handle? We are pushing the limits of a developing brain. Asking them to deal with pressure in numerous areas of their lives when they don’t have the capacity or skills to deal with and the emotional regulation abilities to deal with the level of stress the work brings.
The old adage, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” means nothing to them, and frankly, it doesn’t apply any longer. When kids hear this, it leads them to not feel understood. It indicates that they are alone, unsupported – it must be “just them” who don’t know how to get it all done. We need to spend more time teaching our kids how to manage the long list of To Do’s and the accompanying stress of life, rather than piling on more work and pressure.
To reduce the stress, we can focus on teaching them coping skills and offering unconditional support in their times of need. The following question sets can help prompt an assessment of their situation. ASK!
- Quantity of work: Are they overwhelmed with their load of classes and homework?
- Challenge of work: Is it a healthy challenge or a stretch too far? Are they feeling pressured to take certain classes? Where is the pressure coming from? What would it look like if they didn’t feel so much pressure? Would they reduce their academic load or reduce the level of challenge?
- Pleasurable activities: What is the expectation of their extracurricular activities? Are they finding joy in their extracurricular activities?
- Manageable schedule: Do they feel overscheduled? Are extracurriculars interfering with academics, family time, or sleep?
- Time to rest: Are they tired? Teens need an average of 9 to 10 hours of sleep per night.
- Coping skills: Do they know how to cope with the pressures of achieving both academics and extracurriculars?
- Outside factors: Are there other environmental factors that are contributing to their stress (news, social media, home life, relationships)?
- Available support: Ask, “How can I support you?” Simply listen to the answer without giving advice. Reassure them that you care and want to give support.
- Mental health check-ins: Discussing mental health at home is one of the most important things you can do for your teen. These open and real conversations in themselves can reduce stress. Teens knowing you understand how they feel, and that you are there to listen and support them is comforting and reassuring.
- Verified expectations: What do they think your expectations are of them? What expectations do they have of themselves? Are the expectations healthy? Parents and teens alike may have internal narratives about what parents’ expectations are, but little communication to verify parents’ actual expectations. So be sure to ask.
When parents ask questions and model healthy behaviors themselves around managing stress, it helps kids learn to deal with life’s stressors before they leave home. Stress management is a critical life skill today.
True, a moderate amount of stress can actually be helpful. A healthy level of stress can keep us alert, heighten our memory, and motivate us to achieve higher levels of performance. But too much stress can lead to poor mental health. So talk to them about what may be impacting their stress levels. Teach them balance. Share ways to cope and “dial down” stress. Simply being there to listen is the best support parents can provide for their kids.
Written by: Susan Caso MA, LPC-Mental Health Director – The Liv Project