It is amazing to me how times have changed. Growing up, I was always encouraged by my parents to do my best in school, see my friends, have fun and be safe. And beyond that, I always had a sense that with hard work and perseverance, I would be okay and that somehow, things would work out for me.
These days, everything seems more and more complicated.
In my private counseling practice, I see clients who range in age from adolescents to seniors, with the majority of my clients being in their 40’s or 50’s. Recently however, this balance has shifted somewhat. More and more, clients in their late teens and early twenties are showing up at my door. Why? Their pressures are not socially based as I would expect. But rather, they are feeling the pressure to out-do themselves in school, succeed in their extra-curricular activities, win awards, and simply be the best at everything they do.
And their primary motivation? Getting into a good college or university. My first gut instinct, and probably anyone’s gut instinct, would be that perhaps the source of this pressure is coming from within the family. With further probing, however, I am realizing that this pressure is a result of their own self-imposed competition with themselves and their classmates.
For many young adults, this pressure can become overwhelming.
Even with the support of parents and friends, the pressure and resulting stress to get accepted in to a desired university program is so much more complex than it ever was when I was applying to school.
High-schoolers are feeling the need to out-do themselves, both academically as well as within their extra-curricular activities. And the toll it is taking on them is astounding.
How can parents help manage academic pressures?
#1 – Do not diminish their experience.
Whatever we do, we cannot diminish the stressful experience they are going through. Telling them, ‘it’s not so bad’ or ‘things will work out’, is a big no-no. Teenagers will shut down at that point and be more reluctant to open up about their feelings if they feel they are not being taken seriously. So start by acknowledging how hard a time they are having, and offering to help them figure out options to cope.
#2 - Help them try to identify the true source of their stress.
Are they behind in their work? Are they distracted? Is the work presented to them too difficult? Have they taken on more than they can handle? By helping our children identify the true source of their stress, we are creating the opportunity to then further break down how the stress can be more realistically managed.
Tasks toward achieving their goals can then be broken down into more easily manageable steps.
#3 – Help them determine how much of their stress is under their control.
Are they able to drop an after school activity so as to allow more time to get some work done? Or are they having trouble getting their work done because all of their spare time is being taken up caring for a sick loved one? The key to managing being overwhelmed is recognizing that something needs to change. And we can only change what we control. Even if it means admitting that we have taken on more than we can chew.
#4 – Help teach our children to look ahead and plan ahead.
I am a true believer that being one step ahead is a life skill that benefits us in all areas of our life. If we know that next month we are going to be out of town for a family wedding, let’s assist our children to be one step ahead of the game. Instead of helping them make up their work when they get back, why not help them be organized to get it done before they leave?
#5 – Help our children learn to identify and evaluate worst-case scenarios.
If an assignment is handed in a day late, what is the worst thing that can happen? If they ask for an extension on a project, what is the worst thing the teacher will say? We often anticipate outcomes are going to be a lot worse than they actually are. If we are able to anticipate an outcome, and accept them as possibilities, we regain control of our decisions. We can teach our children to stop catastrophic thinking and learn to realistically evaluate the consequences of their actions.
#6 – Help them learn to recognize all their achievements to date.
When we are stressed, it is very easy to downplay everything that we have accomplished. Sometimes we all need reminders that a low mark in a certain class does not mean we are poor students. It is highly advisable that we teach our children to write these achievements down and keep the list easily accessible.
#7 – Teach our children better ways to cope.
Are they sleeping enough at night? Are they getting enough exercise? Are they allowing themselves balance time by seeing their friends or going to the movies? Are they familiar with techniques to help them relax? There are many techniques to learn to relax our bodies and our minds that we can learn ourselves and teach our children. Although these techniques do not take the pressures away, they allow us to stop and evaluate, regroup, and make decisions with a clearer head.
For most of us, stress is inevitable and is part of our every day life. Teenagers and young adults find stress and pressures particularly difficult to manage. When their parents are not the source of their stress, parents can play a very active and vital role in helping their children manage their pressures effectively.
Image: “School Friends Head Upset” by stock images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net.
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