Our kids are being ambushed at every turn, and earlier than ever—with messages about nailing test scores, getting into the right schools and performing to superhuman standards. If that alone doesn’t freak them out, they are peppered with constant reminders that they won’t be happy without the best-liked Snapchat story, Kardashian-like rear ends, the latest phone upgrade, or hitting it out of the park scholastically, athletically, musically, socially and even sexually.
They are ramped up from the moment they step foot into school, with all eyes on the prize of so-called “success” and being “cool:” being a star athlete, performer or scholar (or all of the above) so they can get their shot at being accepted into their dream college. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, all the effort in the world may not do the trick. This is unsettling, especially given that many families are sacrificing incredible amounts of energy, money and time in hopes of reaching a goal that has become elusive and often unattainable, plus it’s proving, in many instances, to be downright unhealthy.
Breaking Records; Breaking Hearts
Each year, higher education institutions break records; it’s not unheard of to have over 50,000 applicants in a given year. Multiple SAT retakes, essays galore and “crazy hoop-jumping” (as one of my university students calls it) have become the new norm. The median GPA’s and test scores across institutions continue to skyrocket to unprecedented levels.
It used to be that students performing at the level of today’s “average” could write their ticket to most anywhere. In my case, I sent in my fifty-dollar application fee and left it to fate. There were no essays; no incessant milling over early decisions and early action choices; no worries that I hadn’t applied to a dozen or more institutions “just to be safe,” and no $50,000 a year price tag. At the time, I was less mature and articulate than most fifth graders of today. Those days are gone.
Today’s process has become less than humane, to say the least. It tosses parents, educators and children alike into a pressure cooker that often leaves mental health and healthy development by the wayside.
The Truth on the Big Screen
One night, I nestled in with my daughter, Tori, a senior in high school at the time, to watch the movie Admissions. It was the perfect cap-off to the whirlwind two-year journey we’d completed, stomping across several states and at least a dozen college campuses. She had finally finished her eleventh and final application to round off her applications to “reach,” “mid-line,” and “safety” schools.
Throughout the movie, colleges rejected candidates left and right, despite their being national champion gymnasts, chess players and nonprofit founders with 4.0’s and perfect scores. The humor helped diffuse the tension of a process that had been a major source of strife for Tori and her friends, all of them anxious about what was to come as they awaited highly-anticipated decision letters.
Despite the tremendous value of education, our practices, policies and mindsets need some major shifting. Not only do we need to take well-being into account, but it needs to be made it a top priority, right from the get go. The data is clear. We do better when we are mentally grounded. The anxiety of today’s hyper-competitive market is disrupting learning and healthy development. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics reports eleven percent of us from ages twelve and up are on antidepressants.
According to a Lancet 2012 Global Mental Health Report, the pressures of today are most intense between the ages of fifteen and forty-four, making it a prime time for problems to emerge if we are not careful. Numbing behaviors like over or under-eating, cutting, drinking, drugging and hookup benders are taking a toll. In too many cases, ramping up perfectionistic behaviors are modern traps for our children and teenagers.
Three Things They Need to Know
Instead of creating more hoops for our kids to jump through and wondering why they are so anxious, depressed or constantly acting out, here are three things we need to repeatedly tell and show them:
1. It’s not worth it if you get sick. Striving for excellence can be healthy and rewarding, and the opportunities of today are, in many instances, worth reaching for. But constantly pushing the boundary to the point of ill health is counterproductive and unsustainable. It can also lead to lifelong habits and behaviors that can breed dire consequences. Pace yourself. There will be all kinds of bait and traps along the way telling you to ignore the warning signs of your body and brain. Find and respect your threshold. This is one of the most important skills you can ever learn.
2. The adults “in charge” have a lot of work to do. We can’t keep pushing you through endless hoops and fanning the flames of perfectionism while expecting you to be healthy and happy. Sometimes we get a bit too overzealous in trying to help you find your way in this complicated world. So here goes: We are not perfect. We’ve told you to work together, but we have a long way to go in this area. Please don’t give up on us. There are lots of us that can help make it better: policy makers, educators, leaders, mental health clinicians, health care providers and beyond. We will band together and stand up for and with you. We will stop creating more hoops and start building bridges that help you truly thrive. You deserve nothing less from us.
3. You are enough. When our culture screams you will never be enough, answer back: You are enough! Yes, competition is steep, and there will always be someone who is further along. That’s the beauty of human potential. Don’t let it deter you from embracing your own multidimensionality and celebrating where you are in your own unique developmental process. Watch out for prescriptive, superficial notions of “cool” and “success.” You are not great because of your rock solid abs, designer shades, beautiful cello piece, grand slam, SAT scores, what college you get into it or what job you eventually land. You are valuable and precious just as you are. And that smile on your face when you are not jumping through hoops is priceless. ###
Dr. Kristen Costa speaks not only from her 20+ years as a mental health clinician and educator, but as a parent. Known as “America’s Stress and Burnout Doc,” Dr. Kris is the author of the award-winning book, RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress, and she’s a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. [website]