For high school seniors, April marks the conclusion of a different type of marathon — one of emotional highs and lows that strike a deep nerve in each student’s sense of self-worth and the validation sought by their invested parents and educators. The differentiation between the thin and fat envelopes of the past has given way to the opening sentence of an email that either ominously describes the highly competitive pool of outstanding students, or cheerily begins with an offer of congratulations. None of the rest of the email matters after that point.
For parents, college admittance can feel like affirmation of a parenting job well-done, and an opportunity for bragging rights on Facebook. After years of prodding, yelling, begging, carpooling, cheering, booing, questioning and — inevitably — comparing, parents can measure their parenting performance by the number of congratulatory opening lines they review. For the students, the responses mark the culmination of years of fears, stress, lack of sleep, too many practices and a forced abandonment of free time.
Too many high school students are exiting secondary school worn out from years of matching their activities to what they think a college admissions officer is seeking. Throughout that process, they have faced a dizzying array of mixed messages:
“Pursue your dreams.”
“Your SATs are critical if you want to get into a good school.”
“Enjoy your life.”
“Go to the highest ranked school possible.”
The multitude of data on stress, depression and suicide should cause schools to examine their culture of achievement and how they drive teens to succeed and, in turn, how teens drive themselves.
"You have to win to succeed.”
And so it goes.
The real story of today’s adolescents can be found in the data. Notwithstanding the high cost of education, colleges are becoming even more competitive. More students are applying to more schools, and the barriers to admittance grow increasingly daunting. More and more, parents are paying professionals to help identify where their children should apply and how to best position them for acceptance. According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, consumers spend $400 million a year on independent education consultants. And students can spend up to $10,000 undertaking a variety of summer enrichment activities that preclude any down time.
But there is a growing dark side to the health and well-being of a generation of kids hyper-focused on success. Mental health issues and stress disorders are a growing concern. In a study reported by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of the teenagers surveyed said they were more worried than they were the year before, yet only 28 percent of the parents similarly observed an increase in their teens’ stress. The study identified a similar disconnect with respect to academic pressure as a source of stress, with 44 percent of the children surveyed reporting that they worry about doing well in school, while only approximately a third of the parents saw this as a source of stress in their children. Another study of teenagers reported feelings of extreme or moderate stress during the school year. Even more alarming, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 to 24. And as the CDC reports, many more teenagers attempt suicide unsuccessfully.
All of this data represents very stressed teenagers trying to respond to the demands of their schools and the pressures of their parents. When stress crosses into actual suicide, devastated families and confounded schools are left to address the unfathomable. This year, Newton, Mass., has been grappling with the horrifying loss of three teenagers who took their own lives. While no one can ever know the individual circumstances that drove these children, a family therapist and professor pointed to the culture of over-achievement that generally leaves kids sleep-deprived and hyper-focused on the path to college.
The multitude of data on stress, depression and suicide should cause schools to examine their culture of achievement and how they drive teens to succeed and, in turn, how teens drive themselves. By the time today’s youth reach high school graduation, they have become sophisticated navigators through a barrage of overt and subliminal messages that reveal how school administrators, teachers and parents are, in actuality, measured and judged by the students’ success. The teenagers do not miss the point.
Too many high school students are exiting secondary school worn out from years of matching their activities to what they think a college admissions officer is seeking.
The pressure of this reality is daunting and requires schools and parents to become partners in providing teenagers with a healthier adolescence. The frenzied schedules that have become the prerequisites to college acceptance leave teens physically exhausted, even as a growing body of research reveals the importance of rest to a young person’s development. For example, the CDC reports that sleep deficiency is a public health epidemic. Other data shows a link between lack of sleep in teenagers and depression and suicide.
Students cannot alone extricate themselves from this marathon of over-achievement. Parents and schools must together recognize the long-term implications of the high-risk race they manage. There is no shortage of examples demonstrating that success in life is not tied to acceptance at a college that meets some arbitrary standard of prestige. This is not about taking a leap of faith, it is about the grown-ups in the room recognizing the escalating costs of a race without a finish line.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen’s newly released book is “You Raised Us — Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams.”