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When You're Dealing With A Stressed-Out High School Junior: 5 Tips

(Miguel Angel/Flickr)
(Miguel Angel/Flickr)

Sometimes things are so obvious we fail to take notice.

For example, if I tell you that high school students who plan on attending college are under a lot of pressure, your response might sound like, well, a 17-year-old:

“Duh," you might say, "What else is new?”

This is not new, of course, but the pressure continues to get exponentially worse. Students from all walks of life are increasingly overscheduled, academically burdened and socially overwhelmed. We pile all this stuff on top of the already treacherous waters of adolescence, and it’s no wonder kids feel emotionally battered.

I started thinking more about this when a friend of mine from high school called about his 9th grade daughter.

“She’s 14,” my friend said, “And they’re telling her in the fifth week of school about college. Did we worry about college in 9th grade?"

No way.

I used to think that the pressure on high school teens was largely a regional issue. I was raised in the Midwest, so of course things weren't quite so high-stress compared to here in Boston. But my friend was calling from Colorado, and this is therefore not a regional issue. What is clear, is that this pressure is not good for our kids.

Let’s look at some of the data:

•According to the Department of Education, there are around 2,675 nonprofit four-year undergraduate colleges in the United States.

•Although the number of students in high school continues to slowly decline, the number of students applying to college is steadily increasing. In 2011, there were about 20.4 million students enrolled in college, and that number is projected to reach about 23 million by 2020.

•One out of four teenagers submitted college applications in 2011, at an average of around $40 per application

•In 2001, the typical college admitted around 71 percent of its applicants. By 2011, this number dropped to around 65 percent. I could go on. The common application increases the overall number of applications that students complete, schools look to college acceptance rates as a means of measuring their success and they therefore pass this pressure onto their students, and students themselves are more and more led to view the junior year of high school as something akin to academic and extracurricular boot camp. I’ve seen students get freaked out even before the first week of 11th grade.

This this kind of systemic stress is not good for anyone. A 2008 study found that the increased rate of academic dishonesty on high school campuses stemmed, at least according to some students, from the increasingly high achievement bar that the students themselves experienced. This of course does not excuse cheating, but it is worth noting that both cheating and academic and social pressures seem to have grown in concert with one another.

In fact, way back in 1998, Newsweek ran what was then a sort of shocking story, noting that for many high school students “the rat race begins at fourteen.”

Fourteen. That’s 9th grade.

We like to focus on resilience at the Clay Center — but what does that really mean?

A colleague of mine has a particularly wise way of talking to families about the importance of undergraduate life:

“College,” he says, “Is two or three good friends, a professor or two that you really like, and learning, if you haven’t already, how to do your own laundry.”

By that he means that college is more about growing up than it is about worrying about how others perceive the college that you choose to attend. This sounds reasonable enough, but we can all get easily swept along with the tide of ambition and presumed prestige that accompanies the game that we make our high schoolers play. With this caveat in mind, here are some tips to make this process healthier and more palatable.

•There are lots and lots of colleges. Make an effort to check them out and don't worry what others might say. I’m always stunned by the colleges kids don’t consider.

Tuition is a bear, and there’s no way around that fact. Our land grant and state universities are terrific and in fact the envy of higher education around the globe. We need as a culture to support these schools more and to allow our best and our brightest to be part of these institutions.

•A good fit for college matters more than a “good” college. They’re all good (or good enough) colleges. Make sure you and your teen feel at home at the school he or she ultimately chooses.

•If your teen comes to you looking bedraggled and beaten, ask about the pressures he or she faces. Psychiatric syndromes begin to more readily declare themselves in mid adolescence, and often one begins the treatment of these emerging syndromes by re-examining the cultural and academic milieu.

Don’t be afraid to help your teen to challenge the existing academic and social expectations.

At the end of the day, it is much better to have a well-adjusted teen than a prestigious college admission letter. There are some who might read this advice as a bit disingenuous. The Clay Center, after all, is at Harvard, and Harvard is one of those schools with a super-low acceptance rate and a super-high amount of stress involved in gaining admission. Still, even at Harvard, maybe especially at Harvard, it’s time for us to back off a bit. Being a teen is hard enough. Why would we add to this burden?

Steve Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Reach Steve at steven@mghclaycenter.org, or follow him on Twitter: @SSchlozman.

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