Here at Signet, we’ve felt anxiety levels in both students and parents steadily rising over the years. Things seem more urgent, workloads seem higher, parents seem more worried. There’s a general sense of “What will happen if my son/daughter doesn’t do X?” from parents, and even from students, “What will happen if I don’t get X grade or do Y activity?”
Where does this come from? There are a lot of factors, but a big source of the pressure is the “arms race” of college admissions, as well as the false perception that if you don’t go to a certain type of school or achieve a certain degree of academic success, your life may not amount to much.
In this interview, Dr. Angela Currie shares her insights on stress, anxiety, and pressure, and she also gives some really valuable advice on how parents can help students keep things in perspective.
What are the most common mental health issues that students face?
We’re seeing a huge increase in anxiety and stress, in both children and teenagers. It’s important to differentiate between stress and anxiety. Stress is related to present conditions, demands kids have now or in the very near future. This includes upcoming testing, after-school commitments, and daily homework.
The increase in stress is also drawing out anxiety in kids who may be inclined toward it, perhaps genetically, but who under less stressful circumstances might not have developed anxiety. We’re seeing more anxiety-based disorders and low self-esteem. We’re also seeing feelings of helplessness, which can lead to depressive symptoms.
Part of the reason is that we’re putting developmentally inappropriate expectations on kids. Kindergarteners are now expected to read, and the expectations only increase from there. Adolescents are expected to participate in AP classes and a huge number of extracurriculars, take the SATs early, and know what they want to do in college. This contributes to both stress and anxiety. I’d say that stress and anxiety are reaching epidemic levels in today’s youth.
When you talk about stress levels increasing, does that relate to age?
The younger you are, the less developed your skills are. You’re less capable of considering big-picture demands, the meaning behind what you’re being asked to do, and how it may be related to your future goals. You have fewer executive, planning, and organizational skills, so prioritizing is more challenging. Even teens aren’t as developed as young adults, and are often presented with more demands than they can handle. This elevates stress and potentially anxiety, and that elevation prevents their executive skills from functioning correctly or developing further, which leads to more stress and anxiety. It’s a negative feedback loop. Teens must reduce their stress in order to break this cycle.
Do you see the increase in stress and anxiety as a direct response to increased demands on students?
For sure. Approximately 59% of teens nowadays report that extracurricular activities add to their stress. Teens on average get 7 hours of sleep when they need 9-10. These statistics are much graver than they were 10 years ago. There is tremendous pressure on this age group to be “college-ready” and make sure their applications look good.
Why do you think families and students turn up the pressure?
I think college is a big piece of it. Young adults are far more likely to go on to college and graduate with a four-year degree than they were 20 years ago. We’re a high-achieving society, which creates higher expectations and more competition. For many kids, attending a four-year college is considered a baseline achievement. They feel pressure to get into a “better” school with a certain level of prestige, or it’s assumed they will continue their schooling with some kind of graduate degree. This creates significantly more stress for students, and it can start as early as preschool or kindergarten. A lot of the expectations are developmentally inappropriate: expecting all kindergarteners to read, for example. While 16-year olds may seem like adults, they show significant developmental differences from, say, 25-year olds, and some of the expectations we have for these teens just aren’t developmentally realistic.
If you think a parent has a developmentally inappropriate expectation for their child, how do you counsel them?
We certainly see kids who are on track in terms of developmental expectation, but whose parents are worried they are not up to par. In these cases, I do my best to recalibrate the parents’ expectations, and I will talk through what’s happening in their child’s brain at that age. If there is still a concern, we talk through things the parents can do at home in a developmentally appropriate way to promote continued development and growth. This reduces a lot of parental stress, because it’s not just kids who are more stressed these days.
To parents, it’s jarring to think that their kids are just “average.” A lot of people directly connect good grades, a good school, and a good job with being happy and successful. Do you ever counsel families in a broader context on these concepts?
I definitely counsel kids on what’s beyond that next test. Research shows it’s not extrinsic achievements that predict happiness. Intrinsic factors such as self-confidence, being comfortable with who they are, having a good sense of their vision for life, and interpersonal development are much better predictors of fulfillment or meaning. Refocusing on these intrinsic factors is how we garner motivation in a child.
This is a common topic for adolescents transitioning from high school to college. I see so many teens for evaluation whose goals are just “I want to go to this college,” as opposed to talking about their passions and what they like to do. They’re focused on reaching the next goal but ignoring why that next goal is appealing to them (if it actually is).
How do you cultivate the practice of looking inwards, especially when it’s brand new to parents and/or students?
It’s critical in this transition age to offer strengths-focused planning. Students rarely step back and think about what they’re really good at. Giving them space to consider their skills and strengths is important.
It’s often difficult for students to identify what they do well; it’s much easier to pinpoint areas for improvement. But by identifying strengths, we can employ more creative solutions to elevate areas of weakness. Students need parents, teachers, and counselors to provide space for self-reflection.
What preventive measures can help students avoid the stress cycle?
Make sure they are not overscheduled! Sit down with a calendar and fill in all the activity demands on your student. How many hours a day are they already busy, before homework, sleep, and downtime? This helps recalibrate expectations for both parents and students.
We also want to help kids balance future vs. immediate goals. Kids are future-focused right now because they want to get into college. But if they’re only focused on that far-off goal, the process can be unfulfilling. Break down the goal-setting process to help identify what they can do today to move closer to what they want.
Be aware that stress is not always obvious. Anxiety symptoms include poor concentration, physical complaints, restlessness, or disengagement. Stay alert to subtle signs that kids are confronting stress or anxiety and be prepared to seek support.
Dr. Angela Currie is on staff at NESCA (Neuropsychology and Education Services for Children and Adolescents), where she conducts neuropsychological evaluations of children, adolescents, and young adults presenting with a variety of attentional or learning disabilities. She specializes in the evaluation of psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents, and has extensive experience in the evaluation and treatment of anxiety-based disorders. At NESCA, Dr. Currie supervises the Anxiety and Attention Skills Coaching (AASC) Program, which focuses on teaching emotional awareness and self-regulation through a structured psycho-educational and CBT-based approach. She is also frequently called upon to conduct workshops on the topics of anxiety and self-regulation.