We recently had the chance to sit down with Marc Banks, Dean at Newton South High School, to talk about one of the biggest challenges high school students face: stress and anxiety.
Marc works with hundreds of kids each year across all grade levels, so his perspective has both breadth and depth. He offered some great insights about why stress is on the rise for high school students, as well as suggestions for how parents can help their students combat stress.
The following article is based on the interview between Marc and Jay, Signet’s Owner and CEO.
Stress On the Rise
There’s no doubt that high school is tough. Students are juggling academic courses, extracurricular activities, standardized testing, college applications, and—hopefully!—quality time with friends, family, and themselves. But something feels different about the high school experience today. That something is a rise in stress and anxiety.
Students today deal with significantly more pressure and higher expectations than in years past. What’s harder to pinpoint is exactly why kids are pushing themselves harder than ever.
A few likely contributing factors include*:
- A push for all students to go to (the right kind of) college. Marc works in a school just outside of Boston, the “college capital of the world.” A growing emphasis on education means that in a school like his, nearly all students are expected to graduate high school and attend a four-year college. Trade schools, for example, aren’t viewed in the same way they once were, as valuable and viable career choices for high school grads. And in a high-performing district, students are expected to get into “good” colleges, “good” in this instance meaning highly selective and often very expensive. The local public university, regardless of quality, often doesn’t make the grade.
- Implicit expectations set by parents’ worldviews. The way parents view the world affects their children (yes, even those rebellious teenagers who seem not to listen to anything their parents say!). If parents have gone to four-year colleges and work high-powered jobs, their children may feel pressure to meet that same standard. Most parents really do want what’s best for their kids, Marc says; the overbearing parent who won’t accept anything less than an “A” is the exception, not the rule. Nevertheless, students may feel the need to live up to the examples of their parents, or to follow and find success on a similar path to the one their parents have taken.
- Extreme competition among peers. If parents aren’t the ones applying direct pressure to students (for the most part), who is? Other students may be the biggest factor. Marc tells us that the high levels of competition between students are a big contributor to the stress and anxiety many teens feel. There is a sense of needing to one-up fellow students in order to do well, which creates animosity and tension rather than a sense of community and camaraderie.
- The presentation of perfection on social media. This phenomenon isn’t limited to students: most adults are familiar with the idea that social media distorts reality and makes it appear as though everybody is living a perfect life but you. For students, seeing their peers post about getting perfect test scores or winning awards makes them feel like they can’t possibly perform at the same level. This is what’s known as “compare and despair,” and the proliferation of social media platforms has made it much, much more common. What many students (and some adults!) don’t realize is that there is a natural human tendency to only post the good stuff; the mediocre and even bad stuff is there, but it often doesn’t earn a mention on Facebook.
- College admissions. Although colleges pay lip service to the idea that they “consider each applicant as a whole person,” it might be more accurate to say they “consider each applicant as a whole person, assuming they have a stellar GPA.” Grades are easily quantifiable, so it’s logical that colleges use them as a measuring tool. And colleges often want to boost their own status as selective schools by touting the high GPAs of their applicants. This leads students to place outsized importance on their grades.
*Note: In our conversation, Marc emphasized that he was looking through a very specific lens, by virtue of working in an affluent school district in a suburban area of the Northeast. While not every point here will apply for students across the country, many of the parents we work with will recognize a set of similar circumstances for them and their children.
Parents are an important line of defense in recognizing when stress is having adverse consequences on a student, so it’s vital that they know what to look for. Warning signs of stress include:
- Lack of sleep. Sleep is a crucial piece of overall health and well-being, and a lack of sleep can also significantly affect students’ academic performance. Students may not be getting enough sleep because they are overburdened with work or activities, or because they have trouble falling or staying asleep. Setting a consistent bedtime that allows for a full 8 hours of sleep is ideal.
- Being overinvolved. Students who are overinvolved are burning the candle at both ends. They’ve joined every club they can because they feel they have to build an impressive resume for colleges. (Incidentally, they don’t.) They may have little passion or even interest in the activities they’re choosing, a surefire recipe for burnout.
- Lack of free time. Being overinvolved usually leads directly to a lack of free time. We hear from many students that their high school experience was actually more difficult than their college one, in part because the structure of college allows for significantly more unscheduled free time. Students who don’t have opportunities to wind down at the end of the day, spend a few minutes staring at the clouds, or pick up a good book now and then are lacking crucial rest that their bodies and brains desperately need.
- Feeling tired, angry, frustrated, or sad. Trying to manage all the pressures of high school with a still-developing adolescent brain leads to a buildup of emotion. Students often feel like they’ll never meet the high bar of performance they associate with success. The result may be dejection or a sense of failure. Marc noted that some students show apathy, which is likely a result of shutting down in response to stress. While everyone has fluctuating moods and can feel tired, angry, frustrated, or sad at times, parents should be on the alert when students consistently display these emotions for a sustained period of time.
When stress and anxiety go unidentified or unmanaged, students can hit the point of burnout. The results are often extreme: plummeting grades, hospitalization, taking a leave of absence. Stress may also exacerbate or add to the challenge of other mental health issues, though there’s no straightforward causation.
Managing Stress Effectively
Stress is not solely the fault of the student, or parents, or other teens, or even society at large; it follows that managing and reducing stress requires a multi-faceted approach. Here are some recommendations for both students and parents to help manage stress.
- Limit activities. Evaluate which activities you find most valuable, and let go of the clubs, sports, or organizations that aren’t serving you. In addition, students should think carefully before adding anything new to their plate.
- Let go of the need for perfection. Life after college has very few graded assignments or standardized tests. Strive to always do your best and learn from your experiences, but also understand that being #1 and living a meaningful life are not the same thing.
- Prioritize health and self-care. Emphasizing sleep, nutrition, and exercise will help you operate optimally, whether you are filling out college applications or engaging a friend in conversation. Good health is critical to avoid being physically overwhelmed by stress.
- Create a personal definition of success. Success is about so much more than academic performance. Spend some time thinking about what matters most to you and then define success on your own terms. From there, you can create and work toward specific goals that align with your own definition of success.
- Be on the alert for signs of stress. If you notice the indicators described above, talk to your student about how to manage his or her time and energy.
- Talk about your own imperfections. It’s important for students to know that their parents have made mistakes and experienced failures, to help them understand that life is not a straight line from high school to college to career.
- Convey to students that their happiness matters most. This is what most parents believe, but reinforcing it to students on a regular basis is important.
- Lead by example. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is an old saying, but not a very effective one. Parents who find themselves overinvolved, without free time, or in a cycle of comparing themselves to others should take steps to make changes in their own lives before asking students to do the same.
If we learned one thing from our conversation with Marc, it was that students should always leave room for joy—for the things that bring us wonder, delight, and a sense of purpose. School can seem like a grind, to be sure, but as human beings, it’s much more important to find meaning than perfection. Leaving room for joy allows students and parents to maintain a sense of perspective, no matter how intense the pressure gets.