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Helping Your Child Deal With School Stress

by Todd Patkin

While many of us look at the blooming flowers and leafy green trees of spring as symbols of new, positive beginnings, high school- and college-age young people are probably blind to that sunny picture. For them, at its worst, spring brings a constant and overwhelming worry that their lives will be irreparably damaged if they don’t get accepted to their first-choice college or grad school, sprinkled with anxious trips to the mailbox praying for a big envelope instead of a small one. And at its best, the season means stress-filled study periods preparing for end-of-term exams and tests ranging from the ACT and SAT to the GRE and LSAT, or a renewed focus on hitting the books to ensure they’re as close to the top of their school’s GPA rankings as possible.

Yes, when every minute of the day is devoted to school, studying, homework, and other “necessary” activities like sports and service work, kids are definitely learning to be successful. But when all of this happens to the exclusion of free time and fun, Todd Patkin wonders if these young people are learning how to be happy.

 In fact, he suggests that this high-stakes, high-pressure achievement culture might not be as beneficial to our kids as we think.

“Of course we want our children to lead fulfilled, successful lives, but subjecting them to relentless academic and extracurricular pressure is not the way,” says Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95). “As parents, we’re responsible for looking after our children’s overall well-being. And yes, while their well-being does include succeeding academically, it also includes ensuring that they’re making room for those things that make them happy and allow them to actually enjoy life.”

Patkin speaks from experience—as a child and teenager he was obsessed with achievement at school and suffered from regular bouts of anxiety that stemmed from his desire for perfection. As an adult, Patkin’s unhealthy focus on doing and being the best caused him to suffer a breakdown at the age of thirty-six. Since then, he has reevaluated his priorities as well as what truly makes people happy and unhappy.

“As the parent of a teenage son, I still have a personal stake in the well-being of America’s students, and I have seen firsthand just how oppressive our current system can be when the emphasis is on outcomes instead of on true education,” Patkin points out. “So many teens today are under the immense pressure I once felt—pressure to succeed, pressure to get the best grades, pressure to be accepted to a ‘good’ college, and more. Too many of them are burning out and making self-destructive decisions, and it’s our responsibility as parents and citizens to start to force a cultural change in America.”

It’s true: Across our country, there’s an epidemic of teens and even pre-teens suffering from anxiety and depression, cutting themselves, and using prescription medications just to get through their day-to-day lives. Also, kids are drinking to excess and doing drugs on the weekends in order to escape this incredible pressure, even if only for one night. Most worrying, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens. Sixty percent say they’ve thought about it, and nine percent of high schoolers admit they’ve attempted it at least once.

“Those realities are absolutely unacceptable,” Patkin insists. “If we truly have our children’s well-being at heart, we need to face the fact that forcing them into a mold of perfection isn’t working. If we really want our kids to grow up to be capable, creative, and inspired problem solvers, we need to focus less on their scores and grades and more on their happiness. It’s not going to be the experts who lead the way on this one—it will be ordinary people changing what we are doing in our homes.”

          If the reality of disengaged kids heading for burnout sounds worryingly familiar to you, now is the time to start doing things differently. Read on for fourteen tips to help you get started:

Realize you are doing damage. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat himself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied with his performance.

“We should all ask ourselves the following questions when our sons or daughters come home with four great grades and one that’s not so good (for example, four As and one B): Do we focus on how great the As are? Or is our first response, ‘What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?’” Patkin instructs. “It’s important to realize that by celebrating the As, you’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier and celebratory way than by being immediately disappointed over the one grade that was lacking. Teens might act like they couldn’t care less about their parents, but the truth is that they do want to please us. In fact, some kids are experiencing symptoms ranging from stomachaches to severe depression due to the day-to-day stress they encounter at school and at home. The first step in helping your child is realizing how your expectations might be affecting him.”

Accept that not all kids are the same. This fact is pretty obvious, but at times most parents could use the reminder. After all, who hasn’t said something along the lines of: “Your big sister took pre-calculus her junior year; so should you”? Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ children.

“The most important thing you can do to help your children is to love them for who they are,” Patkin shares. “Never forget that kids develop at different rates, and that they also have different talents and abilities. No two children are ever going to be alike, and that’s a good thing! Our worldneeds variety and uniqueness. And trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So, I’m sorry if you wanted your son to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a straight-A student as well as a star athlete. If he is not so good at school and prefers the arts, you’d better love him for that just as well.”

Be willing to let some things go. All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. Especially in today’s culture, it’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so take time to evaluate what expectations are actually realistic and what achievements are really important.

“Come to terms with the fact that your teen may never quite get up on time or make her bed before school,” Patkin advises. “And realize that neither of those things is likely to ruin her life. Instead of getting caught up in making sure that every box is checked all of the time, try to keep the big picture in mind. Everyone will be much less stressed if you can resist the urge to micro-manage each and every task. So instead of fixating on little things that weren’t completed perfectly, focus on your children’s successes!”

Seek balance and happiness. Seeking balance and happiness for your child goes hand in hand with letting the little things go. Again, every individual has different strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important for parents to have a good feel for what these are in their children so that expectations and requirements are reasonable.

“Determine what your child’s personal best looks like,” Patkin instructs. “If your child is putting in a reasonable amount of effort at school, accept that B if it’s the best he can do in a particular class. Don’t push for more. It’s funny—if you focus on your teen’s overall happiness rather than on his report card, he’ll feel that his life is not overbalanced by stress…and he’ll probably learn and achieve more.”

Get help if it is needed. You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.

“If your child needs academic help, a tutor is certainly a good idea if you can find one who is affordable and qualified,” Patkin suggests. “You might also ask your child’s teacher if she can spend a little extra time with her or recommend someone who could give out-of-school help. Getting your child the help she needs can make a world of difference in her performance and boost her confidence.”

Teach kids to be easier on themselves. In any given middle or high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life.

“Try to direct your child’s attention to all of the things he does well instead of allowing him to fixate on his few slip-ups and shortcomings,” instructs Patkin. “The best way to teach this is to model such behavior. I think that everyone—not just young people—can benefit from showing ourselves more compassion and love. The bottom line is, we’re all human—and thus fallible. So instead of demanding perfection from ourselves in every situation, we need to learn to cut ourselves a lot more slack.”

Discourage overscheduling. Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be sixteen (or more)-hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected.

“Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them the most joy,” says Patkin. “In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at—and maybe even passionate about—will help them much more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen starting to become overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he or she makes.”

Discuss perceived stress vs. what is real. Stress and anxiety are insidious: once they take root in your mind, they tend to grow and spread. It’s all too easy for every waking moment to be consumed by fretting about what might happen or go wrong in the future. That’s why it’s very important to talk with your teen about what is stressing him out and to help him determine which worries are productive and which aren’t.

“Explain to your child that yes, it can be productive to worry a little bit about his upcoming biology test because that worry will prompt him to study and prepare,” Patkin suggests. “However, point out that it’s not productive—and actually unhealthy—to worry that he might get too many Bs and Cs, which might prevent him from getting into the college he wants, which might prevent him from pursuing a successful career. It’s helpful to talk about what reasonable expectations look like for each week, grading period, and year. And be sure to share your own experiences to help your child put his situation into perspective.”

Help kids live in the present. If your child spends most of her time thinking about what she could have done better in the past or stressing about what might go wrong in the future, she’ll miss out on actually living her life. (This is a problem that plagues plenty of adults too!) To cut back on stress, help your teen to focus her attention on all of the good things in her life right now.

“If your child is in the ninth grade, for example, help her focus on the special events only ninth graders experience, like the first high school homecoming football game,” Patkin shares. “And living in the present goes for you, too. Don’t be so focused on the future that you forget to enjoy the time you have with your child right now. Remember, kids are smart—even from early childhood they can tell when you’re not really ‘with’ them mentally as well as physically, and that’s how they’ll learn to behave too.”

Focus on the importance of organization. The fact is, knowing exactly where everything is, what needs to be done, and the best way to do it never hurt anyone. Teach your children to keep an updated calendar, to make thorough to-do lists, and to keep their school papers in order—even if they don’t think they need to. Being organized will make them more efficient and will cut out quite a bit of needless worry along the lines of “I forget what I’m supposed to do for history class tonight!”

“Help your children with school and home to-do lists,” Patkin suggests. “Also, establish a weekly time to clean out sports bags and backpacks. Consider designating a homework area, complete with storage folders for each child and class. Being organized sets you up for success not just in school but throughout your life. It’s often the little things that have the biggest impact—but only if you remember to do them in a timely manner!”

Teach kids to take advantage of the most efficient times of their day. Survey a group of high-performing high school students, and most of them will probably tell you that their afternoons and nights are totally consumed by sports practice, school meetings, homework, etc. Chances are, these same kids are also utterly exhausted. As a parent, you might not be able to significantly decrease your child’s workload, but you can help him to work as efficiently as possible.

“If your child is a morning person, encourage him to get up twenty minutes early to practice violin or review for a test before school,” Patkin advises. “Likewise, if he’s a night owl, let him sleep as late as possible in the morning. Remember that the standard breakfast-school-everything-else schedule may or may not work best for your son, and within reason, allow and encourage him to do what’s most efficient.”

Help kids work toward the big things. You don’t want your kids to make themselves sick over things like end-of-year exams or college applications, but at the same time, they can’t ignore these big tasks altogether and live a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna existence. Help them learn to approach major milestones with a plan and a realistic perspective that won’t give them ulcers.

“It’s a good idea to sit down with your child at least a few times a year to talk about major changes and goals that are coming down the pike and how best to approach them,” Patkin asserts. “Until you broach the subject, you might not be aware of how worried your teen is about something. And this is a great opportunity to teach her how to break a big project down into manageable chunks that won’t be overwhelming but will still give her a sense of accomplishment when she completes them.”

Promote exercise. This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys.

“Exercise is the single most important thing your child, you, or anyone else can do to become less stressed and happier right now,” Patkin promises. “Exercise is a fantastic energizer, and it actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. You might even consider making physical activity a family event! Go for a hike in the mountains, for a swim at the YMCA, or just go for a walk around the neighborhood. You’ll all benefit from the quality time together as well as from getting your blood pumping.”

Encourage kids to spend time with positive people. Your teen’s friends might be good kids, but if they’re constantly worrying about grades, tests, and what they need to improve on, their conversation topics probably aren’t adding to your child’s quality of life; instead, she’s probably picking up these unhealthy attitudes herself. While no child wants to hear from her parents that she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, you can encourage her to spend time with people who approach life with positive attitudes and healthy perspectives.

“You must realize that we all tend to be the average of the five people we spend the most time with when it comes to our attitudes and outlooks,” Patkin shares. “So gently encourage your child to spend time with peers, as well as teachers and other mentors, who are positive influences. This is also something you can model yourself. Stop having gripe-fests at the kitchen table with your own friends if you want your child to spend more time around happy people!”

“Always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success,” Patkin concludes. “Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s well-being.”

About the Author:

Todd Patkin
, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.

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