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Adults are contributing to Teens’ Stress

By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

I attended a school meeting last night – the second in two nights for my daughters, who are entering middle school and high school, respectively. My younger daughter will be entering a magnet school, while my older daughter, who is graduating in June from the same magnet school, will be starting an accelerated program within her local high school. Let me add that we live in one of the most rigorous, high-achieving counties in the United States. I am excited for both of them and, obviously, academics are stressed within our family. I want them to be excited by their studies and to push themselves to succeed.

Yet I worry about the stress that surrounds this type of environment – stress which is initiated by all – teachers, parents and the students themselves. The meeting last night included a panel of students in the accelerated high school program, each discussing various aspects of their academic and extracurricular lives. What struck me most were two things. First of all, by the time they graduate, these students will have taken an average of almost 10 AP (advanced placement) classes – classes where they can take a test to get college credit. Last year, two students had taken 13 AP classes in high school. The majority of the classes they took which were not AP were either honors classes or courses which were accelerated in some other way. The second thing that struck me was the sheer number of extracurricular activities some participated in on top of their academic schedule. When did they have time to eat or sleep? When I asked them how many hours they slept each night, the program director quickly brushed off my question and moved on to the next.

Stress in teens has become a great concern in society today, particularly for girls who not only want to succeed academically, but also in sports, social settings, and with regards to their physical appearance. These days many teens are not satisfied with just doing a good job, but they want to do the best job. So if somebody is taking 9 AP classes, they want to take 10. They don’t just want to be on the tennis team, but they want to be the captain of the team.

Stress takes its toll on teens. It increases irritability, anger, moodiness, feelings of hopelessness, inability to concentrate and sleep. It also increases physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches. Lack of sleep causes similar problems, plus decreased school and motor performance. It can also lead to school resentment, school burnout, and experimentation with alcohol or drugs to cope with the stress.

How do we stop this steep incline? We certainly want our children to succeed, and I am no different from the next parent. We are proud of our children when they have drive and ambition – and when they do well. After all, these are characteristics which are important and helpful in becoming successful adults. Yet, as adults, both parents and teachers need to know when to put on the brakes and slow our kids down. We need to find out how stressed our kids really feel, how much they actually sleep, and whether they are able to find time to relax for awhile each week. Perhaps we can encourage our children to take an elective rather than that 11th AP course, or to go out with their friends on a Saturday rather than spend the entire weekend studying. We don’t only want our kids to be successful, but we also want them to be happy. Don’t we?


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5 Responses to “Adults are contributing to Teens’ Stress”

  1. Linda says:

    I read with interest your comments on your girls & the worry you have. However, rather than attempting to decrease their stress (which in itself is an admiral effort), try relooking at the issue as helping your child acheive “balance”. As a physician, you may see many unbalanced patients. I certainly do as a pharmacist & so does my husband, a physician. Stress is with us daily, but teaching a child how to deal with stress is a difficult parental skill. Balance is easier – they see it in the family daily & its easier to mimic.

    Our children are now grown with the older graduating from medical school and the younger purusing a career in tech with a major company on the West Coast. However, when they were in high school, they were pushed to do AP classes, leadership classes, sports, music – everything to make themselves a better candidate.

    When we were in your place, we started to visit colleges (yes, very early) – only state universities since those were well regarded and offered every possible major one could want. In speaking with admissions counselors, we received insights which were in direct opposition to those offered at the high school. The college admissions officers reluctantly had to accept AP test schores, but uniformly, those students did poorer if that test was in their choice of major. Why? Because each school has its method & its heirarchy. As each physician has different patient approaches, so do college professors. Likewise, a high school teacher just cannot do justic to integrative calculus the way it is done in college! Another pearl – when a college transcript is sent to graduate schools, the AP exam is listed as a “pass”, but it is assigned a “C” by most colleges in GPA computations. Colleges would much rather have you take the AP class, but not the test. Come in with some knowledge & take your time to understand in more depth, perhaps meet mentors and move more easily into more challenging levels of education. It also gives your girls a sense of accomplishment that they really can tackle & succeed in college that first year. You'd be surprised what that first A or B in a college class can do to your momentem. She'll also get an A for that Calc IA rather than a C from the AP test.

    But – go back to the high school and raise this topic and you'll find all sorts of horror stories & scares. They'll tell you your child will have a less “attractive” application, etc (which is why you want to visit a college or two first so you can get the real information). Why? Because high school teachers are paid more to teach an AP class. They are also paid extra for each child that takes the AP test & even extra for each child that passes that test. (My brother is a high school physics teacher & he can supplement his income by doing this all the while knowing he is kicking some poor kid in the foot if he wants to go into college physics). Your child might save a class or two in college, but in the long run – it is inconsequential, particularly when a child goes on to graduate school.

    My children took AP classes in most areas offered. They took the AP test in courses they knew they would not pursure (different for each child). But the older did not take the AP math, chemistry or physics tests, although she did take the classes. What was seen on the transcript was a child who took the most challenging course available to him/her. The AP scores are reported after college acceptances come out, so those were a none issue.

    Likewise, they enjoyed the final 4 months of their senior year while some of their friends were studying madly. They learned, life is short and you do have the ability to choose and choose wisely. We of course helped them with that choice, but it has served them well. They are young adults who can see the forest for the trees, the need to enjoy hobbies, friends and laugh and know when to put that all away & work.

    So many of our young people don't know when to shut off work & play. An unbalanced life leads to unbalanced stresses. Magnet schools, private schools, charter schools all at times play into this need for “excellence” in all areas rather than becoming a whole person. Some are great and will help your child develop success and deal with failure. But, as parents, our duty is to find out what is behind their motivations. The AP “scam” as we call it here in CA, has many motivations & they might not all mesh with what you and your children want for their future.

    Best of luck! These are great years & your girls can't replay them. Help them make memories which they'll want to look back on over their lifetime.

    (on a side note – both my kids did graduate work at private universities, They chose them because what each place offered professionally, I'm not on the “inside”, but their collegiate transcripts were great & they interview as interesting people)

  2. Linda says:

    I read with interest your comments on your girls & the worry you have. However, rather than attempting to decrease their stress (which in itself is an admiral effort), try relooking at the issue as helping your child acheive “balance”. As a physician, you may see many unbalanced patients. I certainly do as a pharmacist & so does my husband, a physician. Stress is with us daily, but teaching a child how to deal with stress is a difficult parental skill. Balance is easier – they see it in the family daily & its easier to mimic.

    Our children are now grown with the older graduating from medical school and the younger purusing a career in tech with a major company on the West Coast. However, when they were in high school, they were pushed to do AP classes, leadership classes, sports, music – everything to make themselves a better candidate.

    When we were in your place, we started to visit colleges (yes, very early) – only state universities since those were well regarded and offered every possible major one could want. In speaking with admissions counselors, we received insights which were in direct opposition to those offered at the high school. The college admissions officers reluctantly had to accept AP test schores, but uniformly, those students did poorer if that test was in their choice of major. Why? Because each school has its method & its heirarchy. As each physician has different patient approaches, so do college professors. Likewise, a high school teacher just cannot do justic to integrative calculus the way it is done in college! Another pearl – when a college transcript is sent to graduate schools, the AP exam is listed as a “pass”, but it is assigned a “C” by most colleges in GPA computations. Colleges would much rather have you take the AP class, but not the test. Come in with some knowledge & take your time to understand in more depth, perhaps meet mentors and move more easily into more challenging levels of education. It also gives your girls a sense of accomplishment that they really can tackle & succeed in college that first year. You'd be surprised what that first A or B in a college class can do to your momentem. She'll also get an A for that Calc IA rather than a C from the AP test.

    But – go back to the high school and raise this topic and you'll find all sorts of horror stories & scares. They'll tell you your child will have a less “attractive” application, etc (which is why you want to visit a college or two first so you can get the real information). Why? Because high school teachers are paid more to teach an AP class. They are also paid extra for each child that takes the AP test & even extra for each child that passes that test. (My brother is a high school physics teacher & he can supplement his income by doing this all the while knowing he is kicking some poor kid in the foot if he wants to go into college physics). Your child might save a class or two in college, but in the long run – it is inconsequential, particularly when a child goes on to graduate school.

    My children took AP classes in most areas offered. They took the AP test in courses they knew they would not pursure (different for each child). But the older did not take the AP math, chemistry or physics tests, although she did take the classes. What was seen on the transcript was a child who took the most challenging course available to him/her. The AP scores are reported after college acceptances come out, so those were a none issue.

    Likewise, they enjoyed the final 4 months of their senior year while some of their friends were studying madly. They learned, life is short and you do have the ability to choose and choose wisely. We of course helped them with that choice, but it has served them well. They are young adults who can see the forest for the trees, the need to enjoy hobbies, friends and laugh and know when to put that all away & work.

    So many of our young people don't know when to shut off work & play. An unbalanced life leads to unbalanced stresses. Magnet schools, private schools, charter schools all at times play into this need for “excellence” in all areas rather than becoming a whole person. Some are great and will help your child develop success and deal with failure. But, as parents, our duty is to find out what is behind their motivations. The AP “scam” as we call it here in CA, has many motivations & they might not all mesh with what you and your children want for their future.

    Best of luck! These are great years & your girls can't replay them. Help them make memories which they'll want to look back on over their lifetime.

    (on a side note – both my kids did graduate work at private universities, They chose them because what each place offered professionally, I'm not on the “inside”, but their collegiate transcripts were great & they interview as interesting people)

  3. Curtis says:

    Speaking from the viewpoint of a recent high school graduate, students need to be able to determine their own limits and know what is right for them. It's definitely not healthy to go overboard on activities and academics, but they should be the focal point of a teen's life. My philosophy has been to push myself until I reach my limits as far as activity, then cut back if I need to. It's possible to be very active and still remain happy and relatively stress free. Organization is the key.

  4. Curtis says:

    Speaking from the viewpoint of a recent high school graduate, students need to be able to determine their own limits and know what is right for them. It's definitely not healthy to go overboard on activities and academics, but they should be the focal point of a teen's life. My philosophy has been to push myself until I reach my limits as far as activity, then cut back if I need to. It's possible to be very active and still remain happy and relatively stress free. Organization is the key.

  5. David. says:

    I just “stumbled upon” this. I had read the title of this post and was shocked it had even been written about. Any teen in the world can tell you that adults contribute to teen stress. They don't just contribute, in some cases they are the sole contribution to teens' stress. I'm 16 years old and live in England where the education system is different from America by a fair margin. I don't pretend to be the perfect student, son, or human being, but you can find a link to adults being the cause of stress everywhere you turn. Is it the teens' fault for the global economic climate at the moment? No, but that still affects us as it does adults. Is it the teens' fault for global warming? I can see that it may be, from the amount of electricity used by kids like me on their computers all through the night, working on essays or researching topics for school…or of course just im-ing with friends and surfing the internet. fun fun. I'm going off topic now with a rant about how adults are the reason the world can suck arse at times. That my friends is how to destroy any respect you had for me with one phrase :) . Kids are the reason that the world keeps turning, yet you, as a group, and individually, annoy the hell out of me :) stop that please :D by being more light hearted. that's all I ask for, a friend in an adult, not just a teacher, or a parent, or a guardian. Someone to talk to. But I don't mean one adult out of 20. I mean every single one of you guys needs to calm the heck down, chill out, laze. Find humour in the world around you and hang out with friends, not just colleagues. If adults act like children, and forget boundaries of what grown ups “should” act like and started acting like they wanted to like we do :) everything would be better. seriously. put it into account now, just think about it, associate it with any situation you think is poor. Education, Government, Justice system. Become human again, let stress go free.

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