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?