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Mental health Coping with stress

Recently, a group of parents gathered to talk about raising kids. The topic turned quickly to the stress kids feel today.

Jacque says her 16-year-old daughter Megan is determined to get all A’s in school and achieve in extracurricular activities, too.

“She’s in a very competitive school,” Jacque says. “All the kids are under a tremendous stress. Kids see how competitive it is to get into college. As early as 10 and 11, they start talking about what they have to do to get into these colleges. They have to join 20 zillion clubs to do good services. If they don’t do these things, there is nothing to distinguish them from other kids with straight A’s and high SAT scores.”

While some parents push their kids to excel, other parents in the group agreed with Jacque. Kids, they say, are making decisions based on achieving goals 10 years down the road rather than having fun or learning about themselves and their friends.

Beth Hartley, LCSW, a family therapist, says she sees a tremendous increase in the number of kids stressed about getting into the “right” college. “We know a lot of kids who are so obsessed with the college application process they can think or speak of little else,” she says.

Jacque recalled a recent car ride with Megan. “She was in a great mood because she got an A. That’s great. But I don’t want her achievements to be the defining factor. I want her to enjoy being in high school. I’d like her to be on the soccer team for fun, not just because it looks good on her college application.”

Megan erupts if she doesn’t get an A. Despite Jacque’s reassurance that B’s are great, her daughter snaps back, “But I’m not a B student. I’m an A student!”

Megan’s stress is apparent in other ways, too. She sleeps poorly. She holds the stress in, and then BOOM! The smallest things set her off. She yells at her sister: “You came in my room and you’re not suppose to!” “You ate the last of the ice cream!”

Jacque wanted her Megan to see a therapist. Her daughter refused. So Jacque sought guidance on how to get her daughter to accept professional help.

Instead, the therapist encouraged Jacque to guide Megan to make good choices. “For example,” Jacque says, “My daughter refused to get a physical. But it’s a requirement for summer camp. Rather than argue I said, “A mature adult takes care of her body. If you don’t want to make that choice, there are consequences. You won’t go to camp.” Megan agreed to go to the doctor.

Jacque offered another example. “I offered to get a tutor to help build her confidence around her school work. She refused. She thought it would show weakness. I gave her a choice. I told her that if she didn’t meet with a tutor, she couldn’t continue with soccer. She loves soccer, so she started to meet with the tutor and she really likes it.” The tutor helps Megan pressure herself less and has built her confidence. He liked Megan’s outline for a class so much he asked if he could use it with other students.

Recently, Megan decided on her own to take an easier course rather than one that might look better on her college application. She told her mom, “If I take that class, I know I will be very stressed out. I will be miserable. I will take this history class because I really want to and I like the teacher.” Jacque was thrilled at this sign of real progress.

Jacque says that with guidance from their parents or another adult they trust, kids can learn to cope better with pressure, and keep things in perspective. These parents are teaching their kids an important life lesson.

“When kids snap,” Hartley says, “It’s a strong signal to parents to take the initiative to scale back on their kids' extra-curricular activities and institute more free time. Kids need down time. With over-scheduling and no time to just hang out, children are robbed of the opportunity to just be themselves and to learn who they are.”

Hartley adds that Jacque did a great job of teaching her job that asking for and accepting help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

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