The pressure on our kids starts early. I’m talking pre-school early. For many parents, their child’s pre-school becomes a status symbol. The kids, on the other hand, could care less. They just want blocks and naptime, really. What they don’t need is pressure. But as our little ones advance in age, they are introduced to the latest standards and school becomes less of a place to become intellectually enriched, and more of a place to try and attain the highest test score. Sure, great test scores are a wonderful achievement, but they are not everything. Unfortunately, the pressure to do well and to be the best puts a great deal of pressure on our kids, and honestly, most pre-teens and teens couldn’t tell you in earnest what they want to be when they grow up, let alone what college they plan on attending. For most kids, adolescence is similar to the hormonal version of Survivor: full of surprises and unexpected whirlwinds of emotional adventure (with some added fear-based scenarios tossed in for good measure.).
By the time they reach middle- and high-school age, pressure from parents and school administrators can really gnaw at the edge of adolescence. The pressure increases and kids start to fall apart in various ways: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug use, and other forms of teen stress. An example of this are the kids who push themselves so hard, they use stimulants like Adderal or Ritalin (typically prescribed for ADHD) just to make it through their end-of-the-year finals. This is troubling. Those who truly suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder benefit from these drugs and need them in order to balance out their brain chemistry. But when someone without this disorder takes these drugs, they experience a classic amphetamine high. Their brains don’t need chemical balancing. Adolescence is prime time for brain development; the last thing it needs is to play the part of a petri dish just to do well on a test.
I wish we could eliminate this pressure and the inevitable teen stress, but realistically, we can’t. What we can do as parents, teachers, therapists, and mentors is encourage a sense of propriety in our kids. We can teach them early on to ways in which to manage their stress, and perhaps even avoid some of it altogether. When my son was a toddler, having tantrums and doing toddler things, I started teaching him breathing techniques to help him self-soothe. I often think going back to those basic self-soothing skills we learn when we’re young is beneficial for managing life as we get older. If you didn’t learn to self-soothe as a tot, you can pick up the pieces now. Learning to be gentle with ourselves when we’re under stress is an invaluable tool. Teens, in particular, need to find ways to manage stress without sinking into the negative patterns so common in adolescence. So, what can they do?
- Breathe. Stop and take 10 deep breaths.
- Take a break. 10 minutes of solace won’t destroy your chances for a good grade. If anything, it will allow your brain to recharge.
- Eat something. Fruits, veggies and high-protein snacks keep your brain fueled. No fuel=foggy thinking.
- Ask for help. You don’t have to do this alone.
- Read something light and entertaining. In other words, take a break from the intensity of academics.
I think you get the idea. If we stop and take care of ourselves, we are less likely to take the risks of using someone else’s prescription to pass a test or to study. Sacrificing mental health and safety for good grades is self-sabotaging behavior. It’s not worth it.