Alexa von Oertzen, LMFT
The Price Teens are Paying for Today's High Academic Expectations
Have you ever heard the phrase or said it yourself, "When I was your age, I walked miles to school… you have it so easy?" What about, “Why can’t you be more like your sibling?”
Unfortunately, it is no secret that parents feel teens today have less motivation and struggle to focus on their academics and extracurricular activities. Parents feel perplexed with their teens' apparent slow progression and emotional instability and assume they are lazy or hypersensitive. This perspective can frustrate parents and drive them to become more involved in monitoring and pressuring them for higher performance.
As a parent, I can relate to thinking that life was much harder in the past. Social and family rules were more rigid, and we had no choice but to carry out our parent's expectations. The whole environment was different and school expectations were not as high. There were few advanced AP or ACE courses to push kids ahead, and kids had a better balance between work, play, and downtime. There was also no social media increasing the competitiveness and toxic judgments of others. Furthermore, university acceptance was relatively easier with fewer candidates for the same spot in higher education.
Right now, what we are seeing is a rush for teens to finish faster and better than anyone else. Competition not only has created high academic and extracurricular expectations but has forced kids to focus on this earlier than ever before.
Middle school kids are being encouraged to read faster, get into gifted curriculums, and take extra individual home-based courses to get an edge over their peers. With all this focus on productivity, it is no wonder that our teens are desperate for downtime, social time, and playtime. Unfortunately, the consequences of our teens' high demands have taken a toll both behaviorally and emotionally.
Are your teens exhibiting the following behaviors?
Postponing assignments in favor of social interaction.
Experiencing lack of sleep due to using sleep time for work or relaxation.
Choosing sleep overeating.
Insufficient self-control and self-discipline.
Isolating to avoid criticism and monitoring their performance.
Using illegal substances to "check out" their reality.
Having panic attacks and second-guessing decisions.
Giving up on their work.
Are your teens feeling the following emotions?
Anxious over weekly parental monitoring of grades.
Angry at parents for only focusing on performance and not on them as a whole.
Fearful of failure.
Low self-esteem if they have aligned their worth with their performance.
Having a perfectionist attitude and developing OCD to gain a sense of control.
Feeling guilty and shameful.
Being depressed over not feeling heard or supported.
How can you help?
If you see your kids exhibiting these symptoms, it is time to stop and ask ourselves if these unrelenting standards are overwhelming our teens. The next step is to sit down and have a level-headed conversation with them and acknowledge that we notice their changes and that we want to help them overcome their feelings.
A mix of positive affirmations, expectation adjustments, and structured routines can help reset your teen's mood and consequent behaviors. Here are a few strategies you can use to help your teen and your family have more realistic expectations.
Listen to your teen without commenting or arguing. When in doubt, ask more questions like what they need emotionally or what extra support they need academically. A calm and judgment-free stance is vital during these times. Maybe you will find that they can't focus and need a tutor, have a bullying problem in school, or recently ended a friendship.
Ensure them that you have confidence in their strengths and competence. They need to hear that they are valued independently of their academic achievements and loved for being your kid. Them doing their best needs to be good enough, not the grade. Everyone can have a curveball for a test, and if they know they are being judged for their efforts and not only the results, they can feel less anxious and more confident.
Help them gain balance in their life. Review their current routine and see if changes are required with sleep schedules, eating schedules, homework, and downtime. They won't like it, but you may need to curb their internet time, impose a meal structure, and impose a better sleep curfew. In time they will get used to it and benefit from it.
Celebrate small successes. Even if failures are happening in other areas, focusing on the positives will help them improve their confidence to overcome challenges. This new focus can be challenging to adhere to as it requires patience, but it is one of the most important aspects of turning anxiety and self-confidence around.
Learn more about their relationship with social media. Some kids can handle the pressures and content of social media, and some cannot. Social media can be a vehicle for social interaction and, at the same time, a dangerous trap for those desperate for validation outside of their family and themselves. Apps like 'Omigo', 'Snap', 'IG', 'Oovoo', 'Discourse', and 'Viber' (to name a few) can provide a place for meeting and interacting with other teens. Still, it can also bring unwanted criticism and toxic and dangerous relationships. Depending on your kid's age, history, and emotional health, you can help them determine appropriate apps.
Explain the reasons for your rules and decisions. If you are like me, you hate when your kid tries to debate your choices or negotiate a different consequence you imposed. You want to end the argument and not engage, but if you do not help them understand your rationale, they will feel disrespected and start disrespecting you. They might not like your reasons, but you are modeling structure, leadership, and care if you are consistent, fair, and honest.
Spend some fun time with your teen. I mean fun for your kid. Ask them what they would like to do and when they would like to do it. Maybe they want to bring a friend, and that's fine too. If they don't have ideas, come up with some, like a cooking class, an art class, or play ball at the park. Some like the beach, and some want to play video games with you. Then, of course, there is always a favorite Netflix series or even a trip to Starbucks. The important thing is to pay attention to your teen outside of what they are "supposed to do." It is incredible what you hear about their lives when they sense a different approach.
If you believe you need additional help, family counseling or counseling for your teen is a great resource!
Sometimes your teen is not even sure why they are behaving in the manner they are, and they cannot stop their behavior or mood, even after all your efforts. There is no shame in getting professional help, as sometimes the thoughts they have acquired along the way are so ingrained that they need a particular treatment to change their unhelpful overthinking and consequent mental challenges.
If you would like more information on how to help your teen disengage from her thinking and behavioral patterns and adopt healthier habits, call Alexa von Oertzen, LMFT today at 954.391.5305. I look forward to being of service to your teen and your family.
Alexa provides counseling for teens, adults, and families in Coral Springs and Fort Lauderdale as well as across the state of Florida via our secure telehealth platform.