Middle and high school students are more stressed and anxious now than in past decades. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, anxiety disorders in children and teens increased by 20 percent from 2007 to 2012. One reason for this troubling rise in anxiety is an increase in academic pressure. While we want our kids to be driven and successful, many teens are taking on so much that they are losing out on critical relaxation, social time, and sleep. Without this necessary downtime, teens are more susceptible to stress and anxiety.
Success in middle school and high school clearly makes it more likely that students will succeed after graduation. Still, parents and teens should be realistic about their expectations. Many teens push themselves to their absolute limits by taking a very challenging and rigorous course load. While these high-achieving teens are usually capable of intellectually keeping up with an advanced class, they are often unable to manage the accompanying workload while also prioritizing sleep and free time. When students stretch themselves too far academically, they no longer have time for the relaxation and sleep that their brains and bodies need to learn, focus, manage stress, and regulate emotions. It is now common to hear of teens spending a full day in school, only to spend the remaining hours of their day and evening studying and doing homework. Teens often do not have enough time to get the nine hours of sleep they need before waking up and starting over again.
What seems to drive this cycle is the belief that the college a student attends will directly impact their future success. In fact, research has found that the college an individual attends does not make much difference in terms of income, career success, or future happiness. More important than attending the “best” college is finding and pursuing a path that is engaging, fulfilling, and personally meaningful. Further, it is important to remember that a person’s career is only one part of his or her life.
We need to reevaluate the expectations we place on teens, and we need to help teens change the way they think about academic and career success. Rather than trying to take as many advanced classes as possible, teens should focus on taking courses that they enjoy and that are appropriately challenging. They should then focus on balancing challenging classes that have heavy workloads with less demanding classes. This will allow them to have time for relaxation, fun, and sleep. By having more downtime and by getting enough sleep, teens will be better able to focus, learn, manage stress, and regulate emotions. By changing our academic expectations, we can help teens feel happier and less stressed.
Christine Howard, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist