Oh, The Pressure

This post is about pressure.  The overwhelming, highly competitive pressure kids feel today to outshine, outperform, and reach stellar heights when it comes time to apply to college.  At the age of 17 or 18.  If you read the three articles to which I link below, hopefully you will see the pattern.  And below, we offer some advice from a licensed marriage and family therapist for you, the parent.

This article was published last weekend in the Washington Post.  It’s not unheard of for a teenager to make up a story about getting into a particular college to impress her friends, but this lie went a bit too far, causing the student’s family embarrassment, which was probably the exact opposite of what both she and they wanted.

That reminded me of this article from the LA Times a few weeks ago, where we learned of a local girl disappearing after being dropped off to take the SAT.  Thankfully, she was found safe a few days later.

And finally, and unfortunately, the extreme possible result of this horribly intense pressure is illustrated in this very sad story from last year.  It’s not an isolated incident; we heard of several other college student suicides this past school year.  The pressure to be perfect – to appear perfect – can be so overwhelming that they sometimes see no other solution.

These are extreme examples but they are not isolated.  So how do you know that your child is not Madison, Mira, or Sara?  What can you do to help your child walk a more balanced path?  I turned to an expert to help us answer these questions.  Judi Lirman is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the San Fernando Valley.  After reading about these young women, she offered the following advice:

Judi Lirman Magellan College Counseling
Judi Lirman MFT

“Pressure is rampant in the lives of teens and young adults.  It manifests as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, isolation, avoidance, drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, and sometimes suicide.  It shows up in increasing physical issues like sleep and eating disorders, digestive complaints, and asthma.

“Students like Sara, Mira, and Madison are not uncommon.  They are not prepared to handle the stress of performing brilliantly academically, in extracurricular and charity settings, and socially all at the same time.  Young people try desperately to comply with society’s demand that they be successful.  But if they run themselves into the ground in their attempt, they see themselves as failures, weak, and locked out of the good life forever.

“How can parents prevent this pressure?

  • Tell them that it is important to strive to do their best.  But, no one, especially you, expects them to be outstanding in all circumstances.
  • Tell young people not to judge or compare their “inside knowledge of themselves” to their “outside knowledge of others.”  Most of us present a cleaned up version of who are and our failures vs. successes to the world, Twitter, and SnapChat.  What you see others post may not be the real truth.
  • Tell them that adults do not know everything.  Most adults fly by the seat of their pants a lot of the time.  Adults are just kids in bigger, older, more experienced bodies trying to look grown-up and sophisticated.  Tell them you have made mistakes in life; so will they. Mistakes are opportunities for learning and getting up to try again.  Tell them you do not have all the answers.
  • Mostly, tell them you love them just for being who they are.  Tell them you know they can do wonderful things, but first they are human, with strengths and weaknesses and limitations.  The imperfections and differences are what make us special!  Albert Eisenstein couldn’t remember to wear matching socks, Abraham Lincoln lost multiple elections before he became President, and Steve Jobs was fired by the company he founded – Apple.  YOU can model and teach them self-compassion.

“If something seems to be changing or out of balance with your child, inquire gently with concern and directness.  Listen with compassion and not judgment.  In the end, your child is more important to you than any degree or status they may be harming themselves to earn.”

[You can see Judi speaking about parenting and her experience in a short video here.]

Our goal as independent college counselors is to reduce the stress of the college admission process, and help students find the colleges where they will fit not only academically, but also socially and emotionally.  For super-high-performing students, it’s sometimes hard for them to get past the names they know – the Ivies and other top-tier schools that reject over 90% of the students who apply.  Here are a few things parents can do to help in our stress-reducing college-related effort:

  • Don’t dwell on the “name brand” schools – talk about friends and relatives who go to a different range of colleges, not just the top ones.
  • Ensure that your student’s college list is balanced; ie. not too reach-heavy.
  • Don’t refer to any colleges as “safety schools,” which infers that they are not good enough.
  • Celebrate the possibilities at each college in which your child expresses an interest, and all acceptance letters (ALL of them!)

It’s not easy, but we can all play a role in reducing (or finding the right balance of) the pressure that students feel to achieve.

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