Your Teen Is Likely Stressed About College—and How They Manage It. Is All in Their Heads?
I’m a Westfield, New Jersey kid. Well, I was a Westfield, New Jersey kid-- now I’m a 40’s something Westfield, New Jersey resident. Regardless, I know the pressures of going through the school system of a well-to-do town—and it’s not easy.
So many of my high school clients are currently experiencing the same pressures I felt all those years ago—but, unlike twenty years ago, talking about and solving for mental health is much less taboo.
In fact, a 2019 Wall Street Journal article written by Jennifer Breheny Wallace addressed the topic of competitive school environments and their psychological impact. Wallace reported that “‘high-achieving schools’— public and private schools with high standardized test scores, varied extracurricular and academic offerings, and graduates who head off to top colleges — are experiencing higher rates of behavioral and mental health problems compared with national norms” (The Washington Post, 2019). The research was based on two studies by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Furthermore, 66% of teens reported that they’re “often or always worried about being accepted in their chosen college” (The Washington Post, 2019).
To add to the difficulty, pandemic teens have had a pretty weird high school experience. I was talking to a teen client of mine the other day, and she said, “we have midterms coming up—but I’ve only taken them once as a freshman [because of COVID], and I’m freaking out.” That same week, I heard the same sentiment from five other clients.
A COVID world has piled even more pressure onto our teens, competitive landscape or not. Compound all of that stress with the stress of the college process, and our juniors and seniors are fracturing as we speak.
I began to wonder, is the problem that our teens have an unprecedented amount of pressure, or is it that our teens don’t know how to manage the pressure (and the subsequent emotions that follow)? Well, it turns out, it could be a little of both.
Since we’re in the season of everything college (like applications, admission decisions, choosing the right school, and the pressure to keep up GPA’s), here are my top three tips for supporting your overwhelmed teen:
1. Understand your adolescent’s brain is still developing (and this isn’t just an excuse).
It’s really easy for adults to minimize and disregard teenage struggle because we know that life gets better as an adult. We also have the gift of balanced hormones.
Remember, children aren’t just small adults. In fact, this is a standard mantra repeated during pediatric residency training. Children’s brains are different—their brains are growing and in flux. Harvard Medical School published a study that found that the adolescent brain is only about 80 percent developed (Edwards, 2010).
For instance, when adults process an emotion, multiple places in their brains will “turn on.” One area is the limbic system—a group of small brain areas deep in the brain where emotion processing starts. Adults also show activity in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in making decisions. The limbic system may advise an adult to scream or fight. The prefrontal cortex helps to keep unwise urges in check.
Conversely, brain areas that process emotions mature very quickly in teens, while the prefrontal cortex does not (Brookshire, 2019). Yikes.
Guyer, Silk & Nelson (2016) stated it a bit differently. A systematic sampling of adolescents’ and adults’ moods over the course of a week have shown that adolescents are more euphoric and more depressed in response to events (e.g., talking to friends, being in class), their positive feelings do not last as long as adults’, and they are generally more emotionally responsive to events than are adults.
Most, if not all, teens are emotional, reactive, impulsive, and stressed out. Parents tend to think these are just behavioral issues—they’re not. Do your best to remind yourself that your teen is managing adult-sized problems with an undeveloped brain.
2. You’ve got more influence than you think.
I communicate this sentiment to the parents of my adolescent clients on a weekly basis. Parents often feel their teens never listen to them – or care what they think. However, research has shown, this couldn’t be further from the truth – teens care a lot about what their parents think.
“Despite the amplified focus on peer relationships during adolescence, adolescents continue to care what their parents think about them. This was demonstrated in a recent neuroimaging study that probed the neural response to negative feedback from mothers. In this study, adolescents listened to audio clips of their mothers criticizing them as well as discussing neutral topics such as the weather. These findings suggest that maternal criticism is processed as emotionally salient during adolescence and that typically developing adolescents fail to recruit cognitive control networks to help them regulate emotion when passively listening to critical comments from their mothers” (Guyer, Silk & Nelson, 2016).
The research went on to highlight, “the adolescent brain is responsive to social inputs from the family environment. These findings suggest that warm and supportive parenting earlier in adolescence may have neuroprotective effects on adolescent brain development” (Guyer, Silk & Nelson, 2016).
Anecdotally, I can back this research up 100%. So many of my teen clients are upset over something their parents said (or didn’t say) to them—and often, our sessions focus on how they can communicate their hurt, manage their anger, sadness, or upset, and learn what to do moving forward with their parents.
Adolescents work hard for their parent’s approval, so make sure your approval isn’t hard to obtain in situations where you can give it and freely give any support you can.
3. There’s more to life than good grades.
Everyone wants their child to do well in life—to be happy, healthy, and successful. Interestingly, teens want that too!
According to the Pew Research Center, “the pressure teens feel to do well in school is tied at least in part to their post-graduation goals. About six-in-ten teens (59%) say they plan to attend a four-year college after they finish high school, and these teens are more likely than those who have other plans to say they face a lot of pressure to get good grades.
Furthermore, the long-term goals of boys and girls don’t differ significantly. About nine-in-ten teens say having a job or career they enjoy would be extremely or very important to them as an adult (97% of girls and 93% of boys say this). And similar shares of girls and boys see getting married (45% and 50%, respectively) and having children (41% and 39%) as priorities for them, personally, when they grow up” (Horowitz & Graf, 2020).
Though grades are important, make sure your child knows that doing well in school isn’t all that matters to you. Talk to them about how hard work is imperative in life, but it’s equally important to have solid values and morals.
To learn more about Christina H Chororos and Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching please visit kairoschronicpain.com, 567 Park Avenue, Scotch Plains, New Jersey or call 908-370-5713.
Edwards, S. (2010, August 9). Deciphering the teenage brain. Deciphering the Teenage Brain | Harvard Medical School. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://hms.harvard.edu/news/deciphering-teenage-brain
Brookshire, B. (2019, December 3). Hormone affects how teens' brains control emotions. Science News for Students. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/hormone-affects-how-teens-brains-control-emotions
Guyer, A. E., Silk, J. S., & Nelson, E. E. (2016). The neurobiology of the emotional adolescent: From the inside out. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 70, 74–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.07.037
Horowitz, J. M., & Graf, N. (2020, May 30). Most U.S. teens see anxiety, depression as major problems. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/