The Natural, Necessary and Unnecessary Pressures on a High Schooler

And How Parents Can Best Support and Not Add Unnecessary Pressure

Academic rigor, sports, theater, band, college testing and applications, and dating and dances are just a few of the expanse of performance pressures our high schoolers face. Not to mention, the developmental imperative all teenagers must grapple with in finding their tribe, their people, their friends and fully redefining their identity for themselves sometimes in opposition to parents’ or social expectations. And the knob of the pressure dial can be turned up or down depending upon the push or support of each of the influential others in their lives including caregivers, peers, friends, teachers, coaches and their school community. Some of these are natural and necessary – like experimentation with dating, like discovering your authentic identity, and like trying out passions in music or sports. But other pressures are unnecessary and as always, parents play a pivotal role.

Many of these pressures concern students performing to show mastery. Whether its GPAs, standardized tests like college entrance exams, or highly competitive extracurriculars, we seem to be pushing harder and harder. Whereas there was one game a week and practice a few nights, now teens are playing multiple sports, traveling and required to practice daily when not playing games. “We didn’t take a vacation this year because our daughter started practice for soccer in June and the season is finally now coming to an end. We are exhausted and dreaming of reclaiming our weekends and also, traveling next year when we can find the time,” confessed my dental hygientist as she cleaned my teeth this past week.

In some ways, teens’ experiences have improved. “I was told in high school as I looked to my future that I had three career choices – becoming a teacher, a nurse or a secretary,” a grandmother told me as we waited for our kids at pick up time. There are certainly many more choices for women and for anyone who is not a white American male (though of course, there’s still much work to do). But with those choices, there’s incredible complexity and increased pressure to compete.

Additionally and importantly, it seems our aims in high school turn to how every choice, every action contributes to a teen’s impending big future. But what about today? What about this moment of development as an end in itself, perfect as is? When do we take a snapshot of our fourteen-year-old realizing that the social, emotional and mental assets they have today will not exist next year. They may bring an innocence to their views of the world, a creativity and openness to ideas opened up by their teenage mind that may not be present in a future time. Perhaps they have a deep sense of justice and fairness today that could get buried and suppressed in the future? Maybe every moment shouldn’t be focused on a future day in adult life but on right where they are – uniquely a teen?

As influential individuals in our teen’s lives, it’s important to take a step back from social expectations and reflect on our own values and hopes and dreams. If we do not, we will swim in our particular school of fish and mimic the cultural and social expectations around us. Or we will project our own desires and will on them forgetting that they have their own will, heart and purpose in this world. However, if we want our teens to grow in their responsible decision-making skills, that requires our modeling thoughtfulness about why we are doing what we are doing and ensuring there’s clear alignment of our choices with our values.

As a teen parent, we need lots of grace and understanding ourselves. The teenage years pass by with lightening speed. Often, our heads are reeling from the pace of their growth and development. And if the clock wasn’t ticking before, it’s now ticking so loudly we cannot ignore that the runway is short for their time left in our home with our rules. And we have plenty of moments of mourning, grieving the loss of their younger, more captive selves who needed you in ways that may have been taxing at the time but now, we look back on with nostalgia. They do not quite have those chunky sweet cheeks of their baby days and are highly engaged in their friendships and their own life that may or may not be unfolding in ways you personally would choose.

In order to determine what you truly believe and how your beliefs align with your words and actions with your teen, consider these reflective questions:

  1. What if you didn’t have a tomorrow or a next year with your teen? What are your hopes and dreams for your teen today?
  2. What developmental assets does your teen have today (that we know are fleeting)? How can you recognize what those are and how you are recognizing, celebrating and building on those strengths?
  3. What are your very specific hopes and dreams for your teen’s future? 
  4. What’s in your control and your responsibility related to your teen’s life and what should be in their control if we are truly promoting their growing independence, knowing they will be ready for some responsibilities and not for others? 
  5. What are your emotional boundaries with your teen about the ways they are living their life today and how that may or may not impact their future? What’s theirs to hold? What’s yours to hold?
  6. How have you been pushed? How have you been supported? How have you felt about each method? How have you reacted to each? Did you ever feel forced into something? How did it go for you? What are your beliefs about the effectiveness of pushing versus supporting? Does each work and if so, when, or under what conditions?
  7. How do you exert your expectations — through pushing, through support? Is it aligned with your deepest values? Lining up your values on paper (two columns!) with your typical words and actions around their responsibilities and choices will help you measure whether there is true alignment.

It’s also helpful to have open-ended reflective conversations with your teen to discover how they are changing and what they believe and care about. Yesterday, I drove a friend’s daughter home from school, a sophomore. As I asked about what’s going on at school, she listed out the opportunities and the pressures — and there were indeed both. Her involvement in building theater sets was challenging in the best way. It fed her creative side and also, gave her a level of responsibility she’d never had before. But in school, they were taking PSATs and career assessments to determine what they want to be when they grow up. The career assessments focused on titles and disciplines – a limiting view of the possibilities. I asked her, “have you considered your gifts…what you love to do… when you lose your sense of time? How could those gifts be indicators of what you are here to do — how you can contribute the best of who you are to the world?” And I watched a light come over her face and she laughed. “Well, if they’d only asked me those questions. That’s a different story!” And we proceeded to talk about how in this knowledge worker, knowledge creator, innovative world we live in, where you can create your own career, why would you not explore those important questions of purpose, meaning and contribution?

You may respond, “but my son has to get into a reputable college, so that he can get a good starting salary so he can be independent so…” But what if all our pushing acts to demotivate our teens? What if it pushes them in the other direction? Or worse, they fear the bar is set so impossibly high that they choose not to try. It is no wonder we have so many teens grappling with anxiety.

There is a re-contracting of our parent-child relationship that has to occur in these teen years. And it will occur again in their emerging adult years (but let’s not go there yet!). How can we take the time to deeply reflect in this moment about how we are appreciating this teen before of us, the new boundaries we need to establish to offer greater responsibility and independence with our support in our safe environment and most importantly, offer and express our UNCONDITIONAL love as they work hard to figure it all out for themselves? Out of everything, out of all of our worries and diligence, it’s that unconditional love that matters most.

Want more? Check out…

The Anxious Achiever Podcast – The consequences of anxiety related to performance pressures are real and don’t go away during adulthood. In fact, often they increase. I love this podcast started by collaborator Morra Aarons-Mele called The Anxious Achiever. Our very own Confident Parent Lead writer Jason Miller was interviewed in Season 1, Episode 3. For more on adult anxiety (which has a significant impact on child and teen anxiety!), check this out!

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