He was a bright kid with a gift for creative writing and visual arts. His grades in math were fine —As and Bs—but he never showed any special affinity for the subject or any great pleasure from it. The boy (unnamed to protect his privacy) wasn’t upset when his fifth grade teacher did not recommend him for honors math the following year, his first in middle school.
His parents, however, disagreed. They lobbied the teacher and the principal to place him in the honors class, and they got him in.
The result: What could have been an easy transition to middle school was marred by the young man’s extreme anxiety about math class and near-constant battles with his parents over homework and grades.
And this child is far from unique. The pressure to achieve, whether in academics or extracurricular activities, is affecting young people as never before—and not, as they say, in a good way.
“It’s a fairly pervasive phenomenon that mental health professionals are dealing with among children, teens and young adults,” explains Frank Bartolomeo, Ph.D., the director of behavioral health services at the Southfield Center for Development in Darien. “We’re seeing epidemic levels of anxiety and depression.”
Bartolomeo cites a recent study of California high school students that confirmed what many in his field have been seeing: 54 percent of respondents were depressed and a whopping 80 percent suffered from anxiety.
Several towns away, in Ridgefield, clinical psychologist Steven E. Karashik, Psy.D., who practices at Karashik and Associates, is seeing a similar trend. “Particularly in high school, kids are anxious and frustrated, even to the point of depression,” he observes.
Bartolomeo attributes this development to several factors. “It’s coming from a highly competitive culture. There’s greater scarcity for well-paying jobs and greater pressure to succeed,” he says.
Another factor is parents’ attitudes.
“Part of it,” he says, “is related to parental pride and a desire to showcase their children.”
Even in families that take a more low-key attitude, Karashik says, the very real pressure to achieve in order to qualify for college scholarships can cause stress. “It’s ridiculous how expensive college is,” he states.
“We all want our kids to get good grades and get into good schools,” says Karashik, who teaches a psychology class at Naugatuck Valley Community College. “But we have to take into account their emotional wellbeing.”
“Kids will tell me, ‘My parents want me to be in honors or AP classes,’” he continues. “Some deal with it well,” he adds, but others can’t handle the pressure. “Kids tell me they’re never going to amount to anything because they’re getting a B in AP calculus. Maybe it’s me, but I think a B in AP calculus is great.”
Bartolomeo sees the same kinds of responses in his practice. “Kids confuse the idea of doing your best with being the best,” he states.
They lose perspective and fall into a habit of what he called “catastrophic thinking, anxious thinking and negative prediction.”
“It’s tied to this rigid recipe for success,” Bartolomeo explains. His patients come to believe that “‘If I fail this test, I won’t get a good GPA and I won’t get into a good college, and I won’t get a good job, and I won’t have a good life.’”
In some cases, he continues, pressure to achieve can backfire. Some students, feeling that they’ve fallen short of expectations, just stop trying, while others experience what he calls “failure to launch,” which he defines as “young men and women who get into college and flop out in the first year.” Typically, he says, their parents have pushed academics and not attended to other developmental areas, so when they’re on their own, they don’t know how to cope with life.
How do these mental health professionals counsel their clients, both kids and their parents?
Karashik tells parents that “At some point you have to accept your kid’s strengths and weaknesses. You have to nurture the strengths.” He tries to help his young clients keep their perspective: “I teach them to look at where the stressor is coming from and deal with the here and now,” rather than catastrophizing over a less-than-stellar outcome. He stresses doing things—whether academic or otherwise—“for the intrinsic value, because it feels so good, versus that extrinsic value—to look good to our friends, to please our parents.”
Bartolomeo likes to frame the issues in terms of values. He encourages young and old to try to achieve a balance. “Valuing achievement is a good thing,” he says, “but we need to make room for other kinds of values, like being a kind person or being a responsible person.”
He cautions, “If kids feel like their only value is based on performance, it’s almost as if they don’t have inherent value as a human being. No parent would intend that, but you could see how things would become distorted.”