When Opportunity Becomes Expectation: Advocating for Teens

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As many of you know, I am a mental health therapist. I have worked with the homeless, those struggling with substance abuse, severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, trauma, and many other populations and diagnoses. But one of my favorite groups of people to work with my teenagers. I live for their blunt honesty. I relish in their struggles in figuring out who they are. I love when they come in and can’t wait to “spill the tea” about their friends’ “instas” and “finstas”. I love learning phrases like “yeet” and “big mood.” And my ultimate favorite is their groans to the dad jokes I make in the lobby or when I feign technical illiteracy by adding the word “the” in front of the word “Google” or referring to their social media platforms as “insta-snap-book.”

For the past several years I have worked with kids struggling from self-harm, impulse control issues, social skills deficits, and severe issues with perfectionism. As the years have passed by, I have noticed a trend. There has been a sharp increase in the expectations of our teens (particularly in Montgomery and Howard Counties). We expect them to be able to manage the social demands of school, but also its continued effects through social media. We expect not only amazing grades, but in AP courses on top of their extra-curriculars. It can all be too much for developing minds to manage. With each new layer of expectation comes one new layer of opportunity for mistakes and real or perceived criticism. And a mistake could mean losing opportunities, which our school system is quick to point out could affect their futures forever.

This pressure, paired with trying to figure out who they are compared to their friends and family, dealing with new and intense hormones, intensified emotions, and a social life that literally lives in their pockets and across screens and platforms is too much! What this yielded in our high achievers is intense anxiety if they cannot be perfect, people-pleasing due to a lack of security in who they are (looking to adults to tell them what to do instead of having the time to explore and assess who they are and what they need themselves), depression if they make a mistake (because the ramifications are perceived, and often sold as potentially irrevocable and life-altering), and a lack of social skills due to lack of face-to-face interaction and isolation due to the need to continue studying through the weekends and late into the night.

It is wonderful that Howard and Montgomery counties prioritize education. When I was growing up, I had the opportunity to take one or two AP classes (that was all that was available). Now, teens can take an AP level course for every subject. We had “honors” and “on-grade” level classes. Now, there is a third level “gifted and talented”- all of which provide different GPA weights. Teens these days have many foreign languages to choose from as well as programming languages and access to the Applied Physics Lab of a local university. Some of the students even get bused to the local community college to take half their classes at the college level.

These opportunities are great, and I am proud of the counties that I have lived in for providing such quality education. The flip side of this is the mounting pressure of the school system and state to provide the highest achieving students to attract more affluent families to the area, thus raising the property values and overall tax revenues (this contributes to the issue of rich counties getting richer and poorer counties stagnating or getting poorer). This pressure gets placed on schoolteachers, who have to show their performance through the academic success of their students. The teachers then pressure and perhaps “over-encourage” (I’m not sure that’s a term, but I’m using it) their students and their families to achieve to the level of and participate in the opportunities that are available. Many of these classes have limited space, causing teens to compete academically with each other, increasing tensions in peer groups and fear of social rejection based on a poor grade (and let’s remember that there can be many contributing factors to poor grades such as mental health issues, physical issues, stress in the family, and social stresses. Not understanding what was taught, teacher absences, fire alarms, having to wake up earlier than developmentally appropriate, lack of sleep, interruptions in curriculum with state, county, and national testing… Also, for many of these students, a “poor grade” is a 92%).

The parents also feel the pressure. If you are a parent, you probably have already experienced pressures by your parent peers. There’s the family that only eat organic. The family of doctors and lawyers. The family with the tricked out mini-van who wears this season’s latest fashions. And now, you probably have already heard about all of their children’s various academic successes. Parent-teach conferences are fraught with these social pressures. So much so, that if your child isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid, and if you aren’t the ones serving it, you feel like a failing parent.

I want to reiterate that I DO NOT think that opportunity is inherently a bad thing. In fact, I wish kids in other counties had the same opportunities and supports to excel and succeed. What I am very concerned about is when those opportunities transform into expectations. That can be very dangerous, and this is why…

According to MIT, there are 10 basic tasks of adolescent development:

  • Adjusting to puberty
  • Develop abstract thinking skills
  • Develop and apply social skills to relationships
  • Develop and apply decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict-resolution skills
  • Identify their values, morality, and belief systems
  • Understand and express their increasingly more complicated emotional experiences
  • Form healthy and supportive relationships with peers
  • Establish their identity
  • Meet demands of increasingly mature roles and responsibilities
  • Renegotiate relationships with peers and adults

Academic opportunities may address one or two of these tasks, which is great. But what happens when all of one’s life focuses on only those few tasks? Teens becoming increasingly unsure, less confident, and lack core skills to surviving outside of an academic environment. They aren’t sure what they like, but instead feel the need to be told what they should or are expected to like. They become reliant on others to tell them who they are and how they should act.

Many of these tasks require time and space for exploration. Teens need to see other ways that people live their live, experience other perspectives, and even have the opportunity to try some new roles and values on to see how they fit for them. This is why “rebellion” and “push back” is important. This is why it is important to struggle. No one likes to hear this, but there is a reason we culturally have a strong reaction to teens and why so many of us would not want to return to that age. It is a time of confusion and struggle.

I have found myself have many conversations over the past months with incredibly supportive parents about their pre-teen and teen children. One exercise I find myself asking the parents to do is to choose an animal such as a bear, wolf, or lion. I then ask them about their parenting style and why they allow their cubs to wrestle. The answer is that the mothers of these cubs want their cubs to struggle to hone their skills. She can also see where her cubs are struggling and model appropriate and more effective strategies. She rarely inserts herself into the fray, unless things appear unsafe. I feel like this style of parenthood is analogous to effective parenting strategies for teens.

This is not to say that you should just let your kids go hog wild and do whatever they like, but instead to walk to fine line of being the counterbalance. To be there to facilitate exploration. To allow and even model failures and mistakes and how to recover from them. To EXPECT mistakes. To not force, but guide. This is very hard to do and requires a lot of distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and mindfulness. It requires a lot of self-care and communication and coordination with your partner and other important adults in your child’s life.

I realize that this post is a little “soap boxy”, and I have tried to steer away from these type of posts, but with August starting, I am already watching my teens’ and their parents’ anxieties starting to stir. I am already hearing panic around how to schedule therapy sessions on top of all the extra curriculars and necessary time for studying. In fact, some of my clients have already taken textbooks out of the library and started pre-studying for this coming semester. I felt like I needed to ask everyone to please take a step back and remember what the expectations were for your child when you held them in your arms for the first time. Was it that they get perfect grades? Was it that they take all AP courses? Or was it that they be happy, well-adjusted people who know and are confident in who they are?

Here’s some articles that could be useful for parents looking to better support their teens with academic stress:

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/8-ways-parents-can-help-teens-with-academic-overwhelm-0424144

https://hr.mit.edu/static/worklife/raising-teens/ten-tasks.html

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