Lily Coulter, a 17-year-old high school senior from Charleston, SC, isn’t sure what finally set her off last March.
She was at volleyball practice when she suddenly broke down into uncontrollable sobs. It was quite out of character for Coulter, an academic high-achiever, an athlete, and now senior class president.
“It all came quickly, but it was built up from 2 weeks of prior anxiety,” she says.
“I was stressed about my school work and I felt like practice was taking away from my time to get things done,” Lily says.
At home that evening, Lily’s mom, Krysten, could hear that things were off as her daughter tried to talk it out. “I remember just listening because what she was saying was irrational and she just needed a chance to vent,” says her mom.
Afterward, Lily tucked herself away in her bedroom for some alone time. She sat down at her beloved piano and got lost in her music for a few hours. After some time, she was able to calm herself down.
“I’m lucky that both times I’ve had panic attacks, I was able to work through it on my own,” she says.
Still, Krysten Coulter was truly concerned for daughter that night. The pressure to perform at school had just become too much. She worried that it was starting to take a toll on Lily’s mental health. She wonders where it will stop.
Next year, Lily plans to leave home for her first year of college. Lily’s mom is already nervous about that. “She’s put pressure like this on herself since kindergarten. I worry how she’ll cope if we’re not there.”
The Pressure Is Real
The scenario is all too common, says psychologist Madeline Levine, PhD, author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. Kids like Lily feel the weight of academic pressure more than ever before, Levine says.
“Twenty-five years ago, when you asked a child about their biggest source of stress, they would say that there was a divorce or that they were fighting with their sibling.”
“Now it’s always the stress of school,” Levine says.
And the pandemic hasn’t helped. Rates of depression and anxiety have doubled in school-age kids during the pandemic, according to some studies. The source of the increase isn’t clear, but kids often internalize the expectations in the culture around them, Levine says.
That could be from their friends or from social media or from their parents. “Messages come from all over the place, but the most salient messages come from your parents,” Levine says.
Tools for Reducing Academic Pressure
Here are some things that parents can do to help their kids keep school in a healthy perspective, Levine says:
- Avoid sole focus on grades. “If you’re only focused on grades, you end up having an 11-year-old who’s thinking they’re only as good as their last performance,” she says.
- Ask questions and be curious – and not just about school performance. For example: What subjects do they like? What don't they like? What clubs or teams or activities are they involved in? Do they have a healthy social group? Are they lonely? “You can never listen to your child too much,” Levine says.
- Allow for unstructured time. Kids and teens need to have at least some time each day just to “mess around.” It doesn’t always have to be schoolwork or planned extracurricular activities. It’s even better if this downtime can happen outdoors in nature.
- Have dinner with your kids whenever possible. It’s a good chance to listen for problems and get ahead of them so they’re easier to deal with. It’s also important for your child to know that the family unit is protective against stress. The family is there no matter how school is going.
- Avoid too much conversation about material wealth in front of your kids. Instead of talking about a neighbor’s fancy new car or swimming pool, focus on what people do to help each other and their community. Try and teach kids to value the social worker, not just the Silicon Valley billionaire genius, Levine says.
The stress of academic pressure can show itself in different ways. Pay attention to big shifts in mood or behavior. While it’s normal for kids to be in a bad mood now and then, big shifts might be a sign of more serious problems.
Some teens make it obvious. They make threats, start fights, or disrupt school and social events. But these are the exceptions, Levine says. More often, school pressures lead a young person to become depressed, withdrawn, and anxious.
This can be harder to spot. You might notice excessive self-criticism, sleep problems, sudden changes in body weight, loss of interest in activities they used to like, or talk of self-harm (including suicide).
In these cases, it may be time for professional help. A doctor can recommend an appropriate mental health counselor or psychiatrist in your area.
Lily Coulter knows firsthand how hard it can be to balance academics, music, sports, friends, and family and mental health. So she took some time to think over the summer, and she decided to make a change.
To lift some of the pressure she felt last spring, she decided to pass on the volleyball team for her senior year. She says she already feels better about it and she’s excited for her final year of high school.