Too Much Pressure?
Stressed-out students need to find ways to let off steam and refocus on life.
In addition to the requisite new backpacks filled with pristine notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils, many students begin the school year carrying heavy loads of stress and anxiety. For some, stress is a chronic condition that starts in late August and continues throughout the year.
Parents, professionals and teens agree that a variety of factors contribute to this stress: excessive homework, lack of adequate sleep, over-crowded schedules, anxiety about grades, college applications and standardized tests, and social pressures.
Dr. Toni Kaplan, a Farmington Hills psychologist who specializes in treating adolescents, says stress becomes a more frequent topic as the beginning of school approaches.
“It started to come up recently with kids in my practice who were away for the summer,” Kaplan said. “They came home, school is starting, and stress levels are escalating — and escalating quickly.”
“Stress in America,” a 2010 study by the American Psychological Association, reported nearly one-third of children experienced physical health symptoms often associated with stress; including trouble falling and/or staying asleep, headaches and upset stomachs.
Tweens and teens said they frequently turn to sedentary behaviors to relieve stress, such as listening to music, watching television or playing video games.
Parental stress was found to impact the emotional well-being of their offspring. While 69 percent of parents surveyed believed their own stress had little or no impact on their kids, 91 percent of children said their parents’ stress made them feel sad, worried or frustrated.
Feeling That Stress
During registration at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, seniors Allison Karp, Leah Jacobs and Amanda Goodman, all of West Bloomfield, talked about the stress they were feeling about the upcoming school year.
“I stress about every little thing — the ACT, college applications, AP work, regular work, senior pictures, tutors,” Karp said. “There’s a lot of pressure.”
All three students are taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses, which include summer homework assignments due when classes begin.
“Going into senior year shouldn’t be this stressful,” said Jacobs.
One of the greatest stressors for high schoolers is what Kaplan refers to as “time poverty.”
“Teens can’t discover who they are without time for reflection and downtime … this is the time to develop identity,” she said. “Also, their bodies become restored by downtime, and most of them are sleep deprived.”
Annie Jacobson of West Bloomfield is excited about starting her freshman year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but admits she is worried about getting enough sleep.
“That was a big factor in high school,” said Jacobson, who averaged five to six hours of sleep on school nights. “I took two or three AP courses, participated in theater, USY and I had a job — there was something every night. Sleep was the thing I would forego to make sure everything else worked.”
Jacobson was among several students who said they learned the hard way that procrastination increased stress.
“I’m stressed about applying to colleges, so I’m doing it early instead of waiting until the last minute,” said Sierra Stone, a West Bloomfield senior.
Middle school students also suffer from stress, but it is usually different than that experienced by older teens, according to West Bloomfield High School guidance counselor Lisa Graff, who spent 15 years at a middle school before assuming her current position.
“I didn’t realize how night-and-day different they are,” said Graff. “High school students have ‘real world’ problems, such as college admissions and getting a good grade in that AP course. ”
Graff said that when middle school students experience stress, it is usually because of social or family situations rather than academic issues.
“Financial issues are huge,” Graff said. “A lot of families have experienced tough financial times. Middle school students tend to take these problems harder; they are often more self-centered at that age. High school kids seem to have more empathy for their parents; they also rely more on their friends for support.”
Graff advises parents not to shield children from economic struggles because it prevents them from developing coping and problem-solving skills.
“They need to learn how to deal with loss and disappointment, that it’s OK not to make a team or get a part in the play,” she said. “Coping skills are important for alleviating stress.”
Psychologist Kaplan agrees, adding that teens who have not developed healthy coping skills may try to self-medicate with marijuana, alcohol, prescription drugs and sugar-laden foods. She warns that these kinds of “quick fixes” can lead to addiction, legal problems, compulsive eating and other health problems.
“The higher the boost, the greater the fall,” she said.
Helping Students Cope
Kaplan encourages parents to provide guidance and encouragement without being overprotective or excessively controlling. It is a fine line, especially for parents who want their children to succeed without experiencing failure.
“We put so much emphasis on danger … instead of coping abilities,” said Kaplan. “Parents have bought into the culture of fear. If you are constantly over-serving, meeting all their needs, kids are not challenged or taught. We focus on safety at expense of the children.”
One tool Kaplan and other professionals use is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which involves recognizing, interrupting and re-routing negative thoughts.
“The hallmark of anxiety is imagining the worst of everything,” she said.
Kaplan uses CBT to help clients list their fears and worries, look at the beliefs behind them and come up with new statements that are more reality-based.
“If a student is worried about getting a bad teacher, I might encourage her to say, ‘I might have a bad teacher, but I’m a good student. I’ve had bad teachers before. If that happens, I can talk to the teacher, or I can talk to my mother or my sister … ,’” said Kaplan.
High school students preparing for college often fear being on their own for the first time. They feel pressure to make decisions they are not ready for.
“I feel like I should have everything about my future all figured out, and I don’t,” said a high school senior who asked that his name not be used.
Kaplan said she has seen an increase in the number of college students who have moved back home because they could not adjust to living on their own.
“They’re scared of the future and not mature enough, yet they feel they have to make these mature decisions at a young age,” said Kaplan. “The [therapy] goal is to diminish worry and fear of the future.”
The situation is exacerbated by parents who are overly involved in children’s lives, sometimes referred to as “helicopter parents.” This fosters a prolonged childhood and sense of entitlement, said Kaplan.
“Do you want to protect or do you want to prepare?” Kaplan asked. “Healthy risks are part of growing up. Parents who try to control and stifle undermine confidence.”
Another factor is that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which controls impulsivity, organization and other executive functions, does not fully develop until the early- to mid-20s. This means that most teenagers, including college students, are not fully capable of organizing thoughts, setting priorities and analyzing long-term consequences.
“Teens are impulsive; they’re feeling overwhelmed,” said Kaplan. “That’s where parents come in; they need to coach and help them slow down, not by lecturing but by being respectful.”
She encourages parents to share their own stories so kids will understand the reasons behind the rules.
Medication is sometimes prescribed to alleviate stress and anxiety, depending on the severity or duration of the symptoms, according to psychiatrist Dr. Randy Dean of Neurobehavioral Medicine in Bloomfield Hills.
Dean recommends a variety of non-pharmacological treatment methods such as individual, group and family therapy, hypnotherapy and meditation techniques. While these modalities can be effective by themselves, some patients also require medication.
“Often we start with the non-medication treatments, and if they are not effective enough, we might then add medication to the treatment plan,” said Dean, adding that each patient is carefully monitored for benefits and possible side effects resulting from medicine as well as other forms of therapy.
Too Much Technology
Another factor contributing to stress is the proliferation of technology and social media. Smart phones, computers, tablets and other mobile devices produce a nonstop barrage of information and communication. This can be overwhelming and distracting for teens as well as grown-ups.
“It’s 24-7, they never get a break,” said Graff, who advises parents of younger children to regulate screen time and monitor text messages and Facebook activity. She says “car time” is a great opportunity for parents to replace modern technology with old-fashioned conversation.
“In the car, you have a captive audience,” she said. “Don’t talk on your phone; use the time to interact with your kids.”
Kaplan said another source of stress is the isolation many teens feel within their own families.
When family members are not busy with work and other activities outside the house, their at-home time is often spent in separate rooms, focusing on computers and other electronic devices instead of each other.
“Family togetherness is lost; teens don’t feel a sense of belonging,” said Kaplan.
Race to Nowhere, a 2010 documentary film written by Maimone Attia and directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon, depicts the negative effects of an education system that creates stress and student burnout with its emphasis on grades and relentless pressure to achieve.
“I hear so much worrying about the grades, even from ninth-graders,” said Rabbi Elliot Pachter, director of student services at Frankel Jewish Academy. “That concerns me. There is more focus on grades than on developing life skills like good study habits, coping skills, organization — life-sustaining things.”
Kaplan said she knows of parents who sued their local schools for inadequate preparation when their children were not admitted to U-M.
“It’s important that schools recognize there are many kinds of kids and families,” said Graff. “There are all kinds of ways for kids to get where they need to go.”
For students whose families observe Shabbat, the pressure is even greater; the bulk of weekend homework must be completed on Sunday, leaving no time for family or get-togethers with friends.
“We’re living in a state of constant stress — there’s always something waiting, always a test or homework or a project waiting,” said a parent who asked that her name be withheld.
“It affects the whole family. We can’t go anywhere after school, and my daughter never goes to bed before midnight. They’re being robbed of their childhood. They have no time to have fun, to sit with their friends and just giggle. It’s painful to watch.”
By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer
Tips For Parents
• Make time to talk to your kids without distractions, and listen to what they have to say.
• Avoid lecturing kids of any age; treat them with respect.
• Seek help if you notice significant changes in your teen including appetite, sleep habits, social behavior or academic performance.
• If you sense something is not right, don’t ignore the situation. Go with your gut.
• Be a coach, not a micro-manager. When problems arise, offer suggestions, but allow teens to come up with their own solutions.
• Parenting is hard work. Take care of yourself by getting proper rest, exercising regularly, eating healthy foods and spending time doing things you enjoy.
• Let your teen know you love him no matter what grades he gets or where he goes to college.
• Realize your children’s dreams and expectations may be different than yours.
• Pass on the benefits of your experience. Don’t lecture about the evils of procrastination; instead, talk about how procrastinating affected you in the past and what you learned.
• Avoid CATS (caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, sweeteners); these substances can increase stress and be detrimental to your health in other ways. If you can’t abstain, use moderation.
Tips For Teens
• Establish a bedtime routine that includes calming activities such as listening to relaxing music, drinking tea or warm milk, bathing or showering, or reading.
• Turn off electronics and start getting ready for bed early enough to allow at least eight hours of sleep.
• Exercise regularly; doing something you enjoy such as sports or dancing makes it easier to stick to a routine.
• Eat a healthy diet, and allow enough time for breakfast before going to school.
• Develop a kit of tools to help you unwind, such as yoga, meditation, deep-breathing, scented candles, music, walking or other kinds of exercise.
• Develop good study habits. Use a planner, either paper or electronic, to keep track of assignments, tests, extra-curricular activities and social engagements.
• Avoid procrastination. Break large projects or tasks down into manageable pieces to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
• If you feel like stress is a constant companion, ask for help. Talk to a parent or another trusted adult, such as a teacher, therapist, school counselor, relative or family friend.
Naftaly Family Circle Conference
Parents and professionals are invited to attend “Uncovering the Impact of Stress on Learning” at the Anita Naftaly Family Circle Conference from 12:30-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
The program features national speaker, author, clinical neuropsychologist and former special education teacher Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., who will discuss the relationship between stress and learning.
To register or obtain more information, call Shoshana Baruch at (248) 205-2549 or visit www.jewishdetroit.org/familycircle. Advance registration fee, $20, walk-ins, $25. CE hours for social workers and certified counselors and Nirim “in-network” credit available. Nirim teachers must register online at www.jewishdetroit.org/nirim.