When was the last time you had some time to yourself? For most of us, every minute of the day is already reserved — filled with work commitments, family responsibilities, and social obligations. The same, unfortunately, is true for many young adults; every minute of their lives is already scripted.
One of the principals with whom I work recently told me of a conversation he had with a parent in his school district. The parent was concerned that the math her child was taking was not hard enough. The principal responded that the math was perfectly fine for a kindergartner. The parent was not convinced.
Like an increasing number of parents who have Ivy League paths in mind from the moment they enroll their children in preschool, this parent had planned every stage of the road the child would take to get into Harvard.
Are our kids being pushed too hard? And what are we pushing them towards at age 5 or 6? Are they being allowed to grow intellectually, socially, and emotionally by designing and striving for goals that are their own? If the answer is "no", then the consequence of all that pressure may have detrimental affects.
The pressure children feel manifests itself in different ways as they get older. True, some may feel inspired, continue to achieve and be proud of overcoming difficult challenges. But others may succumb to the pressure by feeling anxious or inadequate, or having low self-esteem.
At a recent outdoor fair where vendors were displaying their products, I watched as a 10-year-boy, walking hand-in-hand with his mom, passed a vendor offering massages. As I got closer, I was incredulous to hear the mother ask, "Do you want a massage? It may relax you." Since when do 10-year-olds need to relax?
However, her statement was indicative of the turn our society has taken toward the pursuit of achievement, and its effect on young adults.
The pressures on teens
As competition intensifies, teenagers try to distinguish themselves from both others and mediocrity by doing more: internships, paid work experiences, college preparations, homework, travel, sports, extracurricular school activities, family time, chores, community service, volunteer endeavors, extra honors classes… With the same 24 hours in a day and more "success-oriented" requirements squeezed in, something is bound to suffer. Will it be them?
Sitting in the waiting room of his chiropractor's office, a colleague of mine was shocked as he looked around. Teenagers filled the room. Asking the doctor what he made of this, the doctor responded that he had been seeing more young adults than ever before, mainly for compression fractures. Children are playing sports at younger ages and putting the body through rigorous impact for a longer stretches of time. If a child plays competitive sports at 4, by the time he is 15 he will have stressed his body much more than if he had run onto the playing field at 9 or 10.
Today's teens face constant pressure, not simply to be good and achieve but to be great and stand out. If this competitive mentality is over-stressing a teenager's 15-year-old body, what is it doing to the rest of him? While pushing young adults can lead them to achieve their goals and motivate them to succeed, we need to look at the cost of such accomplishment?
Frequently, teenagers who cannot measure up, constantly work to keep up, or feel pressure to step up, suffer from feelings of nervousness, inadequacy and an inability to live up to expectations. These negative feelings may lead to low self-esteem, rebellion, and a determination not to compete or achieve at all. The ensuing effort to find solace and comfort may lead to depression, a dependency on drugs or alcohol, or even an eating disorder. Is all this pressure worth it, or even needed?
For many teenagers, the pressure to succeed stems from a more and more competitive environment: constant progress reports, standardized testing, policies like "No Child Left Behind", a strict academic curriculum, schools starting earlier, parents enrolling their children sooner, colleges wanting to see more, and parents' high expectations.
A majority of teenagers do not need to be pushed — they consistently get As, take honors classes, play sports, volunteer, help out around the house, are self-motivated, and are consistently termed by their parents as "really good kids". Still many parents push them to do more and achieve greater results. Why?
Although some parents are aware of the pressure on their children, they can't help but add to it, and only with the best intentions. "Helicopter Parents", as they have become known, hover over their children to an extreme. Often these young adults, when left to navigate on their own, can no longer make even the simplest decisions. Many have never been taught or have had to think outside of the realm their parents have created for them.
Another of my colleagues mentioned that her 17-year-old daughter was offered several summer jobs, and when it came time to choose, she turned to her mother and said, " I need you to tell me what is best for me — which job should I take?"
The drive behind this phenomenon is the admirable desire parents have to prevent their children from making the same mistakes they did, and to help their children capitalize on opportunities, attain the same level or a higher level of education, experience great success and enjoy a high-quality of life. Yet many times what they do not consider is the potential harm of pushing too hard and expecting too much — leaving teenagers without the time to be just that: teenagers.
Tips for Parents
How can parents combat teenage overload and reduce stress in their teenagers' lives while motivating them to achieve?
1. Slow everything down. Let your child enjoy every stage of life.
2. Communicate openly with your teenager about his needs.
3. Sit down with your teen and make a list of her goals and your goals for her. See if they are compatible, and compromise.
4. Discuss long-range goals, and make sure there is a clear understanding and agreement about them.
5. Set a clear path for how to achieve them.
6. Equip your teenager with skill-sets to handle selected agreed-upon tasks.
7. Take an honest inventory of activities to see which are superfluous and can be eliminated from your teenager's schedule.
8. Give your teenager the guided opportunity to make decisions that directly affect his life.
9. Check in with your teen periodically to make sure she is not too thinly stretched, above her head, or feeling overwhelmed trying to achieve goals that are not his/her own.
10. Keep expectations, goals and ambitions relevant and age-appropriate.
Sixty seconds listening to the rain or watching a bird land on a branch could be more useful to the emotional health of a child than the directed single-purposed countdown from kindergarten to college. Ask yourself: Does your child need to relax?
LAURA KATEN is president of Katen Consulting in Harrison, and the Enhance Your Chance® Workplace-Readiness Program, a training company that helps young adults to learn essential business skills needed to make a positive impression and succeed in the workplace and college arenas. She can be reached at 914-468-0892 or www.enhanceyourchance.com.