“Get into a good college”… “Not doing enough”…
I hear these statements in my office at least once a day. Today’s teens are deeply impacted by the message that their worth is measured by report cards and acceptance into college.
Worry about a low grade on a test is more than meets the eye. From a teen’s perspective, one less-than-perfect performance could block chances at future success—which usually means earning a spot at a top university and landing a lucrative job—the American dream.
Living for the future creates dissatisfaction and angst in the present. Each assignment, task, or test bears the existential weight of a life potentially sentenced to failure. Will today be the day I lose it all? Is this all there is to life? Facing this pressure every day, sometimes multiple times a day, it’s no wonder anxiety is rising among teens.
When I started grad school, I expected to work with stereotypical teens engaging in rebellious and risky behavior. While teens are still rebelling and taking risks, this trend has decreased. In its place, risk-avoidance and anxiety has increased.
“Today’s anxious and perfectionist teens are looking for guidance.”
Teens don’t smoke or drink as much as generations past, but this means they also avoid healthy risks like driving and trying new things. In reality, I’ve spent more time with anxious teens who represent this trend.
The Shame of Failure
Somewhere along the way, teens adopted all-or-nothing and catastrophic thinking about the outcome of everyday failures. One mistake—which could mean anything other than perfection—can feel crushing to teens, bringing a basic sense of shame.
Shame attributes our mistakes to our identity rather than our behaviors, ignoring context and our inherent worthiness as human beings. Teens end up thinking it’s they who are unsolvable problems, rather than pointing to choices and actions that can be changed.
For teens who haven’t experienced failure yet, anxiety may be paralyzing. The teens who never seem to make mistakes—who are responsible, dependable rule-keepers—may struggle undetected. They need interventions, too.
For these teens, the mere thought of making a mistake can trigger shame and keeps them feeling like they aren’t doing enough to secure success. The compulsion to do “one more thing” is unrelenting, as teens hope for the relief of “making it” to arrive after the next hurdle is crossed.
Social media perpetuates anxiety by casting the perception that everyone else’s life is a highlight reel, while yours doesn’t measure up. Additionally, teens and their parents have constant access to grades through online portals, creatin an opportunity to ruminate on past marks and hash out future “what if’s.”
“More teens are refusing to go to school, and reporting that they don’t know how to cope with the mounting pressure.”
Due to busy schedules in today’s modern families and the lack of resources for teachers, it seems there’s little margin to focus on anything other than academics. While the intention is good, it leaves teens hearing about assignments and performance a lot. The message that grades matter has come through clear, and some teens interpret this message through the lens of all-or-nothing thinking: grades are all that matter about my life.
For many teens, the pressure comes from within. Even if they’ve not received this message directly from parents or teachers, it’s steeped into the culture and present in their communities.
Helping Teens Find Balance
As much as we think teens ignore what adults have to say, they look to us for cues about what is important in life. We need to be mindful about the message we are sending. More than ever, teens need to hear that life is more than grades and a never-ending hustle to reach the next milestone.
The goal is not to communicate that grades don’t matter at all. Have no fear in easing the pressure for them. The goal is to help teens broaden their perspective and create a model for success that is not solely based on performance, accommodating for failure, progress, and values. Balance now is better than burn out and exhaustion down the road.
What Should We Talk About Instead of Academics?
I recently gave a talk to students at a local school about mindfulness and stress reduction. I don’t take for granted that this school created space in its curriculum to promote emotional well-being alongside academic development.
There’s no curriculum to teach teens how to manage difficult emotions, cope with stress and establish a sense of meaning and purpose outside of the classroom. For generations, teens have figured this out on their own. As adults, we have the luxury of hindsight, knowing that those low grades and embarrassing moments of our adolescence were not a life sentence.
“More than ever, teens need to hear that life is more than grades and a never-ending hustle to reach the next milestone.”
Today’s anxious and perfectionist teens are looking for guidance. More teens are refusing to go to school, and reporting that they don’t know how to cope with the mounting pressure.
A few basic coping skills and shifts in perspective can make a big impact in bringing peace to the present:
- Communicate that self-worth runs deeper than grades and performance. Adolescence is a time for identity development and the exploration of interests and values. Talk to teens about things that bring meaning and purpose that transcend the everyday grind of work and school—relationships, values, and passions. Ask about times when they feel a sense of fulfillment. Connect them to opportunities to help others and participate in work that is connected to their values. This can defuse the pressure and focus placed on performance at school, as they nurture other parts of their identity. It could even help them bring a sense of purpose to schoolwork, as they find a greater goal to work towards. When failures occur, it won’t seem as if everything is lost.
- Model work-life balance and “good enough.” There will always be another assignment, test or task. Another AP class to take. Another activity to add to a college application. When teens see us setting limits and accepting “good enough,” they may feel permission to accept “good enough” for themselves and give time to relationships and interests outside of school.
- Give them permission to break the mold. If you only take three AP classes instead of four, you will still get into college… It’s okay to take non-AP classes. It’s okay to go to a school that you love even though it doesn’t have name recognition. It’s okay to start college with an undecided major.
- Coach teens in reality-testing. When they are catastrophizing or engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, ask them to think about the best, worst, and most likely outcomes of the situation. Reality is usually in between the ideal and worst-case scenarios. Another helpful prompt is asking if the situation will matter in 5, 10, or 20 years? These prompts can challenge the idea that a present failure will define their future.
- Celebrate failure and cultivate a growth mindset. The process towards our goals and learning from failure can be more important to our growth than outcomes themselves. Framing failure as a positive and learning how to overcome it can make it seem less scary and consuming. Read about more about embracing failure and growth mindsets in Dr. Dave Verhaagen’s series on Raising Resilient kids.