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If Your Teen Hates School, It Could Signal a Larger Problem

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 7/26/2018 Susan Bartell

© Nikada/Getty Images Negative, pessimistic teens are often under too much academic pressure.

For multiple reasons, the academic experience of this generation of teens has become increasingly stressful.

Courses are more difficult and time-consuming, competition is greater, and the ever-present fear of not getting into college haunts many kids beginning in middle school. They frequently complain about not having enough time to enjoy extracurricular activities and also get their work done. In addition, social media, video games and other media are such an intense draw for kids that they struggle to prioritize non-screen aspects of life. They often use technology as an escape from academic pressure, creating a vicious cycle of not getting work done, which then results in even more stress as they fall behind.

For a growing segment of teens, these combined challenges can have a significant and long-lasting impact on their emotional health. These are not the kids who are naturally very bright and can succeed at high academic levels while still managing a balanced social and extracurricular life. They are also not the kids who meet diagnostic criteria for a specific psychological diagnosis, such as anxiety or depression, or who necessarily have a learning disorder or otherwise generally have great difficulty understanding subject matter. They are everyone else: kids who need to work very hard if they are to succeed at advanced academic levels.

For these students, the pressure takes its toll. They may complain of headaches, stomachaches or difficulty falling asleep, or they might struggle to wake up in a timely fashion on school mornings. Most predominantly, they talk about how much they dislike school, and wish they weren't under so much pressure. They count the days until the weekends, vacations and longer school breaks, like summer. Often, they experience an overflow of negative thoughts and feelings that seeps into other aspects of life, finding reason to complain about almost anything.

Parents experience these teens as constantly pessimistic and find this to be frustrating, which is likely to lead to bickering between parent and child, adding yet another layer of stress. For many kids, it seems like their life is doomed to feel like this forever – an endless pressure cooker of negativity. Parents don’t always see an end in sight either, and wish they had a child who was happier, less negative and more appreciative of all that life offers.

In fact, it is possible to effect change that results in a happier and emotionally healthier child, but this requires both the parent and child to analyze the choices the child is making and those that the parent is making for the child. In some cases, parents are at least partially responsible for their children’s stress and negativity. They have very high academic expectations, perhaps beyond the child’s natural capability. They encourage their child to take classes that are more than the child can handle academically – even with tutors – because they perceive the child needs to take these classes to prepare for college. For many teens, the constant struggle to succeed, paired with the knowledge that their parents aren’t happy with them if they don’t do well, leaves them feeling hopeless and negative.

Of course, it isn't always the parent who applies the pressure. Some kids put this type of academic pressure on themselves because they hope to please their parents, want to compare favorably to peers or are worried about getting into a "good" college. Regardless of whether this is parent- or child-driven, kids who struggle with very challenging academics spend so much effort on schoolwork that it is difficult for them to find the time and energy to enjoy extracurricular and social activities which might actually relieve some of their stress.

Some teens do have the cognitive ability to handle rigorous academic challenges if they push themselves hard, but do not have the emotional resilience to do so. Often parents (and kids) don’t realize that both are needed for a child to be successful academically. Being smart isn’t enough (unless a child is extremely bright). One must also be able to study long hours, manage on less sleep, and sacrifice other activities and even downtime for academics. Not surprisingly, many kids cannot and should not do this, but even at such a young age, they already suffer from poor "work-"life balance – or in this case, more precisely, poor school-life balance.

When children or teens struggle in this way – experiencing academics and life as mainly negative and stressful – it's time to take a hard look at what must be changed to alleviate their stress. To start, it's important to keep their life balanced by including enough non-academic experiences. Therefore, unless they are excessively social or participate in a large number of extracurricular activities, these should not be the first things to go.

The first step is to assess whether a change in academics is in order. Before the next school year begins, it is particularly important to assess your child’s schedule to determine if changes need to be made. Ask yourself if your child is in too many advanced classes, or perhaps needs fewer electives to provide a break during the school day. Teens don’t always have good judgment, so they should not be allowed to make these important decisions alone. If you believe that your child would be happier, less stressed and more optimistic with an easier schedule, insist on the change. Even once the school year starts, it is always possible to switch classes for the first few weeks. Actively monitor your teen’s workload and stress level. Make changes if appropriate.

If you are reluctant to make a change that you know would be better for your child’s emotional health, then you will need to wrestle with your own priorities. Keep in mind that even if you are able to push your teen through high school to an acceptance at a college of choice, there is a high likelihood that your child will struggle academically and emotionally in this college, because it is actually not a good match for the child. Ask yourself if it's worth sacrificing your child’s emotional health so that the child can get into a particular college or to keep up with friends. There are a great many colleges at which a child can be successful and happy.

Keep in mind that when a child is chronically stressed, negative and pessimistic about school (and life), this is a barometer of emotional health. You will need to step in and make changes that may conflict with what you wish your child could accomplish, but which the child realistically can’t do. However, keep in mind that an unhappy child is likely to grow into an unhappy adult, while a happy child will become a happy adult who is likely to be confident and successful.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report

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