By Sharon Jones
An ambitious 13-year-old gets a bad grade on a test. She is devastated, as many high-achieving kids would be. Her response to the poor grade is extreme. She takes her own life.
This girl’s tragic story is among many the real-life examples of stressed-out teens explored in the documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” which will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 22 in Parker Auditorium at La Jolla High School. The La Jolla Cluster Association will host the presentation.
The film will be followed by a panel discussion. Middle school and high-school students are welcome to attend.
Experts say students are experiencing more stress and anxiety than ever before. At the root of much of the stress is the intense competition to get into top-tier universities.“It’s far more competitive to get into universities now than it was for us,” said Kristee Beres, a clinical psychologist who has two teen-age boys, one at La Jolla High and one at Muirlands Middle School. “They talk about the academic pressure. They worry about studying. There is not a lot of free time. It is a grind.”
But the pressure on today’s teens extends beyond academics. Parents and teachers point to other observed concerns: the recession has increased the financial stress on families, college tuition is way more expensive than it used to be, sexual activity can have life-threatening health consequences, and class schedules have less room for electives that might provide an emotional boost.
Furthermore, larger class sizes mean that teachers have less interaction with teens, and high school counseling staffs have been crippled by budget cuts.
What does all this stress on youth accomplish?
Research shows that stress damages every kind of cognition that exists, including memory and executive function, motor skills, immune response and ability to sleep. Studies also show that insufficient sleep causes difficulties in school, such as discipline problems, sleepiness in class, and poor concentration.
Organizes hope the film, “Race to Nowhere,” will inspire families to have conversations about stress and academic pressure.
Parents set examples
There are lots of things parents can do to reduce the amount of stress on children. The first thing is to look in the mirror, said Ruth Sucato, a clinical psychotherapist.
“Parents are under as much stress as the child,” Sucato said. “We, as parents, have to learn to live our lives well, not just for ourselves, but as role models. How do kids learn? They learn by watching us.”
Beres agreed. “Parents need to model how to manage stress from the very basics — a healthy diet — what to eat and what not to eat,” she said. “I have teenagers in my office who are having 5-6 cups of caffeine a day. That’s going to interfere with their sleep patterns.”
Parents also need to focus on what their long-term goal is for their children, which is usually that they grow up to be happy, successful adults, Sucato said. With this in mind, parents need to encourage and support, not criticize and pressure, she said.
“In our need to have our children succeed, we sometimes forget that they are people with their own life paths,” Sucato said. “Our job is to help them find those paths.”
To help kids discover their destinies, parents should help teens identify their strengths and encourage them to deploy those strengths when tackling difficult assignments, said Susan Wais, a psychologist who leads parent-education classes. “Deploying a strength when undertaking a task enables a teen to be more engaged in the task, therefore enjoying it more,“ she said.
For example, a teen-ager in the process of applying to college who is strong in curiosity, can be taught to use this strength to research the colleges he or she is applying to in order to make sure the application process goes as seamlessly as possible, Wais said.
Another way parents can reduce stress on teens is to set boundaries at home, Beres said. Parent must make it clear that they are the bosses. There should be known rules, and rewards and consequences for behavior. “I think a lot of people are afraid of their teens,” said Beres, whose three sons are 16, 13 and 9. “Yes, they are going to be mad at you. But you are not here to be their friend. You are here to be their parent.”
Handling bad grades
Parents should, of course, be there to provide a counterbalance if a teen has a major setback, such as a bad grade. If a teen gets a bad grade, he or she needs to understand that it is just that – just a bad grade and no more, Wais said.
“It is not a reflection of capabilities across the board,” Wais said. “ It is not the end of an educational career. It is just a bad grade. Teaching teens to think accurately about events will enable them to diminish anxiety and thus experience less depression. “
A parent might also point out that the teen had good grades in other subjects, or that he/she can get help studying for the next test, or that he/she doesn’t have to have good grades in every subject.
“There are a myriad ways to think about getting a bad grade that allow a teen to cope more effectively,” Wais said.
— Sharon Jones is a local mother of two and member of the La Jolla Cluster Association.
If you go
‘Race to Nowhere,’ 85 minutes, PG-13, a controversial film by Vicki Abeles that shows the dark side of high achievement. Abeles is an ex-Wall Street lawyer and mother of three, who turned filmmaker in 2007.
6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 22
La Jolla High School, Parker Auditorium, 750 Nautilus St. Tickets: $10 in advance, $15 at door (if available)
About the film:
About La Jolla Cluster Association: