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.