There’s a storyline on the Netflix show, Sex Education, about a star high school swimmer, Jackson, who desperately wants to quit swimming but can’t. Jackson’s swimming fame gets him lots of adulation from other students and praise from his moms. (Warning-minor spoiler ahead.) But he hates competitive swimming and it’s making him miserable.
We see his dilemma begin in season 1 but in season 2 it comes to a head when Jackson puts his hand in the weight machine while helping another athlete. We can see that he does this on purpose; he lets his hand get smashed because he is so desperate to stop swimming and somehow, unbelievably, this seems like his best option. This scene gave me chills. He let his hand be smashed because he saw no other way out of competitive swimming.
As a social worker I see many unhappy and anxious teens
I’ve been a community social worker in affluent towns for over ten years. I’ve seen this, not in smashed hands but in suicide attempts and sky high anxiety levels. It’s a tough thing to understand, Jackson’s hand smashing, that he can’t tell anyone, that he can’t say, “I can’t do this anymore it’s making me want to hurt myself.”
But to me it’s not surprising. Some prominent psychologists have been talking about it for over a decade: Denise Pope, Ph.D., a lecturer at Stanford University, published Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students in 2003, followed by Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege in 2008, and Jessica Leahy’s 2016, The Gift of Failure, all raising the alarm that privilege and competitive pressure can be toxic rather than protective and that a hyper focus on achievement could be hurting kids.
Suniya Luthar, Ph.D. has done the most prominent research on this topic; she describes stumbling into this finding while looking for a comparison group for research on the well-being of kids living in high poverty area. Her surprise finding was that teens going to highly regarded schools in affluent areas were doing poorly in areas of mental health and substance use.
Teens in high-achieving schools are also at risk
When her research shifted to studying the teens in high achieving schools, the conclusion was that these teens in high performing, high achieving schools (HAS) were at risk similarly to their peers who were living in poverty or foster care. Luthar defines HAS this way,
In our early studies of this population, we wrote of these youth as being “affluent” or “privileged” but over time, we have moved toward a different descriptor, that is, students from High Achieving Schools. High Achieving Schools (HAS) are those with high standardized test scores, rich extracurricular and academic offerings, and graduates heading to some of the most selective colleges.
Many students attending high-achieving schools do well. But similarly to other at-risk situations, these students face a higher probability of experiencing stress-related problems without proper support.SUNIYA LUTHAR, PH.D
The research seems to say that it’s not affluence in itself that is creating the risk, but a combination of pressure, expectations, competition and whatever else, that was creating this perfect storm of risk in HAS.
Parents must not value teens’ achievements over their well-being
I’m not sure if the school depicted in Sex Education would be considered a HAS, but Jackson’s predicament perfectly captures this phenomenon. People who love him and like him and want the best for him are blinded by the focus on his achievements as a swimmer. His loving moms would do anything for him, but they can’t see his pain, and are somehow sending him the message that his achievements are valued over his well-being.
It’s a painful scene, when Jackson’s hand heals and he‘s cleared to return to swimming. He tells a friend who has pushed him to open up. “I put my hand under the weight because I wanted it to stop and it did stop and it was amazing (but now that the hand is healed) it feels like my head’s about to explode. I need it to stop…this pressure.”
Jackson’s internal dilemma perfectly illustrates what Suniya Luthar calls the “I can, therefore I must” culture. I haven’t watched the last few episodes so I don’t know yet if Jackson tells his moms about his pain or goes back to swimming and getting medals and pretending.
What could make a difference for Jackson so that he could be more open about his dilemma? The “whose fault is it” game is not helpful, but each of us, in whatever role we have with high achieving teens (parent, coach, teacher, principal) can think about how to move the needle away from this false dichotomy of wellness vs. achievement.
Pressure on teens is a dynamic, multi-layered problem
Suniya Luthar brushes away any easy placing of blame, “People have a tendency to say, “Oh, it’s the parents,” and I cannot think of something that is more misguided than to pick on either the parents or the schools. There is not a single unitary factor that will explain all of this. It is a problem that derives from multiple levels.”
In the show, Jackson’s moms are portrayed as extremely loving and supportive parents; they go to his swim meets and buy him all the swim stuff and praise his victories and beam with pride about their swimming star son. So why can’t he tell his parents that he is so desperately unhappy?
It’s a complex issue with no quick fix. If you dismiss it as steamrolling parents or any other easy answer, you miss the boat. Schools can and do matter. There are many efforts focused on schools—structural changes and added mental health supports led by individual schools and school districts and organizations like Challenge Success and The Madison Holleran Foundation.
Ideas for what parents can do to help teens in High Achieving Schools (HAS)
BUT I write for parents, so I am offering some ideas for things that parents can reasonably, and even easily do to help teens reap the benefits of the opportunities that an HAS offers while reducing the risks to their overall well-being.
- Talk to your teen about your values around success and achievement. What does it mean to be successful? Who does your teen consider successful? Maybe share and discuss this quote from Challenge Success, “…when society becomes too focused on narrow definitions of success (like grades, test scores, prestige, and performance), kids have less space to develop the skills they need to become resilient and engaged learners and to grow into healthy young adults.”
- Keep the doors open to conversation, even if you are afraid of what your teen might tell you and even though teens often seem to have the door shut. “You know you can talk to me about anything.” Say it like you mean it. Don’t assume you know what she’ll say about her cheer team experience or what he’ll say about which college he hopes to attend.
- When you talk about future plans, post high school and beyond, let your teen take the lead. Let her envision different paths to a good future, because there are many. Be curious instead of critical or correcting, “What would that look like if you took a gap year?” “How can we support you in shooting for that highly competitive college admission without sacrificing your mental health?”
- Make it clear that you love and accept her for who she is, outside of any achievements, awards or honor roll grades. Of course it’s great to say this directly, but there are also other ways to send this message:
- Notice the non-achievement based good stuff they do: “Hey I appreciate how kind and patient you were helping Nana with her computer.”
- Ask about things other than grades and goals: “What’s your favorite part of the day?” “Where would you travel if you could go anywhere?”
- Let him overhear you talk about his kindness, sense of humor, help around the house, mad baking skills, sweet smile…
- Help your teen understand stress, how stress is often good and when it can be bad. This New York Times article, How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress by Lisa Damour, Ph.D. explains this well. Damour uses a weightlifting analogy, “I liken the demands of school to a strength-training program. Everyone understands that lifting weights to the point of discomfort is the only way to build muscle; the process of developing intellectual ability, including the ability to manage the stress that comes with it, works just the same way.” But, she points out, in weightlifting the body needs recovery time or risks injury. In a similar way, teens in HAS schools can often handle, and thrive, with heavy academic loads and intense schedules but recovery has to happen somewhere. Where is your teen’s recovery time?
- Support good sleep habits every chance you get. Poor sleep is highly correlated with anxiety and depression. It’s not easy to influence an “I only need 5 hours of sleep” teen but try. Here are some tips to help your teen get more sleep from Child Mind institute that may help.
Does the bar need to be lowered for your teen? I don’t know. Consider setting the bar together with your teen through thoughtful conversations about future goals and wellness and what do you think?
From Suniya Luthar, “Do I want it for them? YES. the difference is if they don’t get that score I will still adore them, and they know that.”
- Challenge Success is a nonprofit started by psychologists and authors Denise Pope and Madeline Levine, in conjunction with Stanford University. Challenge Success hopes to turn this destructive idea of success on its head and offers workshops and programs for schools, communities, students and parents. I love their PDF acronym which stands for Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time as three critical components of child well-being.
- Find out more about Suniya Luthar’s research and her current efforts on her website http://www.suniyaluthar.org/
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