Pressure to Succeed in School Increased for Some Families During the Pandemic
Since last March – March 2020 – parents have read hundreds of headlines about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on teen mental health. The headlines come from everywhere, every angle, and every point of view. From the New York Times to Fox and Friends, from psychiatrists to school counselors, from teachers to teens themselves, the media and the experts sent parents a clear message: the isolation and stress of lockdown is bad for teen’s mental health.
First, there were warnings. Mental health professionals told parents that virtual school, shelter-in-place guidelines, social distancing requirements, and a halt on nearly all in-person extracurricular activities – except some sports – would lead to an increase in rates of depression, anxiety, and various other negative mental health outcomes, up to and including alcohol/drug addiction. Many took warnings further, suggesting the pandemic would exacerbate the increase in rates of teen suicide over the past twenty years.
We wrote our share of those articles, like these:
Then the initial evidence arrived. We wrote about that in several articles, like these:
And then, roughly a year into the pandemic, definitive evidence arrived. We wrote about that, too:
Now, as the pandemic comes to a close – with the exception of the increase in cases caused by the infamous delta variant – a new wrinkle in the data on teen mental health has appeared: the role parental expectation played in the increase in negative mental health outcomes for teens during the pandemic.
Pressure to Succeed: Academic Stress and Teen Mental Health During COVID
There’s precedent here, as well, which we should mention before we dive into this aspect of teen mental health and the pandemic.
A meta-analysis conducted before the pandemic – but published about halfway through – examined the mental health of teens in high-achieving schools (HAS) as compared to teens in typical high schools. A high-achieving school (HAS) is defined as a school with a majority of students scoring in the top thirty percent of state and national standardized tests, including exams like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Advanced Placement Exams (AP), and International Baccalaureate Exams (IB).
Here’s a summary of what the researchers found, in the words of the study authors:
“Excessive pressures to excel, generally in affluent contexts, are now listed among the top four high risk factors for adolescent mental health, along with exposure to poverty, trauma, and discrimination.”
That’s something we hadn’t seen data on before – and we’ve seen a lot of data about teen mental health. We know excess pressure from parents about academics causes stress in teens, and that a school/life balance is imperative for teens in the same way that a work/life balance is imperative for adults. This study solidified that perspective and connects directly to another study published around the same time.
The Role of Parents in Teen Stress
The second study, called Risk and Resilience During COVID-19, showed an unexpected trend in data on teen mental health during the pandemic. The study examined data from 2,000 students, collected in the first two months of the pandemic.
Here’s the unexpected part. Again, we’ll use the words of the study authors:
“Overall, rates of clinically significant [mental health] symptoms were generally lower as compared to norms documented in 2019.”
To clarify, researchers compared rates from March/April 2019 with those from March/April 2020. What they found was that the students in the survey were doing well at the beginning of the pandemic. Various sources, including this article in the New York Times, assigned this to the brief period last spring when students enjoyed the free time, the lighter workload, and going to school on their laptops in their room while still wearing pajamas and eating cereal.
Here’s another observation researchers made based on the data they collected in the study:
“…the most robust, unique associations with teens’ distress were with feelings of stress around parents and support received from them.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, parents caused more stress for teens than the pandemic and all its associated stressors did.
Hold that thought for a moment – we’ll come right back to it.
Studies published this year, with data collected in late summer/early fall of 2020, showed the expected increases in pandemic-related mental health issues among teens. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the University of Michigan, and other sources published statistics like these:
- 80% of young adults and teens reported significant depressive symptoms during 2020
- 61% reported symptoms of moderate or severe anxiety
- 44% reported an increase in binge drinking
- 40% reported symptoms of any mental health problem, including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Suicidal ideation
- 30% reported an increase in drinking
- 22% reported an increase in drug use
In analyzing this data, researchers cited various possible causes for these increases, which echo everything we mention at the beginning of this article, including some we did not mention. They identify isolation, lack of social contact, absence of extracurricular activities, missing important milestones like proms and graduation, worry about getting sick, and worry about family members getting sick as likely reasons for these statistical jumps.
Although it was there in the studies for everyone to see, almost everyone missed the fact that something aside from the pandemic played a part in driving these numbers up: pressure from parents about academic achievement.
Inside the Stats: The Challenge Success Story
When we say everyone, we’re talking about us, too – because there’s important data in the Challenge Success Survey funded and published by NBC news that we shared, but did not focus on.
In that study, here’s what we identified – from the study – as the sources of teen stress during the 2020 school year.
Major Sources of Stress 2020: High School Students
- Grades: 68%
- Workload/Homework: 60.7%
- Time Management: 49%
- College/Future: 44.5%
- Lack of play/social/relax time: 40.4%
- Parental Expectations: 33.2%
- Mental Health Issues: 31.5%
- Friends and Cliques: 19.1%
- Extracurricular activities: 11.5%
As you can see, sixth on the list is parental expectations. That went right by us because parental expectations almost always cause some level of stress in teens, and it appeared over concerns about mental health issues.
But we need to look more closely at that data. Specifically, the data related to parental expectations and academic pressure.
Here’s what high school students said about their parent’s expectations during the pandemic:
- 57.2% said stress about meeting parental expectations stayed the same
- 34.3% said stress about meeting parental expectations increased
- 8.5% said stress about meeting parental expectations decreased
Now let’s look at what high school students said about pressure from their parents to do well in school during the pandemic:
- 46.7% said pressure from parents to do well in school increased
- 45.1% said pressure from parents to do well in school stayed the same
- 8.1% said pressure from parents to do well in school decreased
We didn’t realize at the time, but from one point of view, those numbers are completely upside-down. We understand most teenagers need challenges. They need nudges. They need to understand their parents want them to succeed. That means, sometimes, parents need to put pressure on them to do well in school.
But when we – as parents, because many of us here are parents of kids ranging from toddlers to full-grown – put pressure on them to succeed academically in the middle of a global pandemic, then maybe we need to rethink that. Or, we should say, maybe we should have rethought that last year, before school started in the fall.
What We Can Do Now
When we rethink that, here’s what we come up with:
If anything, our expectations around grades and pressure to perform academically should have decreased, rather than increased or stayed the same, as the data say they did for most families.
Let’s clarify: we’re not suggesting we should have accepted total capitulation. We’re not saying we should have allowed our teens to drop to Ds from As, or drop to Fs from Cs. What we’re saying is that for our A and B students, we could have accepted – for the pandemic year – some Cs. And for our C students, we could have taken the pressure off and given them more support, empathy, and understanding.
After all, we were living through a once-in-a-lifetime event.
A global pandemic.
If we didn’t ease up, maybe we should have. And if we didn’t back off the expectations then, here’s what we can do now to help restore balance in our teen’s lives, and let them know we understand they’ve been through a stressful year, and pressure from us to succeed may not have helped things so much.
Parents and Teens, Post-Pandemic: Five Ways to Bring the Balance Back
1. Redefine success.
Most parents define success for their kids as “being healthy, happy, having loving relationships, and giving back to society.” If we hammer them about grades and make them miserable while doing so, then we need to re-evaluate our behavior, and ensure it matches our stated goals for success. In other words, let’s walk the walk.
2. Back off the pressure this year.
Yes, the pandemic is close to an end (fingers crossed). Yes, most of them are back to in-person school, or will be by August. Also yes, emotional stress doesn’t disappear overnight, so we should consider giving them wiggle-room. We’ll reiterate that this doesn’t mean giving up on expectations. It means setting them with empathy, and applying pressure with compassion.
3. Remind them one bad grade is not the end of the world.
A bad grade on a test, a bad grade in a class, or a mediocre year will not ruin their lives. Especially if those subpar grades or that mediocre year happened in 2020/2021. Everyone will look back, and understand – hopefully, with empathy.
4. Remind them that where they go to college is not the be-all-end-all metric or predictor of success in life.
Let’s be realistic: more people didn’t go to Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Penn, et al than did. And let’s do a reality check: millions upon millions of people who did not go to an Ivy League school live full, happy, successful, and fulfilling lives. Many went to community college. Many didn’t go to college at all. That’s not a suggestion to avoid academic achievement or get off the hook for not working hard, it’s a simple fact: academic achievement does not equal life satisfaction or long-term happiness.
5. Show them what’s important.
It’s true that except for the very lucky few, we all have to grow up and pay the bills one day. That means we have to find work that suits us, and that work needs to come with a paycheck that covers our needs. However, we need to remind our teens – through our actions, not just our words – that that’s only part of the equation. The other part is finding balance in life, which means we need to feel connected, we need to do things that make us happy, and we need positive, healthy relationships with our friends, families, and the people we love.
Those five things can help families and teens currently experiencing inordinate stress around school and academics get the perspective they need to make the 2021-2022 school year a better, more positive experience for everyone involved.
Stay Grounded and Look Forward
These suggestions will also help families with teens who developed mental health challenges over the past year put things in perspective: health and happiness first, perfect grades in AP Calculus somewhere further down the list. We suggest parents with teens who struggled emotionally and academically last year take this to heart. While every family creates values consistent with their core beliefs and hopes for the future, a teen with a mental health disorder – especially one that has developed recently – needs love, kindness, and support, rather than admonitions about grades.
When they get that, everything else is more likely to follow – even the grades.
Finding Help: Resources
Parents seeking treatment for their teen can navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.
In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting right now.