Stress

College Deans Promote Self-Care and Coping During Crisis

A new statement from over 300 college admissions deans says self-care matters.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels
Source: Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

A 14-year-old student sits in my office recounting her college admissions planning to-do list. It’s only her first semester of high school and she has yet to even take a test or write a paper, but she already knows the drill. To get into a “dream” school, in her case Georgetown, she has to achieve a long list of benchmarks during her high school career.

When I ask her to detail her dream, what she wants to study, and where she wants to go in life, she stares back at me in silence. She hasn’t thought about that yet, but she knows that a school like Georgetown can get her places. Two months into high school, the stress of college admissions already weighs her down. Her to-do list is overwhelming.

This high school student is not alone. The pressure to succeed can be all-consuming for many teens, triggering symptoms of chronic stress, anxiety, and/or depression. In the absence of sufficient resources to cope with high levels of stress, many teens feel isolated and helpless.

One small study of 11th-grade students in two private school settings in the Northeast implemented qualitative interviews and a quantitative survey (in three phases) and an expert panel to interpret the data (phase four) to determine stress levels and potential chronic stress among students.

Chronic stress tends to be particularly high in this cohort as students prepare for life beyond high school. Researchers noted that while stress is also an issue in public high school settings, private schools are understudied in comparison. Results showed that nearly half (49%) of students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis. Grades, homework, and preparing for college were cited as the greatest sources of stress for students. Twenty-six percent of study participants reported symptoms of depression at a clinically significant level.

This was prior to COVID-19. If teens were worried about grades and the college admissions process before this global pandemic, they now face unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty. 

There is some good news on the horizon for high school students, and their caregivers, as they navigate this difficult time. A collective statement signed by more than 315 college deans released by the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education aims to relieve student stress by providing guidance on how college admissions offices intend to evaluate students during this crisis. 

“Students and parents understandably have many questions about what college admissions deans are expecting during this time of the pandemic, and there’s all sorts of misinformation swirling around,” explained Richard Weissbourd, the Faculty Director of Making Caring Common, in a press release. “This statement seeks to answer these questions, to dispel the fog of misinformation, and to affirm the deans’ commitment to meaningful learning, equity, and care for self and others.”

Care Counts in Crisis: College Deans Respond to COVID-19 highlights the importance of self-care, academic work over time, service to others, and family contributions as important markers of student achievement. Care Counts in Crisis is not only a statement to alleviate the immediate stress students face as they enter their final years of high school, but it is also a commitment to account for the many challenges and obstacles students face. It is one step closer to a more equitable and less anxiety-producing college admissions process.

To that end, teens can put down the endless to-do list and make a few healthy changes as they attempt to hit the reset button following months of distance learning. 

Practice self-care: All teens need to learn how to cope with stress, anxiety, and unforeseen obstacles. Getting back to basics is always a good starting point. Empower your teen to learn about sleep hygiene and take steps to create healthy sleep habits. Barking at teens about getting more sleep probably won’t result in better sleep habits, but helping teens learn about how sleep affects the brain and what they can do to improve their brain health does make a difference.

It’s also important for teens to get daily exercise, hydrate (there’s an app for that), and practice relaxation strategies. Many teens love the Calm app, but journaling, coloring, creative expression, and practicing positive reframing can all help reduce stress.

Engage in meaningful activities: A long list of short-term community service projects shows that a teen understands the importance of giving back, but a long-term commitment to a specific organization shows that teen understands that meaningful change occurs when people work together to lift each other up. One added benefit of engaging in meaningful community service is that actually sparks joy in both the receiver and the giver. 

Share your struggles: For far too long, teens have been socialized to hide their pain and appear resilient in an effort to show that they can overcome obstacles. This can backfire, as teens can only hold so much in before stress triggers anxiety or depression. Encourage your teen to talk it out. Struggles are not a sign of weakness, and teens should not feel the need to hide their emotions. In fact, many teens feel empowered when they are able to label and talk about their stressors. By owning their obstacles, they learn to overcome them.

As high school students prepare for another year of uncertainty, it’s important to help them learn to identify and work through their daily stress. Take this time off to work on building coping skills and finding meaningful activities (yes, even online) to help your teen find balance during the exceptionally difficult time.

References

Leonard, Noelle, et al, "A multi-method exploratory study of stress, coping, and substance use among high school youth in private schools," Front. Psychol., 23 July 2015 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01028.