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Is Too Much Independence Making Kids Anxious and Depressed?

It may be time to relieve them of some unnecessarily heavy responsibilities.

Key points

  • Rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed among students, and those attending high-achieving schools are at particular risk.
  • Schools and parents lead many kids to believe they must be superstars to get into prestigious colleges.
  • To make themselves competitive, kids are taking on more academic challenges and extracurricular activities than they can handle.

As I reflect on the last school year, the single concern that parents discussed with me most frequently was their overwhelmed, over-stressed children. Too many middle- and high-school students are getting the message that more is better and that nothing is ever enough. This summer, it is worth taking time to make sure that your child isn’t internalizing those messages or taking on too much.

Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

Over the past decade or so, increased rates of anxiety and depression have been observed among young adults, especially among those attending what are considered “high-achieving schools” or “HAS.” HAS has even become an acronym used by researchers who focus on stress, mental health issues, and resilience in young adults. Students who attend these schools put an excessive amount of pressure on themselves to achieve and excel.

Only a few years ago, celebrities falsifying their children’s talents and paying university employees to advance their children’s applications was front-page news. The competition to get into prestigious colleges and universities makes both students and their parents believe that without connections, legacy status, or a very generous donation, a student must be exceptional to gain admission.

Many parents and their children, believing that prospective students must be spectacular at everything they do because colleges will be evaluating them in the near future, have turned activities that years ago were sources of respite or relaxation into more opportunities to excel. Each activity is now one more area for social comparison and thus one more possible source of stress and anxiety.

Simran Sood/Unsplash
Source: Simran Sood/Unsplash

More and more high schools, hoping to develop student independence and decision-making in addition to academic achievement, are letting their students decide which and how many courses to take as well as which and how many extra-curricular activities—often with little parental consultation. Sometimes parental involvement can even go against the school norms or rules. These schools argue that the students will be on their own soon and need to learn certain lessons now. While these intentions may seem laudable, these same schools also want to prevent student failure, and they may therefore remove the natural consequences that would alert students that they are trying to do too much.

Unfortunately, despite their raw intellectual capacity, many high-schoolers are not ready to have this much autonomy. Many very academically capable students are overwhelmed with organization, not so much because they are truly disorganized but because they have too much to organize and are not yet proficient at managing so many variables.

How would 15-year-old kids know how much more time it will take to study for seven classes than for five? Have they ever taken two foreign languages simultaneously? How can they know what requirements and what sorts of assessments to expect from honors or AP courses? How will they know what impact having a leadership role in their grade will have on their schedule if they have never done it before? How can they ensure that they still have time to foster friendships and have fun with their classmates? These friendships actually serve a protective function when present.

I have been struck by how much harder it is to plan in middle and high school than in college. In college and graduate school, when cognitive skills like planning, organizing, and prioritizing are more highly developed, students are given a fairly fixed schedule at the beginning of the semester. They are told what is due when, and that doesn’t change. They can use this information to plan from day to day and across weeks, making the necessary compromises when they choose to engage in competing activities.

Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

Because primary and secondary school teachers are trying to accommodate their students and the school’s schedule of events, they are often less fixed about the dates by which they will cover certain material. Deadlines and test dates are more fluid, unfortunately making it difficult for these younger students to plan very far ahead. As a result, elementary and middle school students have much less experience than high-schoolers with planning and time management.

To the children driven to do it all and who hope for admission to Ivy League schools and the like, seven courses seem more rigorous and impressive than five. Taking on the world in 9th grade seems better than waiting until 10th or 11th, and if there’s so much interesting content to learn, one can’t waste time. What these students often don’t realize, however, is that the time commitment involved in taking seven courses is significantly more than that for five. Each course involves study and work time to prove mastery, and there are only so many hours in a day. Some overextended students have parents who assist them with planning or who rescue them when they become overwhelmed. This kind of parental involvement can make schools believe that their high-achieving students are independently capable of managing their workloads and that their implicit expectations are within reason.

There are certainly some driven, organized, and highly motivated children who work quickly, assess themselves accurately, persist through challenges, and take the initiative to seek help when they get stuck. But most of us need practice to master all of the above, and we develop these skills over time. Peg Dawson, a psychologist and writer on the subject of executive function in children with ADHD, says that we often expect too much organizationally from our students, even those without ADHD and even those who are intellectually very capable.

Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

While your children’s school may promote student autonomy, you may have a more accurate sense of what your children can handle. You may have a better sense of their self-knowledge and know how vulnerable they are to overextending themselves. When there is a mismatch between what your children are taking on and what they can reasonably accomplish on their own, you as parents may need to collaborate with your children’s schools to establish new criteria for autonomy, or you may need to have a conversation with your children about their goals. The first goal should always be your children’s well-being, and once that is met, you can move on to goals of academic achievement. The latter will be much easier to achieve and maintain if their foundation is solid. Don’t let them take on more than they can handle at the cost of compromising their well-being.

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