Causes of Students’ Emotional Fragility: Five Perspectives
Teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students weigh in.
Posted November 25, 2015
Two months ago, I reported on the declining emotional resilience of college students. I summarized the claims, made by college mental-health personnel throughout the country, that students are having emotional breakdowns at much higher rates than in the past. I also addressed professors’ claims that students feel more pressure to get high grades and are more prone to blame professors and/or react emotionally if they don’t receive those grades than students of the past. The post apparently struck a nerve: It quickly amassed more than 650,000 views, more than 200,000 Facebook likes, hundreds of comments, and many requests for interviews and media appearances. I found some of this attention embarrassing, as some of it seemed to arise more from a desire to blame young people as spoiled and entitled than from a sincere desire to understand their suffering and what we, as a society, might do about it.
I followed that article with another in which I summarized research that college students whose parents are highly intrusive, controlling, and over-protective are especially prone to emotional difficulties and maladaptive feelings of entitlement. These results are at least consistent with the view that increased “helicopter parenting” is one of the causes of the decline in young adults’ resilience. Far fewer people read the second article than the first, and some who did were skeptical of the research—perhaps, to some degree, appropriately so. They complained that the research, and my article, seemed to feed into a knee-jerk tendency to blame parents for young people’s problems.
In my opinion, it is rarely if ever useful to blame any particular individuals or groups for widespread social problems. If large numbers of people act in certain problematic ways, there are social explanations for why they do so. The route to solving the problem is to identify those forces and try to alter them. I am not interested in blaming students, parents, teachers, or anyone else. I am interested in understanding what is happening, and why, and what we as individuals and as a society can do to improve the situation.
To further my own thinking about the decline in resilience of young people, and to view it from several perspectives, I spent the better part of two days reading and thinking about the comments that people made on my first article. I read carefully the first 150 or more. Where possible, I categorized them as coming from (a) teachers in primary or secondary schools; (b) professors and other college personnel; (c) employers writing about experiences hiring recent graduates; (d) parents writing primarily about their own experiences with their children; and (e) college students describing their own experiences or those of their peers. Most of the commenters agreed with the basic claims of the article, but the different groups had different ways of viewing and explaining the problem.
Primary and secondary school teachers were remarkably consistent in their view of the problem. Most contended, often emphatically, that they had difficulty holding students accountable for their schoolwork, or lack of it, because of the interference of parents and administrators, with the result that students failed to learn to take responsibility for their own work or how to deal with disappointment when they performed poorly. Parents, they claimed, increasingly want to know all the details of assignments and grading, so they (the parents) can do all they can to make sure their child gets a high grade. Parents are taking the responsibility for keeping up with schoolwork that, in the past, was the students’ responsibility. They claimed that some parents—especially those of students in honors and AP classes—become irate if their children bring home anything less than an A. They then complain to the principal or superintendent if the teacher doesn’t find a way to raise the grade. The teachers wrote about the pressure to give As to everyone in the honors and AP classes so as to avoid conflicts with parents and help the students get into college. Schools and administrators look good if many students go on to college, especially elite ones, which helps explain the pressure to give an A even when a student (in the teacher’s view) doesn’t deserve it. So these teachers were not surprised that the students went to college ill-prepared to take responsibility for their own work and expecting professors to bend over backward to help them get high grades. At the other end of the spectrum, teachers also wrote about pressures from administrators to pass students who do no work at all, because the school gets a bad rating when students fail. Here are some representative quotations:
- The "make-up" work expectation is damaging. Students are taught, artificially, that time can be undone by not being allowed to experience the natural consequences of their actions...They learn the false lesson that life provides them with perpetual do-overs. The administration is just interested in doing whatever it takes to get the students through and achieve the targets they are accountable for.
- In __ County, public schools give all students a 55% to start their second semester if they scored anything less. They feel this will reduce failure rates and dropout rates. Who does this really help? The schools. The schools obtain more points toward their school grade if they have a higher percent graduating and passing.
- I'd love to be able to fail when deserved, but…We are measured on our pass/fail rate (too many fail and we are fired). We are measured on our student survey results (fail a student, they complain, we get fired). At my school, student surveys are a full 50% of our yearly performance evaluation.
- I am a high-school guidance counselor and have noticed a drastic difference in students' ability to cope and handle adversity. I recently had a student email me at 9 p.m. because she couldn't handle the B she just saw posted by her teacher. I had a parent meet me twice, wanting her son to drop an elective since it wasn't meeting HER expectation of a 98% or higher in each of her son's classes…Kids come to my office continuously because they feel "anxious" or are having a "panic attack."
- If we don't teach according to the latest fad adopted by the Administration, we get poor ratings. In some states, that affects pay. In all states, it affects promotions. New teachers fear losing their jobs if they don't give in to administrators’ demands, so we do as we are ordered and the students suffer for it.
- I teach AP classes…I've noticed it's an immediacy issue for many of them; they can't handle not having an A RIGHT NOW! I've had the following conversation with a few variations several times already this year. STUDENT: (panicked voice) ‘So, according to the grade book I have an (insert unacceptable to them grade).’ ME: ‘Okay. Well you realize it's only your semester grade that counts, you have more than enough time to bring that up. The first quarter's not even over.’ STUDENT: ‘But...I never get (Bs or Cs). Is there going to be extra credit?’ Over and over again. For some of these conversations add, ‘But my parents don't LET me get (Bs or Cs).’
- As a high-school teacher, I see this fear of failing all the time. Students are so preoccupied with all that they have to do to get into college…They are over-scheduled, exhausted, and constantly anxious due to increased pressure for extra clubs, volunteer hours, and…forget getting anything other than an "A." Kids don't have time to be kids anymore.
College professors and other college personnel generally claimed that they had seen increases in students’ anxiety and in the degree to which students tend to blame professors for low grades, expect to be able to re-take tests and re-do papers, and expect explicit, point-by-point instructions about what they must do to get higher grades. Several of the commenters were adjunct professors—people who aren’t part of the regular faculty but are hired part-time for low pay to teach courses. They noted that adjuncts teach many of the basic courses (courses the regular faculty don’t want to teach) and are particularly vulnerable to student criticism because they are generally hired and re-hired on the basis of student evaluations of their courses. And students who get low grades tend to give low evaluations. Here are two sample quotations:
- From an adjunct professor: I'm expected to make my personal phone number available to them so that I can be reached 24/7 for help, and I am expected to call them from my personal phone to invite them to their first day of class for the course, and to find out why they are absent if they miss a day of class. I'm not surprised that they aren't ready for the kind of responsibility that comes with a real job.
- From a counselor who worked in college counseling centers: I totally agree with assertions about needing to normalize failure and students having less "life skills"…way, way, way too many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all. I had so many med students where their medical school rotations were their first real jobs with a boss that wasn't a teacher. Of course they had trouble with real feedback. Guess what: You can't teach life skills in a class. Parents and life experience teach that much better...Lastly, I don't think this article acknowledges that the whole college system is in danger of collapsing on itself...Too many degrees lead to nothing but a pile of debt...This is all going to change out of necessity. It’s starting to crush people.
The employers in the sample nearly all claimed, usually emphatically, that they had witnessed reduced resilience and an increased sense of entitlement in young employees. They talked about new employees’ inability to accept or respond appropriately to constructive criticism, and their beliefs that they should almost immediately get promotions and higher pay, even if they were doing the bare minimum of what the job required. If they got poor evaluations, according to the employers, they complained that the employers had not made the expectations sufficiently clear. Here are two quotes from employers:
- As an employer of young adults with jobs that pay between $30-$50K a year, I'm finding that many of the employees we hire between the ages of 20 and 30 are not happy with this salary range and expect that they should be making more than $50K after only 6 months to a year in a position. Their lack of resiliency demonstrated in college carries over to their professional life and makes it difficult to provide constructive criticism when mentoring or coaching them to help them actually EARN that higher salary they feel entitled to. Every criticism is taken as personal and as an attack on them, sometimes to the extent where they threaten, if not follow through, on filing an HR complaint because someone asked them to follow the process.
- Enter now the "Real World." As an HR Director of 15-plus years, I have witnessed and experienced the decline of resilience in our young adults as well as their lack of work ethic. It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold on to jobs. Most believe all they have to do is "Get the job." Somewhere they missed the class on 'YOU have to work while at work' and 'YOU have to show up to work in order to get paid'…The young adults today have no initiative, and if they make an error they are devastated. They believe their way is the correct way when it is not.
The parents in the sample, not surprisingly, mostly expressed satisfaction that they themselves had resisted the social pressure to hover over their children. Unlike other parents they knew, they had refrained from intervening in their children’s school affairs and had allowed them to learn from the consequences of their own mistakes. Some had children who were now in college or beyond, and they were proud to see how well their children were coping with independence. Many of these parents wrote compellingly of the pressures—from relatives, neighbors, school personnel, and even sometimes from police and child protective services—to hover and intervene in their children’s lives more than they believed was healthy. Some, however, also wrote of the pressures that the school system and colleges put on students for high grades and perfect résumés, pressures that, in turn, lead parents to do everything they can to promote their children’s success. Here are some representative quotations from parents:
- My millennial kids were raised by their stay-at-home dad who let them go out and play as young as 4 or 5...We had angry neighborhood moms who told us NOT to send them over without calling and arranging for play dates; angry moms who had to contend with their own kids complaining that they, too, were competent enough to cross the street without supervision; angry moms who called and asked how much time the kids were left on their own playing video games. Our kids are both in college, very comfortable, managing pretty much every element of their own lives.
- I overschedule my child so she can be around her friends. There is no one to "just explore" with. They're all at music, dance and karate.
- My daughter is a college sophomore…I joined the parents’ Facebook page for this school and am constantly amazed at the number of parents that I have no doubt would love to be living in the same dorm room as their child. The smallest problem has them contemplating driving or flying there to solve said problem or wanting to call the school to find out just why their child is being tormented. My daughter may text or FB message me and ask about a problem and I'll suggest a few solutions; but it is ultimately up to her to deal with that overflowing toilet, or a smoke alarm that won't shut off, living within the budget she has, etc.
- This article didn't mention the economy, which was one huge blind spot. As a professor and parent of a teenager, I can tell you how this works. Beginning in about the 4th grade, middle and upper middle class parents start to worry—does their kid have all their ducks in a row to get to a good college, which is necessary to get into law school, medical school, a good grad program. Are they taking advantage of every opportunity, sports, music, volunteer gigs? They perceive that the competition is fierce, the margin for error limited, so they "take over." Sure, the consequences are disastrous, but so is going to college only to accumulate debt and not find a secure job. So, absolutely, parents meddle. These kids were 10–15 years old when the economy crashed. Losing your job, your home, your retirement—makes you do crazy things for your kids. And when parents see other parents doing this, they follow suit.
- Good points were made about the problems with parenting but there are many problems with our colleges and universities that are creating helicopter parents...With the outrageous cost of tuition and the huge financial expectations of parents I think it is ignorant of colleges to expect parents to just sit back and let their child fail. I am all for kids working it out and sinking or swimming, but at $60,000 I can't afford for my child to flunk out, buckle down, and try again. It amazes me how college costs are increasing at rates far beyond inflation yet offer less and less services. Where is all this money going?
- I have three children age 22, 19, and 10. Part of the problem is parents don't treat their children any different at 22 that they did at 9. My son’s college roommates’ parents called multiple times a day. These students were to tell their parents where they were going, with whom, and when they would be back. These are kids who live in a dorm! If we don't allow them freedom how can they grow?
The students’ responses were most interesting to me. They, not surprisingly, were the most likely to be angry about the original article and many of the comments on it, because they perceived the article and comments as blaming them for weakness. They generally agreed that young people are anxious and depressed and often terrified by the prospect of failure. But most made it clear that, in their view, if we are pointing fingers, we should be pointing them at the established adult generation—including not just parents but also high-school teachers, college professors and other personnel, and employers. They also blamed the recession and the high cost of college—and some blamed the greed of the older generation for those. The students felt they had been born into a socioeconomic world that is far more competitive and less forgiving than the world of their parents or grandparents, a world in which failure is “not an option.” Here are some quotations from college students and one from a high school student:
- I agree that a lack of mastery over a subject should be considered a learning experience and not a failure. However, in our current education system, Cs and Bs just aren't realistic for a student who wants to have any sort of future. I'm a senior in high school, and from a young age I've always been taught that I won't be able to go to college unless I have mostly As. I come from a lower-class family and though I work during the summers, there is absolutely no way that my family can afford college tuition without a scholarship. Financial aid scholarships are harder to get than would be expected, and often barely scratch the surface of tuition fees. Most of the academic scholarships I've seen require a 3.7 GPA or higher in order to qualify.
- Maybe instead of placing the blame on students (who are in an EXTREMELY high-pressure environment), the blame should be falling on graduate programs that trash any application that's below a 4.0 GPA. You say you want people to learn? It's OK to get a B? BS. You want only the "very best." What you mean is the people that can grind out As. Yes, I got my As but was extremely unhappy while in school...Profs: Do you know what kind of stress comes when you're falling into debt for a degree that, without grad school, is essentially worthless? Everybody tells you that you NEED to get into grad school. You agonize over a paper worth 50% of your grade. Then the TA grades it. Yes, not even the prof handles our fate: -2% for bold font in header, -5% for improper font on cover; then there's some checkmarks, some vague comments, and then the last page...B-.
- Anything less than an A was unacceptable, and it was ingrained in us early on by our parents that perfection was our only chance for success in this competitive world. This article mentions students having anxiety and considering even a B grade to be a failure—that's why. I've definitely experienced that pit of hopelessness in my stomach any time I received less than an A grade.
- I hate reading articles about how our generation is too needy and has been coddled. You know what made us think we HAVE to get all As? Our parents, our scholarships, our teachers, the Internet. Mental illness isn't a crutch used by students; it's an actual cry for help and support.
- As a new college student, I have to say it is not all the parents' fault. My parents were very good about letting me fail on my own, and yet I am having many problems in college because of the nature of the university...They tell you that good grades are not enough, that getting all As is simply the bare minimum. You need to be a member of at least two organizations, but being a member is not enough, you must be leadership. Getting a job is not enough to be competitive; you need to have a nationally competitive internship. At every corner you are told simply learning and doing your absolute best is not good enough. Instead of the focus being on learning the material and growing through the experiences you are told what you are doing is worthless unless you can beat other students. Everything you do is measured against how other people are doing. You must constantly prove you are better than the other students. That on top of every single person outside of college (or even teachers and administrators) constantly talking about how lazy and entitled students in college are certainly adds pressure. Of course students are dealing with anxiety issues! If every time you get a bad grade, instead of having the freedom to decide to study harder next time, you are told it's because you are lazy and stupid, DUH people are going to be uptight about it.
- Coming out of college within the last few years, I think this article agrees with a lot of my own experiences. High school was all about feeling trapped and under-challenged, unable to seek more learning and more autonomy because so much of my life was predetermined for me and so centered on grades...The idea that it was all about earning the grades and obeying the rules, irrespective of whether or not I actually learned anything, disgusted me and I spent more time tuned out and in my own imagination than I did in my underwhelming joke of a reality. Everyone was happy with my life—except me. I felt like excellence was the baseline for even having a chance at making it, and that even then, forces outside my control could slay me for the slightest deviation from the performance, the conduct and the obedience they expected. School culture and the expectation that we all progress at the same rate as a "rite of passage" are toxic...I've only started to feel more human now that I'm starting in a great job, getting my finances in order, controlling more of my fate and pursuing more passion projects on evenings and weekends...However, these lessons came from some pretty painful experiences and they make me think twice about whether or not I want kids, given today's culture of underestimating and over-restricting children and teens...Who am I to inflict the kind of depressing, stressful and meaningless schooling I received on another living being?
The problems that young people face and the distress they feel are not new; nor is the tendency of the older generation to see the younger generation as less gritty than themselves. But there is ample, objective evidence that, in fact, adolescents and young adults are suffering from emotional problems at much higher rates than was true in past decades. (For some of that evidence, see here.) Many of the commenters, especially the teachers, view the problem as one of spoiling young people by not holding them accountable for their schoolwork. But I see it differently, more along the lines expressed by many of the student commenters. Everyone is way too concerned about grades and this concern is depriving young people of the freedom they need for true education.
There is good reason to believe that much of the increased suffering of young people comes from the increased weight and senselessness of schooling. Young people are spending more time than ever in school, going through ever more meaningless hoops. The concern for high test scores and grades is enormous; the concern for real, authentic learning is almost absent. Students are so busy preparing for tests and pursuing grades that they have little time to delve into anything that truly interests them, and little time for real learning. When one is constantly pursuing extrinsic ends and has little time to find and pursue intrinsic interests, life feels empty.
The school establishment, and the politicians behind it, act as if all young people must be on a college track for success in today’s economy, when, truth be told, young people actually learn little in college that helps them prepare for jobs or for adult life. There are, in fact, many ways to make a good living today without college, and many college graduates end up taking jobs that they could have gone into without college. Students increasingly view their whole educational career as a long, almost endless, series of hoops to jump through. Students and parents learn from the constant propaganda that college—and maybe even graduate school—is essential for a satisfying adult life, and that these will be shut off for them if they don’t achieve high grades all along the way. Our increasingly absurd educational system is driving many students crazy.
Given all this concern about grades and doing what the system seems to demand, it is fascinating to me how well young people do who choose an entirely different route to education. I am referring here to those who opt out of conventional schooling and choose a route of self-directed education—a route in which there are no forced tests, grades, or imposed curricula, but where students pursue their own interests, in their own ways. Elsewhere, I have presented evidence that young people whose families deliberately choose “unschooling,” or who attend democratic schools where students are responsible for their own education, are doing very well in our culture. (See, for examples, my book Free to Learn, and this blog post or this article.) They are doing well emotionally, socially, and financially. The idea that success in our culture requires young people to go through all of those hoops is a myth. The sooner we dispel that myth, the better.
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