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Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.
Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.

Reducing Over-the-top Pressure on Our Children

Exemplary actions from one high-achieving community.

Source: Reducing over-the-top pressures on our children:

“A mother feels her child’s pain ten times more intensely than the child herself feels it”, my grandmother would say.

For a parent, there is nothing more terrifying than the prospect of her child being in serious danger. Faced with such evidence, instinctive reactions tend to be flight or fight, with reactions ranging from, “It couldn’t be that serious!” to “Who’s done this to my child?!”

Parallel to parents’ reactions are those of high-achieving school communities when they learn of serious depression and anxiety among their youth. Feelings of fear and shock are common, as are tendencies for adults to question each other (with parents and educators, for example, alleging that others have excessively high expectations).

What is rare is the coming together of community adults, in truly collaborative ways to address these difficult issues. To delve into them deeply, trying to understand the complex sets of factors implicated, and then to try and address them systematically and in ways likely to bring about enduring change (rather than resorting to “quick fixes”).

And that is precisely what the town of Wilton, CT has done, with an approach that serves as a useful role model for HAS communities across the country.

Recently, I presented findings from the research-based High-Achieving Schools (HAS) survey to this town, documenting that high schoolers – like those from HAS students across the country – reported alarmingly high levels of distress and substance use. Rates of clinically significant symptoms of depression and anxiety, for example, were seen among 30% of their students; these rates were more than 3 times national normative rates. In the past year, 35% of all high schoolers reported having drunk to intoxication, and in just the last 30 days, as many as 45% of juniors and seniors reported use of an e-cigarette or JUUL.

To reiterate, these findings were certainly troubling, but by no means unique to this school; repeatedly, we have seen similar patterns at high achieving schools across the country.

On the other hand, several aspects of this particular collaboration–with Wilton, CT–were unique for me and in the most welcome ways.

Most importantly, this whole initiative, from start to finish, involved deliberate involvement of the whole community. Spearheaded by Genevieve Eason, the survey and presentations were a joint initiative of the Wilton Youth Council, the Wilton Public Schools, Wilton Youth Services, and the Wilton High School PTSA, along with active support from the Wilton High School administration and superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith.

Ahead of time, plans for my visit to present the high school research findings included multiple components. Central, of course, were two separate presentations of findings, one for the parent community and public, and a second for the entire high school faculty (with plenty of time for discussions in each case). Also built in, was time for me to visit and chat one-on-one with several parents and faculty, and with students during the school day. At the end of my trip I met with senior school district administrators, where we discussed critical directions for change based on all I had gathered not only from the quantitative analyses of the data, but also from first-hand conversations with adults and students. Priorities included addressing specific dimensions of school climate (outlined in Eason’s report, referenced below) as well as providing ongoing “replenishment”, based on authentic personal connections, to counselors and teachers who are at high risk for burnout in these high-pressured workplaces.

The aftermath of my trip to Wilton was still more impressive to me, as this community was willing to discuss all of research findings publicly, and in sensitive, constructive ways. Eason’s report provided details on all that our survey had revealed, including problem areas and strengths among the students, and also of community adults–parents and teachers–along with salient directions for change.

Still more admirable was their willingness to share beyond their own community, sacrificing privacy and anonymity to foster awareness at a national level. On a widely heard show, NPR’s Morning Edition, Wilton parents, teenagers, and administrators spoke candidly and from the heart about these sensitive, difficult issues highlighted by the survey.

Across these summaries, the single overarching theme was the enormous, unrelenting pressure that the kids felt.

Like other HAS students, those in Wilton experienced high expectations from all adults, including parents, teachers, and coaches. Interestingly, however, they also described ways in which they themselves contribute. Students spoke of constantly comparing grades, and keeping track of who is ahead of whom in AP courses, extracurricular honors, and so on.

What to do?

As I have written, the credo of HAS communities is “I can, therefore I must” (do and achieve ever more”), and there is scant consideration of when it might be time to pull back and say, enough is enough. In other words, what is needed is a community-wide commitment to reconsidering the collective push for children’s personal success, regardless of serious costs to their personal well-being.

And this is exactly what Eason and her team have advocated. For any real changes to occur in Wilton, they argue, what’s needed is a culture shift in the town.

Change like this is difficult, and inevitably will be met with some push-back. Yet, with same collaborative spirit they have shown all along, these folks are persevering, now beginning to address these issues with parents in elementary school, rather than waiting until high school when they are already deeply immersed in the frenzied pursuit of more accomplishments.

As I’ve said repeatedly, the high rates of distress among HAS students are consistent and alarming. Wilton’s data are just one more sign of what is an epidemic among our young. And this epidemic will not abate unless we adults make serious efforts to understand and address these issues in mutually supportive ways, guided by rigorous research evidence.

To reiterate, what Wilton, CT has done is not just extremely forward-thinking but also extremely generous.

So–a heartfelt thank you to students, parents, educators, and leaders in this exemplary community. For all you have done and all you continue to do to promote the well-being of today’s highly-stressed youth, I salute you.


Authentic Connections (2018). HAS Survey and Authentic Connections Groups.

Good Morning Wilton (2018). Researcher finds Wilton youth more anxious and stressed than average teens.

Luthar, S. S., Barkin, S. H., & Crossman, E. J. (2013). “I can, therefore I must”: Fragility in the upper-middle classes. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 1529-1549.

NPR Morning Edition (2018). The perils of pushing kids too hard, and how parents can learn to back off.

About the Author
Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.

Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., is Chief Research Officer at Authentic Connections and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

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