Hendrie Weisinger Ph.D.

Thicken Your Skin

Back to School and Back to Pressure

Did you give your kids a pressure immunization shot? You'd better!

Posted Sep 20, 2017

You might feel a lot of pressure when giving a presentation to a prospective client, partaking in a crucial negotiation, or having to make a game-changing decision. But compared to the high school student under pressure to meet parental expectations, ace SATs, be accepted by a top school, participate in extracurricular activities, play a sport, instrument or both, get a driver’s license, and find a prom date, you’ve got it easy.

If you’re a parent who acts upon solid recommendations for helping your kids succeed, you’ve probably spent a good deal of parenting time helping your sons and daughters develop their emotional intelligence and, in the last year or two, developing their grit.

Now take heed of what Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., head psychologist and instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy, has to say: “It is especially important for students to transform unhealthy academic anxiety into clear thinking and robust motivation. Students need to learn to manage pressure.” Considering students are under more pressure than ever before, this is sound advice.

Assess the pressure management skills of your high school- and college-bound sons and daughters. They might be empathic and persistent, but can they summon their talent at will? Can they deliver on a test? Can they sleep at night?

The truth is no student—not even those that are Ivy League-bound—does better under intense pressure. (And neither do you!) 
In fact, most crumble, so it is not surprising that Ben Zoffness, of Zoffness College Prep, a Westchester New York company that specializes in helping students prepare for SATs and ACTS, finds that “Overcoming pressure is one of the most significant challenges students encounter when facing standardized tests; so much emphasis is placed on their performance on a single day, creating overwhelming pressure.” He’s right.

Hundreds of studies conducted around the world demonstrate how pressure downgrades a student’s “cognitive success tools,” (attention, memory, judgment, decision-making), disrupts psychomotor skills (be it on the basketball court or stage), makes smart kids cheat, adds conflict to their relationships, and suppresses their confidence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm (factors that fuel success).

Even bleaker, studies in 2015 reported in the September issue of Monitor on Psychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association, indicate that students are experiencing alarmingly high rates of mental health issues due to student pressures, and it's not just high school and undergraduate students that cave. In a 2015 study conducted by the Yale Mental Health Alliance, titled Falling Through the Cracks, 70 percent of all respondents (206 students in a 296-student sample) reported having struggled with mental health during law school, and much of their anxieties—and bouts of depression—were attributed to the pressure of having to win the “rat race.”   

For many, the pressures of having to perform in the moment—be it on a test, audition, sports contest, debate, class presentation, or interview—mushrooms into daily feelings of pressure, causing the student to feel that he or she always has to be producing, or otherwise fall behind the pack and suffer dire consequences, at least in the student’s mind.

Los Angeles-based educational and college consultant Jennifer Tabbush, the founder of Headed for College, deals with dozens of college-bound students every year: “They think they have to be the best at everything they do to get into a good college—president, champion, leader, not just member or participant. And it is all very public. Their every move and every college acceptance or rejection is all over social media in an instant. At home, many kids feel pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations about their accomplishments in class. It’s a lot of pressure for a teen or college student to handle. Many can’t.” 

That might be an understatement. Ill effects of pressure abound. A particularly troubling one is that more and more high school students are turning to Adderall so they can study for longer hours than their competition. Many of these students end up enrolling in a substance abuse rehab center instead of their college choice.  And it’s not just students who experience pressure’s toll.  

Dr. Lee Sachs, a school psychologist and family counselor working with Long Island families, finds that pressure not only detrimentally affects the student, but also the family.  “It is not uncommon for school performance to become family talk points. It is hard for teens to get through a family dinner without answering questions about how they did on a chemistry test or their grade on an English paper. When school performance is below parental expectations, fathers and mothers often blame each other for their son or daughter’s “poor“ performance. Unbeknownst to them, their son or daughter typically leaves the dinner table thinking they are responsible for their parents’ arguing—they feel guilty and their feelings of pressure increase.”

What can you do to minimize the chances your son or daughter will be hurt by pressure as well as encourage them to do their best? The most effective way is to frequently reiterate these evidence-based pressure-reducing points and hope that they will internalize them into how they navigate their lives (I suggest you practice them too):

1. Teach your kids to distinguish between stress and pressure. If they don’t make this distinction they are likely to treat every stressful demand as a “do or die” moment, causing them to be on high alert 24/7. Encouraging them not to sweat the small things is good advice. 

2. Help them befriend “the moment.” The biggest difference between students who perform to their capabilities under pressure and those who fold is how they appraise the situation. A student who believes her SATs, interview, or audition is a chance to get into the school of her choice, stands out and shows her stuff; she'll experience much less pressure than those students who appraise the SATs or upcoming audition as a threat to their success. Letting your kids know that their “pressure moment” is an opportunity, or even a fun challenge, will help them do their best.

3. Shrink the importance. It’s counterintuitive to tell your kids that the SATs are “no big deal" or “just another test” but that is a lot better than telling them it’s the most important test they will ever take. The more important they perceive a test or task to be, the more pressure they experience and the more likely they are to perform below their ability. It is not a coincidence that winning athletes treat the biggest game of the year as just another game.  

4. Validate their self-worth: Too many teens attach their self-worth to their school performance. Make sure your kids know that no matter whether they bring home A's or C's, that you love them and they are great people. That message protects their self-esteem and makes it easier for them to bounce back from a setback.

5. Second chances. Whatever the pressure moment, help them stay relaxed by reminding them that other opportunities will come along, otherwise they are apt to think it's “do or die” and consequently experience more pressure and do worse than expected.

6. Get your kids to focus on doing their best. Your kids can’t control their fellow competitors, so reminding them to focus on doing their best no matter what the task is will minimize competitive pressure and reduce anxieties about things they cannot control. The caveat is that their best might not be good enough.

Most importantly, remember to text them with a smile every day: “May the Pressure not be with you!”

To help students perform under pressure and reduce their daily feelings of pressure, please go to https://hankweisingerphd.com/students.