Lily Coulter, a 17-year-old high school student from Charleston, South Carolina, wasn’t sure what finally got her going last March.
She was sobbing uncontrollably while she was practicing volleyball. It was totally out of character for Kurt, an academic high achiever, an athlete, and now a senior class president.
“It all came quickly, but it was built up in anxiety two weeks ago,” she said.
“I was stressed out with my schoolwork, and I felt like the practice was taking my time away from my assignments,” Lily said.
At home that night, Lily’s mum Christine heard what had happened when her daughter tried to speak out. “I remember I just listened because what she said was unreasonable and she just needed a chance to vent,” her mom said.
After that, Lily hid in the bedroom alone for a while. She sat in front of her beloved piano and lost hours in her music. After a while, she calmed herself down.
“I’ve been lucky that both times I’ve had a panic attack and I was able to get over it on my own,” she said.
Still, Krysten Coulter really cared about his daughter that night. The pressure to perform at school became too much. She worries that this is starting to take a toll on Lily’s mental health. She wondered where it would stop.
Next year, Lily plans to leave home for her first year of college. Lily’s mother was already nervous about it. “She’s been putting such pressure on herself since kindergarten. I worry about how she’s going to cope if we’re not there.”
stress is real
It’s all too common, says psychologist Madeleine Levine, PhD, author of Ready or Not: Enabling Our Children to Thrive in an Uncertain and Changing World. Levine says kids like Lily are feeling the weight of academic stress more than ever.
“Twenty-five years ago, when you asked a child their biggest source of stress, they would have said they were divorced or that they were fighting with siblings.”
“It’s always the pressure of school right now,” Levine said.
The pandemic didn’t help.rate frustrated Some studies have shown that anxiety and anxiety in school-aged children have doubled during the pandemic. The reasons for the increase are unclear, but children often internalize the expectations of the culture around them, Levine said.
This could come from their friends, social media, or their parents. “Information comes from everywhere, but the most important information comes from your parents,” Levine said.
Tools to reduce academic stress
Levine says there are a few things parents can do to help their children stay healthy learning:
- Avoid focusing solely on grades. “If you just focus on grades, you end up with an 11-year-old who thinks they’re only doing as well as they did last time,” she said.
- Ask questions and stay curious—not just school performance. For example: What subjects do they like? What do they dislike? What clubs, teams or activities are they involved in? Do they have a healthy social group? Are they lonely? “You can never listen to your kids too much,” Levin said.
- Unstructured time is allowed. Kids and teens need at least some time each day to “fuck”. It doesn’t always have to be homework or planned extracurricular activities. It would be even better if this downtime could happen outdoors in nature.
- Have dinner with your kids whenever possible. This is a great opportunity to listen to issues and get ahead of them so they can be more easily dealt with. It is also important to let your child know that family units can withstand stress. No matter what the school is like, the family is there.
- Avoid talking too much about material possessions in front of your children. Instead of talking about your neighbor’s fancy new car or swimming pool, focus on what people are doing to help each other and the community. Try teaching kids to value social workers, not just Silicon Valley billionaire geniuses, Levin said.
The stress of academic stress can manifest in different ways. Notice major changes in mood or behavior. While it’s normal for kids to be in a bad mood from time to time, a big shift can be a symptom of a more serious problem.
Some teens are obvious. They make threats, fight or disrupt school and social activities. But these are exceptions, Levine said. More commonly, school stress causes young people to become depressed, withdrawn and anxious.
This can be harder to spot.You may notice excessive self-criticism, sleep problems, sudden changes weightlosing interest in activities they used to enjoy, or talking about self-harm (including suicide).
In these cases, it may be time to seek professional help.A doctor can recommend a suitable mental health counselor or Psychiatrist in your area.
Looking to the future
Lily Coulter knows firsthand how difficult it is to balance academics, music, sports, friends, family, and mental health. So she spent some time thinking about it all summer, and she decided to make a change.
To relieve some of the pressure she felt last spring, she decided to leave the volleyball team her senior year. She says she already feels better and she’s excited for her final year of high school.