The Pressure Is Real

Today’s CBS Sunday Morning show had an episode: “Helping students cope with the pressure to succeed.

Quick summary: Experts say that students from high achieving schools, who are privileged in terms of educational opportunities, are at greater risk of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety than the national norm, because of an unrelenting, insidious pressure to succeed. Correspondent Lee Cowan talks with students and a psychologist about how adolescent wellness is as vulnerable to academic pressure as it is to poverty, trauma, and discrimination.

Here is the full clip if you would like to watch the eight-minute episode. If you would prefer to just read a summary of the transcript, I have created a list of bullet points below the video.

  • with record-low acceptance rates at top colleges, it’s pretty well-known that students feel pressured to out-compete each other. But what isn’t widely known is the toll that pressure can take.
  • back in the ’90s psychologist Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University, was studying children struggling in low-income families, and she used as a control group students from more affluent schools – ones we generally think “have it all.” But they were suffering, too. “What do they all have in common?” “Unfortunately, what they all have in common is this unrelenting, insidious pressure to achieve and do evermore. Not even succeed, but it’s relentless, it’s keep succeeding.”
  • the ripple effects of that unrelenting stress can be debilitating. Luthar spent more than two decades studying the problem. She consistently found that students from affluent schools are suffering from higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and anxiety – as much as three times the national norm.
  • The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation now notes that excessive pressure to excel ranks right up with poverty, trauma, and discrimination as factors hurting adolescent wellness.
  • many parents, even teachers, aren’t aware of just how much stress is hurting because many teens don’t talk about it … to anyone.
  • Luthar’sadvice: “Have a conversation. And if your child does tell you, ‘I’m overwhelmed, I’m so anxious I can’t sleep, I’m terrified,’ that’s the time when you pull back. Ask your child.”
  • the students indicated that the pressure is coming from parents, teachers, and themselves.
  • one student noted: “It’s really trying to change the culture. It’s been, like, put into our minds when we were in kindergarten and first grade.”
  • As students head off to college, they will be expecting even more of themselves. Luthar notes that’s admirable – as long as achievement isn’t the only measure of a young person’s worth.
  • Luthar concludes: “I want to emphasize my message is not that kids should be told, ‘Don’t work hard.’ Absolutely not. Do work hard. [But] there is a point where we value your sanity and your well-being, and we are not willing to let that be compromised.”

Knowing all of this will be helpful when I meet a new group of college freshmen next week. I’ve had a sense that today’s students are under a lot of pressure, and COVID did not help matters (it didn’t make it necessarily worse – in fact, there was actually a short term benefit to students’ anxiety levels when COVID came along, but that benefit has faded away).

But this story brings the issue more into focus, and I will try to instill from day one the importance of stress management and make them aware of the resources we have available to them if they start to feel overwhelmed.

Knowing this also makes me feel bad. I remember college as being among the best four years of my life, and I always hope my students have the same experience. I don’t remember feeling stressed to the level that today’s students are experiencing.

As one of my colleagues noted, “Unfortunately, being a kid is not what it used to be.”

*image from Coppell Student Media

75 thoughts on “The Pressure Is Real

  1. Perhaps all that pressure to succeed leads many college students into becoming alcoholics and drug addicts. Or maybe it’s all the alcohol and drugs they abuse that makes it hard for them to succeed. This seems like a chicken and egg dilemma to me.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I am sure there is a bit of chicken and egg thing going on, but given that many students are feeling this pressure in grade school, it seems like most times it would be the pressure that leads to the drug abuse…

      Liked by 3 people

  2. This is one of the most important pieces you have written since I’ve been following you (two years). I know the older generation (i.e., us 🤣) likes to tell kids how easy things are for them compared to us. I know adults are mostly referring to opportunities and modern conveniences. Still, the flip side, which doesn’t get discussed enough in my opinion, is that young people have far more pressures. Some of these are external and others internal, but it’s a scarier time for children to grow up in a lot of ways.

    I will stop here as you’ve struck a chord with me. In fact, I think this may be worthy of my next blog post—thank you for that too, Jim. I’ll be sure and give you a shoutout when I write it.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. HI Pete, I look forward to reading what you think about this. I agree that the pressure on youngsters to succeed is huge. They are competing against so many more educated people now compared to when we started and also against machines. We didn’t have to consider whether our career of choice would become obsolete because AI or a robot can do it better. When I was a youngest, lots of girls when to secretarial college; now secretaries are playing a smaller and smaller role and I think will disappear in the next 10 years when the pre-computer generation retires. I have a secretary but I only ask her to arrange my training for me. I share her with two other people and one is a pre-comp gen, she uses her services far more extensively. My husband who is part of upper management, doesn’t use a secretary either. The world has changed.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m sure you have an interesting perspective on this too, Robbie, seeing as your boys are at the age where far more is expected of them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. you have to wonder what kids think when they look at the future and what role they will play in such a future. all of this technology was supposed to make our lives better, but I guess we really need to question what the long-lasting impact of various technologies are, such as AI> Perhaps it provides another argument in favor of Universal Basic Income, a concept I am a big fan of…

        I am also looking forward to what Pete has to say on the topic…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I know that Greg is very confident about his role in the future as a computer programmer. He considers IT to be the only reasonable career choice. Interesting! If you look at the Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum, accountants are on the obsolete list.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It seems like Greg is a planner; I think that will serve him well. And I’m glad I’m not just starting off my career as an accounting teacher…

        It will be interesting to see what the future holds…

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I meant to add that Universal Basic Income is still on the cards according to the latest economic reports, but the cost of global warming is undermining it. Also, the gross over population. There will have to be some changes if it is to work going forward. I’m glad I don’t have to make and implement the decisions. Brave New World here we come!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I’m with you; I’m glad I don’t have to make such decisions. It just seems that if there aren’t going to be as many jobs in the future, but the economy is still producing goods and services, then the money generated from those goods and services needs to be distributed to people.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. thanks for your feedback, Pete. As an educator, I am sure you noticed this pressure to succeed even among younger children. It is a challenging time to be young, Brad noted in a later comment that social media probably plays a role and I would agree. Thank heaven we didn’t have that to deal with when we were younger. I look forward to reading your thoughts in an upcoming blog post, and the discussion I am sure it will generate…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have seen so many examples of this that I deliberately didn’t push my son into anything because I didn’t want to put pressure on him. Now he tells me stories of his music students who’s parents have such high expectations of them when the kids really don’t want to be taking lessons at all. I feel for kids these days because many parents have forgotten what childhood is supposed to be about. They continue these expectations to include education, career, spouses, homes, etc. Then, of course, there is the constant exposure to people’s perfect (selected) social media worlds. The constant comparisons creating a need to do better and be better than others even if it is only optics. It all makes me so glad that I am way way past that stage in life.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. This is a common refrain I hear all the way down to kindergarten, where the teachers think the academic component is emphasized far too early when kids should still be learning socialization skills.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. My wife sees it, and she teaches pre-k. There are some private schools near us that require kids to be interviewed as part of the admission process for kindergarten. I can imagine some of the prep work that must be involved in getting a kid ready for such an interview.

        That’s why I like the Finnish approach to education, where the early years are all about play and socialization…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. My grand daughter who is only 7 actually told her dad (my stepson) to stop suggesting that she take a class whenever she shows she has an aptitude for something. I thought she was wonderful to say this and hopes that she keep her independent streak.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. thank you for your thoughtful comments, and we tried to be the same way with our kids. It’s sad to hear about all this pressure that young people are under, when it should be a wonderful time in their lives. I agree that social media does not help, and likely makes the problem worse. And I admit that sometimes I fall in the trap of looking at my friends’ social media posts of their vacations and feeling a bit envious,,,

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I think we all look at other’s social media posts sometimes with envy but then realize that they are only a single snapshot of another just as complicated life as our own. Or at least I hope people realize.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. I’ve seen it among my neighbors as well. Parents of kids as young as three come begging me to teach their kids to play a piano (I’ve been playing one for several years myself) – and the kids don’t even want to sit still, let alone have the patience to learn an instrument. Apparently, the parents think that the kid will never ‘learn’ to play an instrument (by which they nearly always mean playing like a professional before they’re thirteen years old) unless they start playing ridiculously early. I’ve given up on trying to convince them otherwise – I just tell them I won’t accept students unless they come to me when they’re older and of their own volition.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. thanks for sharing your thoughts, Annie.

        It’s sometimes easy to see how this pressure gets created in kids as an outsider, but as a parent, you are just trying to do what you think is best for your child.

        I’m glad you are able to set some boundaries on who you will teach; I’m sure the kids certainly appreciate that approach.

        By the way, I like your blog, and look forward to reading more of your posts on personal finance…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks – I’ve been wondering what to write of next (all the good stuff have loads of posts covering them, I’m trying to find something off whack in personally finances to write about). I’ll probably take up monetizing hobbies next.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A great article, Jim. My older son, Greg, is already a workaholics and puts so much pressure on himself to achieve. He gets exam marks in the 90%s and is often disappointed because he made some silly mistake that cost him a mark. The pressure doesn’t come from Terence and I in that we are vocal about him succeeding, but I think it is more insidious. He looks at us, sees that we work extremely hard and are over-achievers and feels compelled to emanate us. I am glad he works hard but he over does it. I have forced him to take a full week off on his current school break to rest. He resisted. Michael on the other hand, has become depressed, hates on-line learning and I know he feels he can’t measure up to Greg’s academic achievement. He tries to follow in Greg’s footsteps but he isn’t the same person. I am trying to encourage him to take subjects that suit his personality and talents and not his brothers. It is so hard. It is difficult for a parent who sees this happening and tries to change things. I feel like I am working against a tide of expectations from others, in particular, my children themselves. Sorry, I have ranted on a bit.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I obviously have never met your children, but Greg sounds a lot like other gifted children I worked with, who consistently put a lot of pressure on themselves to achieve. If they get six A’s and one B, they would be upset about the lone B. If they get 96% on a test, maybe they’re still unhappy because of a question they missed. As you mentioned, this pressure comes from within from his own high expectations. A certain amount of that is fine—I want students to care without beating themselves up. Having high standards is a good thing if a student can let go at the end of the day. I also feel for kids like Michael, who will compare themselves to their older siblings. Even when you and your husband aren’t, other people sometimes do—perhaps a teacher mentions to Michael when he first meets him, “Oh, I taught our older brother. He was such an excellent student.” I’m sure you’re already doing this, but if I were in your shoes, I’d be trying to remind Michael of all the things he’s good at. Well, I guess I’ve highjacked Jim’s blog enough, but these are things I’m also passionate about.😉

      Liked by 3 people

      1. it is a fine line between having high expectations and putting too much pressure on students.

        The course I will be teaching to freshmen starting next week is one of four or five other courses they take their first semester in college. I am OK letting them know that my course should be one of the easier ones they take. I don’t think every course a student takes has to be the hardest course they ever take. That being said, I do exect students to complete the course requirements in a timely and college-level manner. This gives the students an opportunity to get acclimated, and focus on the whole college experience.

        On the other hand, the course I teach in the Spring to freshmen, Financial Accounting, is typically one of the most challenging courses a student will take during their first year. I try to help them manage the stress the course is likely to cause, but sometimes the pressure becomes too much and they end up underperforming or dropping the class…

        I also try to tell them that their performance on an accounting exam has nothing to do with their value as a person and that’s why it is so important for them to find something that they enjoy doing.

        Like you, Pete, this is something I am passionate about as well…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Pete, Greg does fit into the mold you describe, as do/did I. I am endlessly giving him subtle support to try and control this, having walked this road myself. I have watched others walk it too and eating disorders are common among these girls. I also spend a lot of time building up Michael. I even get his artwork framed and share all his achievements.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. thanks for sharing such a personal example of the pressure that kids are facing today. Many times it is self-imposed, and Greg is lucky to have parents who are keeping an eye out for his mental health. And it must be hard for Michael to follow in Greg’s footsteps; has he started to find things of interest that are different than Greg’s?

      and it must be a challenge to try and go against the tide when it comes to expectations…

      and no need to apologize, I and others appreciate what you have to say…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Jim, Michael has a low self confidence because of his learning barrier. I have tried all the boys lives to make them individuals and to appreciate their different strengths. I have endeavored to bring out the artistic side in Michael, one way was through our Sir Choc books and cooking together. I have told him all the benefits of doing art as a subject and investigated the career opportunities with him. Hopefully, he will make his own choice as an individual. Michael is doing well with his weekly therapy and we are doing lots of cooking together again. Baby steps.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I love how proactive you are; it seems like you are doing all the right things. Glad that the therapy sessions are helpful, and as you point out, baby steps. Slow and steady wins the race…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I do think that social media has a role to play in this. We, as individuals, always feel some pressure to succeed. Being unsuccessful is not a trait anyone holds in high regards. But our measurement of success comes from comparing ourselves to others. When you add in the social media effect of everyone presenting themselves as the polished, perfect example of who they wished they were, it can set some unobtainable goals. Of course, success is a matter of perspective. Is the solution to tell our kids that success is not important and the world needs fast food workers too?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree, Brad, that social media is a part of the problem.

      And it is a challenge to find the right balance between hard work and too much pressure.

      I guess a key is encouraging hard work, but keeping a close tab on the stress level of children and students, and emphasizing that success can be measured in many ways, and it’s not always based on income…

      thanks for your thoughtful comments as always, Brad!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. You are so right!!! I had already thought of this point as I was formulating why I think there’s more pressure to succeed. I’m not recommending giving up social media, but can we please stop comparing ourselves to others through social media?

      Liked by 2 people

  6. This is such an important discussion. Young adults have such a different world today and all the comments above touched on many of the stressors they are facing. The one thing I would add to the list of stressors is that this generation has a very developed social and environmental responsibility compass, which may add to the long list of high expectations. They are constantly navigating social land mines.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. great point about the importance the younger generation places on social and environmental issues. it is one my favorite things about my students – they are so committed to service-oriented activities…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Mounting pressure and stress on young people is a very important issue. You and other commenters see it first hand and have a much better handle on it than I do. It seems that pressure comes from parents, society and kids themselves in order to be viewed as successful economically. When I was in college, pressure seemed to be concentrated primarily in students who wanted to go to graduate school (especially pre-med students) who needed superior grades to get into the best grad schools or any grad school.

    It must be a lot more generalized now and starting at an earlier age. I wish I had answers, but it is good to know that you and the teachers on this site are aware of the problem and take steps to deal with it. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Being aware is the first and most important part. I don’t know if thee is much anyone can do other than encouraging that students realize the importance of balance in their lives.

        Like

  8. Unfortunately, I know many peers who have been under this immense pressure before. The school I went to had a fairly good reputation for churning out high performing college students, and so was a hotspot for well off families of talented students to send their kids to. The thing is, I think many of these people weren’t used to being in a class with many others who
    were just as brilliant and clever, and that’s where stress and pressure begins to set in.
    It’s an unfortunate situation in many of these kinds of schools, and I hear it’s even worse in Ivy League colleges and prestigious medical schools as well🙁

    Liked by 2 people

  9. As this discussion points out, there can be many factors which add to the pressure and stress of students. There is no perfect formula to alleviate it, but how parents raise children from an early age can make a difference. A nurturing, loving family environment sometimes gives a child a parachute.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I’ve always told me kids they didn’t have to go to college at all. A college degree is not a requirement for a lot of jobs/careers that have not disappeared and will probably still be around for a good long time.

    What I’m referring to are generally known as “the trades” and sadly most of these skills are no longer taught in high schools. Because they are so in demand and because it’s harder to find a place to learn them, those who have can make great incomes and over time pretty much set their own work schedules.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. This is VERY real. Just today, a fellow teacher’s daughter cut herself. I know this girl! I know kids! This was a shock. Yes, she will be getting help…but sheesh! Let’s give kids some slack. I’ve always thought England has the best idea- let kids take a year off after high school to figure out what they want to do. And, why does every child have to go to college? There are so many wonderful trades and jobs that don’t require a college education. Stress is a #1 problem for kids. Sigh!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. that’s such a shame to hear, but it’s good that she is getting help. it is a stressful time for young people, so I think a little extra bit of kindness is always helpful. And I agree, college is not necessary for everyone…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am replying after learning you teach at Villanova. Of course you see and understand this!! Apologies, as I should have known. With your kids, the little extra bit of kindness means so much more. I’m happy to know you agree with me on college not being for everyone. My mother would roll over in her grave, but that was a different generation…. oh, I can feel a killer blog post on this. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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