With so much attention on shows like “13 Reasons Why” that glamorize teen suicide, it seems that all parents should be concerned about pressures on teens. However, I still sometimes see the issue blown off as a fad. I’m trying to motivate my daughter to work hard while setting healthy expectations that don’t create too much stress or anxiety in the “pressure cooker” of Mercer Island. Where is the balance?
You’ve brought up a very timely and important issue for Mercer Island youth and parents as well as those in other communities with a similar achievement orientation. As a mental health provider, I hear this concern consistently from YFS staff who work directly with youth.
I see two important parts to your question: (1) how to help your teen deal with stress, and (2) how to do so in a community with a very strong achievement norm that can work against a healthy school-life balance.
Stress that is unrelenting and unresolvable (achieving for achieving’s sake) can create a state of anxiety that leaves a teen in a perpetual state of “fight or flight.” This response, biologically ingrained so as to respond to physical threats, releases cortisol that ramps-up the body to respond physically. But the continued release of cortisol in response to the ongoing perceived threat of underachieving can weaken the immune system and damage overall physical and psychological health.
Excessive teen stress is a real and very powerful phenomena on Mercer Island. Consistently, Island student surveys rank stress from academics as a top concern. In fact, many youth in high achieving communities internalize a palpable and unrelenting pressure to succeed.
Youth handle stress in various ways depending on their individual level of resilience — this is one reason we focus on building resiliency in many YFS youth programs. At home, there are also several ways to help your daughter with stress.
Start by requiring a foundation of adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise. This is critical.
When overachievement and academic success are perceived to be the only path to success, many teens need help slowing down, taking a step back and assessing real versus perceived stressors.
To help, work with your daughter to identify healthy goals for school and life that have purpose and meaning to her. Break these into achievable parts, and help her track her progress. Achieving realistic goals are the kind of “small victories” that build resilience. Regularly check-in and stay attuned to her level of irritability, sadness, moodiness and engagement with friends — all warning signs that should be addressed.
By tracking her goals together and communicating about how she is faring, you have the opportunity to coach her and help her re-assess when things get out of balance or require professional help.
Stress reduction is one good way to minimize risk of teen suicide. However, in the era of glamorized teen suicide in the media, parents need not to be afraid to ask directly about “thoughts of hurting yourself or suicide.” If you are concerned or see warning signs, remember: there is never any harm in asking about suicide.
Staying connected to your child is really important. Remember to also model a balanced approach towards stress yourself, and reach out to a YFS school counselor or our counseling offices (206-275-7611) to consult with a professional, if needed.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.