Sixteen-year-old Jack was brought into therapy because his parents thought he might be depressed. Until this year, Jack had been a straight A student, played cello in the orchestra, ran track and cross country and volunteered his time daily at the local Y. When asked why he was seeking help from me at this time, his response was “My parents are worried about me because I got my first B on an exam”. When I asked him how HE felt about getting his first B, his response was, “I don’t like disappointing my parents.” Getting to know Jack was not easy. He couldn’t describe what made him feel happy and when I asked him what he does in his spare time for fun, he looked at me like I had three heads.
Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege is worried about teenagers like Jack! After decades of treating teenagers, Levine thinks that our teens are becoming less and less equipped to handle the everyday pressures of life. I have to agree with her. While the demands on our teens for outstanding academic achievement get higher, the efforts to instill family responsibilities, life skill development, creativity and problem solving are at an all time low, leaving our kids surprisingly devoid of ability to work independently. Working only for high GPAs and test scores has a way of undermining the joy in learning.
I like that Levine does not jump on the “blame the parent” bandwagon though. Rather than labeling parents as narcissistic and indulgent, Levine empathizes with them and highlights how desperately parents want their kids to be happy and the drive to save them from failure and pain. It’s difficult for parents to resist the constant litany of requirements their children must master in order to achieve what’s deemed “success”. At the same time, their children are suffering terribly with troubling psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety from not knowing how to tune into themselves and their own desires, passions, and needs because they are pressured to over-focus on goals of academic success. “Working primarily to please others and to gain their approval takes time and energy away from children’s real job of figuring out their authentic talents, skills, and interests.” (Levine)
Levine suggests there are two factors that contribute to the emotional trials and tribulations of teens today: achievement pressures and a lack of authentic emotional closeness with parents. There are several suggestions she has to help your teen build resilience and navigate through adolescence with a strong sense of self-efficacy:
- Slow Down! – There are enormous benefits to being present with your child because it is when your child is quiet and unpressured that s/he is able to reach inside and expose “the most delicate parts of their developing selves”.
- Have Dinner Together – Families that dine together bond together.
- Decrease Your Emphasis on External Motivation – Rather than asking questions like, “What did you get on your history quiz?”, ask, “What did you learn from taking your history quiz today?”
- Lessen Materialism – Value friends, family and hard work. Material items are never a good substitute for hard personal and interpersonal work.
- Focus on Process Rather Than Result – Try saying, “You worked really hard on that project.” Rather than, “What did you get on your project?”
- Focus on the Child in Front of You, Not on the Child in Your Fantasies
- Help Your Child Formulate Their Own Point of View - Try saying, “Tell me how you are thinking about solving this problem.”
- Whenever Possible, Delay Gratification – Try saying, “I know you think you need this right this second, but it can wait.”
- Model Your Own Internal Skills – Try saying, “I need to mull this one over.” Or “Hmmmm. I’m working on this. Let me get back to you about it.”
- Don’t Make Excuses For Your Child’s Bad Behavior – If they screwed up, let them own it and make amends for it whenever possible.