What is an "acceptable" level of stress for my 16 year-old daughter to feel over her school work?

I've noticed that she's not getting quite as much sleep and she seems to be fairly tired all of the time. I think it's just because she's involved in a lot of activities and studying for AP exams. She's an excellent student, but she's always put in a lot of work to get her good grades. Should I tell her to back off and not worry about her scores, or should I let her figure it out. Is stress in school good training for the adult world where you sometimes stay late and don't get much sleep due to work?

Answers

Erin Sharaf, Such an important question

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Your question is such an important one and one that many people of all ages are struggling with right now. There has been a dramatic rise in mental illness among young people in the past few decades and some theorize that conventional schooling, with all of its pressures and comparisons, is contributing.

Most schools start too early for kids who are hardwired to get lots of sleep and who are biologically predisposed to stay up late at night and wake up later in the morning. Most school start times are for the convenience of the adults, not what's best for the kids. This leaves lots of young people chronically fatigued or even frankly exhausted which just compounds the effects of stress.

Many believe that the current system is due for a course-correction where we re-emphasize things like play, creativity, joy for its own sake, cooperation and connection. True human flourishing is much more complex and nuanced than any standardized test can measure and real success can only be defined individually, based on what is important to us based on our own innate and individual gifts and desires. It is my hope that the work world is also transforming where we are not encouraging the next generation to work themselves into illness and exhaustion. That's one reason why practices such as mindfulness and self-compassion are popping up in schools and workplaces throughout the country. There's an increasing recognition that we've created a culture of striving and stress and if so many people are unhappy (especially our children), what's it all for?

I love that you are asking these big questions and open to finding peace and freedom for your daughter. I would not presume to try and tell you what's best for your family but I would encourage you to give yourself and your daughter a bit more grace and ease in the day-to-day. It's all so fleeting and precious and at the end of it all, I don't think either of you will remember whether or not she got an A or a B on any of these exams.

Susan E. Coryat, Secondary Ed. English, M.Ed., Reading Specialist, and Parent!

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First, let me say that my mantra has become: "Please let me learn to be the mother I am teacher." This is to say, I find myself constantly telling my overachieving high school honor students to back off and live their lives, and then I come home and harp on my teenage son about doing homework. Why do I tell you this? I guess my point is that this is probably a very personal question with multiple answers. The answer I'd like to give says I think a high achieving, motivated, talented, and bright sixteen year old can and should probably enjoy some of her life. I see many students who push themselves so hard that they make themselves consumed with some nebulous goal. Does she know what she's working toward achieving? Does she know to which schools she's applying and if they even will accept her AP scores? I think it's fantastic and healthy that she is carrying a bit of stress for her work toward her goals, but I do think there should be limits to this or it can take over. As a family, perhaps it's time to talk about what the goals actually are and what is absolutely necessary in order to achieve them. Is it okay to back off a bit? If it's not for her to go and do MORE things, then it should at least be so she can be healthy. It's much easier to work toward an actual goal rather than just say let's try to get the best and do the most. So, while I know this doesn't really give you a definitive answer, I hope I prompted you to start a conversation where some concrete ideas can be discussed and realistic plans can be made. Then you two can have a cup of cocoa and watch a movie together! Stress free!

Nina Berler, College and Career Readiness Specialist

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I have worked with top students who would answer your question very differently. Some deny that they aren't taking the time to enjoy their lives, insisting that school plays, concerts in Manhattan, college courses "for fun," and community service are what they're used to. But when I dig further, I see that there are a number of factors contributing to the madness, including parental pressure (to get into an elite college). Unfortunately, at least here in the Northeast, such pressure is likely to backfire; parents may have an unrealistic expectations of admissions, especially when dealing with their oldest child.

I am concerned about another trend among very bright students: the need to escape from the reality of high school life. In particular, excessive internet use, seemingly for studying, instead becomes a tool for gaming, chats, or "hobbies" such as software development. Of course, these tasks can become all-consuming, once again working against the student. Parents and teachers may not entirely realize what their students are doing and see only exhaustion and accumulating school work. Of course, that may very well not apply to your daughter, but it's worth mentioning.

Finally, when I hear that teens are putting excessive work into their studies, I wonder whether they are using efficient study techniques and availing themselves of the best resources. I hope that your daughter streamlines her study process, which will in turn free up a bit of time for enjoyment.

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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I often worry that some of my top junior and senior students are so focused on their academics and resumes that they aren't taking the time to enjoy their lives. But then when I talk to them about it, I often find that I'm wrong. Some kids need to stay busy in order to feel validated, to compete with their peers, or because they just like staying busy.

That being said, some of these students feel that they are only valued by the quality of their work, and as a mother, this concerns me. I encourage you to talk to your daughter several times -- perhaps once a week for several weeks -- about her workload. Let her know your observations and concerns even if she doesn't talk back. She may tell you to stop or roll her eyes, but when and if she feels overwhelmed, she'll know you are there to help her.

M. Erez Kats, Seattle Language Arts Teacher, Author, and Artist

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I agree with the above experts that teenagers today are geared up for staying up late and schools are only just now starting to respond by making school start times later, something that is a huge contributor to their fatigue, which ultimately leads to stress. And I also agree that teenagers have a need to keep busy for a variety of reasons. I think it's all part of the experience, especially for an AP level student like your daughter. But I have never been one to believe that too much work and stress is good for anyone, at any age really. But for students, I would say you should always encourage them to get out and do active things like playing sports or dancing or skiing or something active because it is necessary to clear the brain of the information overload that rigorous schoolwork can bring to a student, and what's good for the body is often good for the mind as well. I also agree that talking to your daughter once a week is a great way to keep tabs on whether the stress is getting to be a problem and too much, or if it is something she feels like she is managing well. There are so many pressures coming from so many places (mental, social, emotional and physical) that students actually do a phenomenal job keeping up with the work, but they don't necessarily realize when their bodies are shutting down very well. By keeping tabs on that, you can help monitor your daughter's schedule, and perhaps just knowing you are there for her might automatically drop her stress level significantly. I wish you and your daughter the best of luck, and as a final word I would say, that you can also be the one to help plan fun, and stress-relieving activities with your daughter like trips to a spa for a massage, or a ski trip, or a day at an amusement park or arcade, just to take the edge off of things. Good luck!

Dylan Ferniany, Gifted and Talented Education Program Administrator

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I work with gifted students and they are prone to stress and anxiety, particularly as they enter the adolescent years. Bright and gifted students often put a great deal of pressure on themselves, so be mindful of any additional pressure that may be coming from the home. If she is studying for AP exams, remind her that grades in AP classes should reflect rigor. A good AP program will challenge students throughout the year so that when it comes time to take the test they are well prepared for it. Are there any activities that she might be able to ease up on a little bit while she makes it through exam time? Are there any activities that could be eliminated so that managing school will be easier?

It is important to be able to take breaks and get lots of rest. Unfortunately we live in a workaholic culture where working all the time and "busyness" is positively reinforced. It is true for adults as well as children. Now is a good time for your daughter to learn about managing stress. Here are some helpful articles specifically geared toward managing stress for adolescents:

https://www.aacap.org/aacap/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Helping-Teenagers-With-Stress-066.aspx

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/200906/helping-adolescents-learn-manage-stress

http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-teens.aspx

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