Which is more important, emotional well-being or academic excellence? Which do you value more for your teen? How can you strike the balance between health and success? These are all complicated questions. Much of it depends on your values and beliefs, as well as the individual needs of each child. Every family and even child is different. Here are some practical guidelines for assessing your family’s needs and ensuring that your child maintains emotional health.
It is stressful being a teen. Just by definition, before we even consider other factors, it is just plain hard being a teenager. Hormones, social issues, acne, changing bodies, moodiness, teachers, parents, sports, homework…it’s a lot. Now, let’s add SAT’s and ACT’s and college applications, AP classes, pressure to get good grades…it can be enough to send some kids off the deep end. Here is where it is important to know your child.
Some kids thrive on stress, and actually perform better when under some amount stress. These kids are largely self-motivated and tend to put the pressure on themselves. They push themselves to take difficult classes and have ambitious goals. As long as it is coming from them and they seem to be able to handle it, there is no problem here.
But, when the pressure is coming from you, the parents, rather than from the teen themselves, now there is a potential problem. Some kids cannot function under stress. They literally cannot function. Your desire for them to take certain classes and a certain path to attend a certain college is a detriment to their own success. While you might think you are helping to scoot your child along the way, you are actually obstructing their own path, as well as their health and happiness.
Most kids desire to go to college. And most of them will attain that goal, one way or another. There are a lot of different colleges here in the United States, and a lot of paths to lead you there. Not everyone is cut out to start in a 4 year university. Not everyone can handle the stress and anxiety of the SAT or ACT. Some kids are ready to leave home and are very independent. Some kids benefit from staying close to home and attending junior college first.
Now, ask yourself if your family values academics over mental health. What messages are you sending your child about what really matters to you and what your family’s values are? Can you recognize how each of your children are different, and therefore each has different needs, goals, and desires? Does your child know that you value their well-being above all else? Or do you inadvertently send the message that he isn’t good enough if he doesn’t take AP’s and get all A’s?
Here is what your child really needs from you. He needs to know that you have confidence in him. He needs to feel understood and valued for his unique character, talents, and desires. He needs to feel supported in his efforts and goals to reach these desires. He needs to know that, even if he has chosen a path different from that which you would like. He needs to know you are there to help him when he asks, but not to force your beliefs and desires upon him. And he needs, above all else, to know that you value his well-being above any sort of achievement or accomplishment.
This all sounds like common sense, right? But, really, as parents, it is not so easy. We all want our children to succeed, and we all have our own ideas of what that looks like. It is easy to get all wrapped up in appearances and prestige and competitiveness to the point that we fail our own children in unimaginable ways. This idea that Tommy needs to do better than Joey, or that Cindy go to a better school than Sophia is ridiculous. Why not just accept and support each other along each child’s own unique path?
Success does not come from attaining certain grades, or even attending a certain university. Success is more about the individual, their traits, qualities and characters. As a matter of fact, recent studies show that employers are less interested in GPAs and where you attended school. They are looking at your character, civic duties and employment commitments. They want to hire a good person, not a good resume. What is being called “21st Century Skills” has replaced formerly popular notions of pathways to success. These skills entail creativity, collaboration, communication, social skills, media and technology literacy.
Most importantly, as a parent, you have an obligation to make sure your children are okay. Whatever path they choose, and whatever path you want them to take, pay attention to the following, and they will be okay.
- Watch for signs of excessive stress. This can look like extreme anxiety, sleeplessness, inability to concentrate or get things done. If you notice these signs, discuss with your child ways to reduce the stress.
- Look out for depression and/or drug use: declining grades, withdrawal, sadness, anger. Ask questions and seek help immediately if needed.
- Listen to your teen. Support their own desires and goals, whatever they may be. Do not try to live vicariously through them.
- Try to remember what this time was like in your own life. Remember that teens are trying to figure out how to forge their own way in the world and separate from you. Help them accomplish this in a supportive way.
- Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in what others kids and families are doing. You are not them, and your child is not their child. Do what is best for your child, and your family.
- Remember that what it really takes to succeed these days is far more than anything you will ever learn in AP Calculus.
- Value the uniqueness that is your child. Reiterate, every chance you get, that you love your child and that their well-being matters to you more than anything else in the entire world. And mean it.