Hey Parents, Let’s Not Pressure Our Teens to Death This School Year

teen mental health

Oh, look, it’s August, and I’m so not ready for it. Last night as I kissed July goodbye and thought about the summer fading away, I felt the pressure of getting my kids ready for the school year bearing down on me. I’ve got two weeks to get uniforms to fit all three of my kids’ “grown three inches over the summer” bodies, gather up school supplies, and make sure backpacks are sturdy enough for another year. Along with working and packing in some more summer fun, I feel a LOT of pressure, especially since my oldest child is starting HIGH SCHOOL. What a rite of passage for both him and this mama. I’ll confess, all this stress is causing my mental health to fray, but sadly, it’s nothing compared to the school-related pressure that’s contributing to a decline in teen mental health across the board.

teen mental health

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Being a writer in the parenting space has been a gift in that it has opened me up to reading about and discussing the parenting experiences of many other moms and dads. I’ve read stories of those who have teens already and I’m hearing their warnings: teen mental health in our kids’ generation seems to be worse than it ever has before.

One quick glance at the social media accounts of my sons peers and it’s easy to see why: the constant comparison of each other’s highlight reels, not to mention kids taking advantage of social media as a new and easy opportunity to bully or make others feel less-than, is certainly a huge factor that I myself did not have to deal with as a kid.

But another big negative factor on teen mental health may be one we don’t want to talk about. Because it’s US. The parents.

But we’re not solely to blame. We also have our partner in crime, the schools.

When I registered my son for high school last spring, I was presented with two choices:
sign him up for a “regular” diploma, or sign him up for the track that would lead him to an “honors diploma.”

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Pardon my French, but my initial response to this was, “What the Fudgesicle, Man?” When I was in high school we all got the SAME diploma. Now, we all didn’t get the same GRADES, that was up to how hard we worked. But in the end, we all walked across the stage as graduates. Not “honors” and “regular.” Why do we need the distinction? This piece of paper that says our teens finished the state requirements to graduate high school should say just that; it’s their ticket to move on to higher education if they want to. Why the extra distinction? Their GPAs and test scores alone should be enough to make the distinction on what they qualify for in terms of college.

My kids as of now are honors students, both my older two get straight A’s at this point, so I’m not just trying to cry “unfair!!” at this new system. I’m trying to cry “unnecessary!”

I myself was a high school valedictorian, back in the glory days when all you could get was a 4.0 GPA. Now I hear you can get up to a 7.0 in some schools. SAY WHAT?? It’s important to have our teens work toward reaching attainable goals; it’s ridiculous to keep raising the bar higher and higher. In a world where the old perfection is the new average, how can we not expect teen mental health to take a downward spiral?

A few months ago I wrote an article highlighting a letter to parents and students from Newport Harbor High School principal Dr. Sean Boulton. He wrote the letter after a student from a neighboring California high school, Corona Del Mar, died by suicide and indicated in a suicide note that “the pressures of school  and growing up in Newport-Mesa” contributed to his decision to take his own life. As a new school year begins, and as teens have to leave the carefree days of summer for the pressure cooker of deciding between AP classes and being with “the dumb kids” as I fear our perfectly typical kids think of themselves, I think Boulton’s words bear repeating, and I ask that you take them to heart. He says:

Our teachers and District have simply created and maintained a system that our community/country has demanded from us over the past 20 years since college admissions mania went into hyper drive, since vocational training programs were dismantled, and since earning “A’s” in AP classes became the norm.

Our teachers feel the pressure, administration and counseling feel the pressure, and now parents/students are really feeling the pressures.

When we grew up nobody asked us what our GPA was, and it was “cool” to work on the roof of a house. This competitive culture has significantly impacted our young adults. We endlessly discuss test scores, National Merit Scholarships, reading scores, AP scholars, comparisons to other school Districts and this is when we start losing our collective souls–and our children. 

We often shield our students from failure. We think that earning a “C” grade in a class is a the end of the world, and we don’t allow our students to advocate for themselves. We have also devalued a military career, a plumbing or welding job, and we are a little embarrassed if our children wish to attend vocational training schools instead of a major university. 

We say hooray for those students who enter the armed forces, who want to work with their hands, who don’t want to be weighed down with the burden of being perfect in high school, and who earn a “C” in a tough class and are proud of themselves.

ALL of us as a community have to get to this point if we want to avoid our students feeling shamed, isolated, or worthless. 

We had a waiting list this year for culinary at NHHS and construction technology at Estancia–this is a telling statistic. We consistently have students lost in our administrative/ counseling offices, and in classrooms whom we tell, “College is not for everyone, but look at what you can do.” We invite military recruiters to our campuses so they can work with students on valued and significant careers in the armed forces. Please know there is so much behind the scenes we do to diffuse this environment, but we can not do it alone anymore.

A very intuitive parent gave an analogy recently that hit home: “Our kids are not teacups; they are meant to be bumped around from time to time.”

It is during these bumpy times that we can applaud a “C”, applaud a student going to the military or junior college, properly support failure with introspection not blame, take an 89.5% as a B+ in stride, or applaud a student in one of our CTE pathways. My British father would always quip, “it is the sum of our experiences that should always outweigh the sum of our bank accounts.” 

We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.

I sound like a broken record. If this offends anyone I am sorry. 

We need to start now.

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Moms and dads, if we value our kids for WHO they were created to be, if we value the child we were given and not the child we wanted, if we value teen mental health in our children and their peers, then we must stop contributing to this terrible pressure to be the best of the best.

We simply need to expect and encourage our kids to do their best. To push themselves to use all their abilities wisely. To, as the Bible says, work at it with ALL of their hearts.

And then we need to be okay with it if their best isn’t a perfect score on the ACT and a 5.5 out of 4.0 GPA.

We need to be ok and even happy if they choose trade school over a four-year college. We need to not give a CRAP what the neighbors think.

We need to put teen mental health above our parental reputations.

And we need to start now. It’s August, moms and dads. Let’s make sure our kids know where we stand on this before they go back to school. Let’s make sure we know that doing their best, and not someone else’s best, is what we expect, appreciate, and admire. And that we love them so so much, no matter what.


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Jenny Rapson
Jenny Rapson is a follower of Christ, a wife and mom of three from Ohio and a freelance writer and editor. You can find her at her blog, Mommin' It Up, or follow her on Twitter.