Kids feeling too much pressure, psychologist says

Educators, parents look for ways to de-stress the island’s youngsters.

Madeline Levine has seen too many child depression victims, masochists and suicides to believe there is a single cause.

But if there is common root for youth angst in America, she believes it is pressure.

The child psychologist’s message has hit home for many Bainbridge parents, evidenced by the celebrity’s welcome she received from a crowd of 400 gathered in the Woodward Middle School auditorium Saturday morning.

“Kids aren’t expected to be good, they are expected to be stellar. And they’re not just expected to be stellar at one thing, they are expected to be stellar at everything,” Levine said.

Author of “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids,” in its 15th printing in as many months, Levine was the keynote speaker of the Just Know Coalition’s Fall Forum.She questioned why so many students, especially those of affluent families, are depressed and self-destructive. The answer, she said, is often the insurmountable expectations held by parents.

It’s healthy for parents to support their children with structure and encouragement she said, but expectations of perfection do more damage than good. When parents and teachers are disappointed when a student gets Bs instead of straight-As or doesn’t make the cut for a varsity team, it’s easy to foster feelings of inadequacy.

Those feelings can lead to damaging emotional conditions in children. Between 30 and 40 percent of upper-middle class youth have serious emotional impairments, Levine said, and the fear of failure she has seen in the teens she counsels has been overwhelming.

“This level of anxiety was once reserved for the worst physical threats for kids,” she said.

Levine stressed that mental health issues are shared by children of all economic classes, but she said its easier for wealthy parents to “buy their way” into a disconnected relationship with their children, where achievement and material rewards are substituted for affection.

For decades affluent kids with real mental issues have been chalked up as spoiled. The general sentiment, Levine said, was “Why don’t you tell those narcissistic, tennis-playing mothers to get off their butts and take care of their kids.”

In her practice, Levine said every parent she’s met has been genuinely invested in raising happy kids, but that many were just misguided in their efforts.

To begin with, parents must realize that their children go through developmental stages that each require different freedoms and parameters, Levine said.

It’s often much more beneficial for a toddler to learn basic sandbox social skills, like not to hit a playmate with a play shovel, than it is for them to study Chinese, even if a second language might someday impress an Ivy League admissions panel.

Likewise, Levine said, middle-schoolers need the room to explore their interests while high-schoolers need support and as they develop their adult selves.

She said parents often try to use their children’s success as a way of gaining status in the adult world, where peer pressure is every bit as pervasive as in the schoolyard. She suggested that parents looking for prestige points buy a Harvard bumper sticker for their car.

“Just leave your kids out of it,” she said.

Pressure comes from schools as well, Levine said. She drew applause for questioning the logic of assigning elementary students with homework and said schools put too much emphasis on varsity sports and traveling teams that are too demanding on students.

“There’s no such thing as playing after school – you’re either on the team or your not,” she said. “Competitive sports are fine, but a community has to have a place for kids to just play, otherwise they’ll get into trouble.”

Healthy kids, Levine said, need schools to stimulate curiosity and parents that maintain structure while taking the time to have a non-judgemental “hang out” relationship with their children.

“This is the take home message,” she said. “Nothing, nothing means more than your relationship with your child.”

The message was dead on for the Bainbridge community, said Paul Pradel, who has daughters in the 3rd and 5th grades.

“It made me frightened to hear her talk about a lot of the things I see my peers are doing,” he said.

Pradel said he does his best to keep his kids from feeling pressured, but worries they don’t get the same message from their teachers and other parents.

Ordway Elementary teacher Meg Evans agreed that both parents and teachers put too great a burden on kids and the school needs to shift away from heavy homework loads and rigid academics to focus on developing kids with strong character.

“The kids are under way too much pressure,” she said. “And it’s not something the kids can change themselves.”

Using momentum built at the forum, the Just Know Coalition wants to shift the culture surrounding the island’s youth to reduce the risks they face. The Coalition will host at least three more forums over the next seven months, with the first in January.

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