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Think You’re Stressed? Try Being a Teenager

In this competitive, college-focused frenzy, I allow my son to take mental health days.

A boy sleeping in bed next to a red alarm clock
Photo credit: Getty Images
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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It is 10am on a Tuesday, and at this moment, my 11th grade son is still upstairs in his bed asleep. I tried to wake him as I typically do at 6:45 (and then again at 7, and then a final time at 7:15) before focusing my attention on my other two children who needed their lunches packed and breakfasts consumed before being corralled toward the door.

“Why do we have to go and he doesn’t?!” my fifth grader demands. He is indignant and very adorable.

“He has a cold,” I say as I pour milk into his cereal. 

“I have a cold,” my eighth grader responds flatly, and, as if to remind me, dramatically sniffles up a nose full of snot.

“No need for a demonstration,” I say and hand him a tissue. “I know you do.”

“Me too!” my fifth grader chimes in. “Why does he always get to stay home?”

“He doesn’t always stay home,” I stress. “Sometimes he has first period off or no last period, so it just seems that way.”

“I can’t wait till I’m in high school,” my fifth grader pouts until my eighth grader decides it’s time to start a morning fight.

“Yeah, and then the work will be so hard, you’ll be crying about that."

My little one’s face sours like a lemon. I see the snark about to squirt out, so I pull a mom move and change the direction of the conversation. “Do you have your backpacks packed?” 

They nod, distracted, and turn their attention back to their devices. On another morning I may have confiscated them, but today I’m putting my faith in their powers. It works. The all-powerful Fortnite consumes their working brain cells, and I successfully get them off to school without further mutiny.

Back home in the quiet, I wonder about my decision to let my oldest stay home. It’s not the first time. Every couple of months, there’s a day where he claims a headache or a cold or some form of sick that’s not really sick, and I cave and allow him the day of rest that my younger boys wouldn’t so easily get away with. 

A 2015 NYU study examining high school kids revealed that 49% of students felt a great deal of stress on a daily basis, with grades, homework, and college preparation being the greatest sources. I am in no way surprised, especially given the fact that I heard my son stomping about well after midnight when everyone else in the house had already been neatly tucked away for hours; studying for an honors physics test, finishing up a paper that should have been done days ago, and creating music on his computer, all while zonking out to YouTube videos in between. It’s a regular occurrence. Of course, it’s partly his fault, but I remember what it was like to be a teen. I expect he will wake in the next hour or so, come down, eat out the refrigerator, then tell me he’s hungry before alternating the hours between more YouTube videos, music, and study. 

While he may not always be disciplined about cleaning his room or brushing his hair or walking the dog, when it comes to school, he knows exactly what he needs to do and does it without my nagging, which, let’s be honest, I still kind of do anyway. He is driven to succeed; his class schedule a rap sheet of AP and honor classes.

“A 4.0 isn’t doing that well,” he tells me, and my B-plus self has a hard time wrapping my head around this concept. But we live in an era (and area) filled with overachievers. 

There is so much pressure these days with social media to be “liked,” to have the perfect outfit, friends, grades, future, and life. Kids get the message they should boost their college applications with clubs, sports, and community service when they’ve barely started high school. There are AP classes and honors, ACTs, SATs, and SAT2s. And tragically, there are school shootings, one after another, to keep students (and parents) in a new hyperaware, scary reality that the bubble we thought we lived in is leaking fast and no amount of duct tape can fix it. 

And it doesn’t end with high school. Article after article cites substantially increased levels of anxiety in our young people. There’s one study from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA that has been tracking incoming college freshman for decades and asking, among many other things, if they “felt overwhelmed.” In 1985, 18% replied yes.  In 2016, the number went up to nearly 41%. That’s a lot of stressed out young people and I guess, in the back of my mind, I don’t want my son to be one of them. Add to that the new/not-so-new scandal of bribing your way into college and apparently parents are just as competitive and overwhelmed as the kids.

Life just seems so much more intense than when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, although maybe it’s just those rose-colored glasses of the past. I don’t know, but it does seem like our kids are exposed to a lot more, a lot faster. That they have to produce more and be more. 

My son’s rigorous academic schedule, sports and extra-curricular activities are enough for any 16-year-old, but now there’s also the added pressure of applying to college. It’s a lot to manage. Maybe too much. He repeatedly tells me he has it all under control, and it seems like he mostly does, but it’s a parent’s job to worry. I want to ensure he’s also taking care of the most valuable and important part of the whole equation—himself.

I need him to understand that with a lifetime of deadlines and stress ahead, his body and brain need time to unwind and breathe—that it’s not only OK, it’s necessary. So, while I can, I’m coddling him a little and giving him a break when he—in his own way—tells me that he needs one; reminding him that while it’s great to shoot for the stars, swinging on one every once in a while isn’t too bad either. 

Sleep, my child. The world can wait.

A boy sleeping in bed underneath a blanket
Photo credit: Courtesy of Alisa Schindler

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Published June 4th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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