School Stress Takes A Toll On Health, Teens And Parents Say
When high school junior Nora Huynh got her report card, she was devastated to see that she didn't get a perfect 4.0.
Nora "had a total meltdown, cried for hours," her mother, Jennie Huynh of Alameda, Calif., says. "I couldn't believe her reaction."
Nora is doing college-level work, her mother says, but many of her friends are taking enough advanced classes to boost their grade-point averages above 4.0. "It breaks my heart to see her upset when she's doing so awesome and going above and beyond."
And the pressure is taking a physical toll, too. At age 16, Nora is tired, is increasingly irritated with her siblings and often suffers headaches, her mother says.
Parents are right to be worried about stress and their children's health, says Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist in Maryland and public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association.
"A little stress is a good thing," Alvord says. "It can motivate students to be organized. But too much stress can backfire."
Almost 40 percent of parents say their high-schooler is experiencing a lot of stress from school, according to a new NPR poll conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. In most cases, that stress is from academics, not social issues or bullying, the poll found. (See the full results here.)
Homework was a leading cause of stress, with 24 percent of parents saying it's an issue.
Teenagers say they're suffering, too. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of all teens — 45 percent — said they were stressed by school pressures.
Chronic stress can cause a sense of panic and paralysis, Alvord says. The child feels stuck, which only adds to the feeling of stress.
Parents can help put the child's distress in perspective, particularly when they get into what Alvord calls catastrophic "what if" thinking: "What if I get a bad grade, then what if that means I fail the course, then I'll never get into college."
Then move beyond talking and do something about it.
That's what 16-year-old Colleen Frainey of Tualatin, Ore., did. As a sophomore last year, she was taking all advanced courses. The pressure was making her sick. "I didn't feel good, and when I didn't feel good I felt like I couldn't do my work, which would stress me out more," she says.
Mom Abigail Frainey says, "It was more than we could handle as a family."
With encouragement from her parents, Colleen dropped one of her advanced courses. The family's decision generated disbelief from other parents. "Why would I let her take the easy way out?" Abigail Frainey heard.
But she says dialing down on academics was absolutely the right decision for her child. Colleen no longer suffers headaches or stomachaches. She's still in honors courses, but the workload this year is manageable.
Even better, Colleen now has time to do things she never would have considered last year, like going out to dinner with the family on a weeknight, or going to the barn to ride her horse, Bishop.
Psychologist Alvord says a balanced life should be the goal for all families. If a child is having trouble getting things done, parents can help plan the week, deciding what's important and what's optional. "Just basic time management — that will help reduce the stress."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Today in Your Health, two stories looking at how school affects your child's health and well-being. They arise from the findings of a new poll NPR has conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. In our first story, NPR's Patti Neighmond looks at one finding that stands out. More than one-third of parents with children in high school say their child is experiencing a lot of stress, mostly from homework and academic pressure.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Sixteen-year-old Nora Huynh is a junior in high school and was desperate for a 4.0. She knows this is the year everyone says is the make-it-or-break-it year for college.
Nora's mother, Jennifer Huynh.
JENNIFER HUYNH: When she saw that she didn't get a 4.0 because of the B-pluses, she basically had a breakdown, and was crying for hours - literally, hours - about it.
NEIGHMOND: Many of Nora's friends have high GPAs, with honors and advanced courses boosting them to 4.5, 4.6 and higher.
HUYNH: It was just heartbreaking to see her so upset when she'd done so good, in our eyes. To be at the level that she's at already - I mean, she's doing college prep work and she's 16 years old, and she's getting B-pluses and As in that. And that's amazing to us.
NEIGHMOND: In our poll, 1 in 4 parents say their teen is stressed by the amount of homework. Nora spends two to four hours a night on hers, leaving barely enough time for anything else. The pressure is taking a toll. She's tired, easily irritated and suffers headaches.
Psychologist Mary Alvord, with the American Psychological Association, says a little stress is a good thing. It can motivate students to be organized. But too much can backfire.
MARY ALVORD: I think when it's at the extreme and too much stress, there is a certain sense of panic and paralyzation. They just feel like they can't do anything. They're just sort of stuck.
NEIGHMOND: Alvord says parents should be on the lookout for changes in behavior - irritability, upset stomachs and headaches. If your child is very upset, she says, deep breathing and visualizing a peaceful scene - like a beach - helps calm the body and mind. And parents need to put a child's distress in perspective, particularly what Alvord calls catastrophic what-if thinking.
ALVORD: If I get a bad grade, then - you know, what if that means I'll fail the course? If I fail the course, then I'll never get into college.
NEIGHMOND: Remind your child everybody isn't good at everything. Then scrutinize their schedule. Consider cutting back on extracurriculars - like sports, clubs, student council - and think about reducing the number of honors courses. That's what Colleen Frainey did. She was taking all advanced courses when she was a sophomore in high school, and it was making her sick.
COLLEEN FRAINEY: I didn't feel good. And when I didn't feel good, I felt like I couldn't do my work - which would stress me out more.
NEIGHMOND: With encouragement from her parents, Colleen did the unthinkable. She dropped one of her advanced courses. Her mom, Abigail Frainey.
ABIGAIL FRAINEY: We had heard all along that your junior year is your hardest, your junior year is your hardest. It's the most intense. And we thought, how can we handle more intensity than we did in her sophomore year? It's just not what she could handle, or we could handle as a family.
NEIGHMOND: It was a decision questioned by lots of her friends.
ABIGAIL FRAINEY: Why would I allow my daughter to not take the hardest classes? She's bright, and she's intelligent; she can do it. Why would I let her take the easy way out?
NEIGHMOND: But Frainey says it was absolutely the right decision. Colleen no longer suffers headaches or stomachaches. She's still in honors courses, but the workload this year is manageable.
ABIGAIL FRAINEY: This year compared to last year, this year is phenomenal.
NEIGHMOND: Colleen now has time to go out to dinner with her family, or ride her horse. Psychologist Alvord says a balanced life like this is the goal. And if a child is having trouble getting everything done, parents can help them plan.
ALVORD: How are we going to schedule the week? What are you going to do when? And we know, often when we just decide on a plan of action, the stress goes down.
NEIGHMOND: With school projects, help your child break them into smaller steps. Write a paragraph a night; do things ahead of time - basic time management that will help reduce the stress.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.