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Here’s How to Raise Healthy, Well-Adjusted Teens

Start with caring.

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What children in this country are “at-risk”? Not just the children you might think. According to a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, a new group of students is at-risk: students in high-achieving schools. Despite living in more affluent communities and attending more well-resourced schools, these children are suffering from a range of emotional and ethical troubles at high rates, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and delinquency — troubles that appear to be directly associated with intense achievement pressure (Luthar, S. and Becker, B.).

How can parents help these teens be healthier and more well-adjusted?

There’s no simple answer. But a big part of the solution is guiding children in developing caring, respectful relationships. Research suggests that these relationships are our most vital and durable source of well-being throughout our lives (Valliant) [1] and are crucial to teens’ healthy development in particular. When children are taught how to develop caring relationships they are also developing social and emotional capacities — including self-awareness, empathy, and curiosity — that a good deal of research suggests are at the heart of well-being and achievement and professional success (Turning the Tide 2). On the other hand, when parents focus on a narrow version of achievement — on grades and test scores — it crowds out attention to these social and emotional capacities. Ironically, this makes it less likely that children will achieve.

What can parents and other adults do to cultivate children’s capacity to care? They can start by prioritizing caring in their day-to-day interactions with their children. In 2013, Making Caring Common, the project we lead at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, asked 10,000 youth nationwide to identify their priority from this list: “achieving at a high level,” “being happy,” or “caring for others.” Eighty percent of teens chose achievement or happiness first; only 20% chose caring for others. As one young person told us, “If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.”

Moreover, there’s a gap between parents’ rhetoric and teens’ reality. While the majority of adults we surveyed as well as other research indicates that parents prioritize caring over achievement in child-raising, 80% of the youth we surveyed reported that their parents were more concerned about their achievement or happiness than about whether they cared for others. Teens are picking up on the hidden curriculum, on the implicit messages parents send when conversations about school are almost entirely conversations about grades, when dinners are devoted to flashing vocabulary cards to prepare for the SAT, or when talk about attending selective colleges begins in ninth grade. It’s vital that we as parents are alert to the ways in which we may unwittingly demote and devalue caring in our teens’ lives.

This is not to say that achievement, hard work, and happiness aren’t important values — they certainly are. But balance is key. Teens should be expected to pitch in around the house, help neighbors, and engage in community service, and they should be given opportunities to balance their academic and extracurricular pursuits with time to relax, nurture relationships with friends and family, and, yes, to play. Parents should also be focused on healthy forms of achievement, on meaningful learning, rather than on their children amassing long lists of accomplishments. Meaningful academic engagement appears to be key to gratification and success in college and career (Challenge Success, Fit Over Rankings). On the other hand, it can be emotionally disastrous when achievement is driven by the fear of failure or the prospective shame of disappointing parents with high expectations (Miller, A [2], Weissbourd, 2009 [3]).

So where do parents of anxious teens start? Making Caring Common has developed a “red flags” resource for parents who might be worried that their teens are suffering from high levels of achievement-related stress, as well as a “time management” resource to help diagnose schedule-related stresses. Challenge Success also has useful resources for parents and schools on dialing down excessive achievement pressure. Our Turning the Tide reports (parts one and two) offer suggestions for parents for putting children’s character and well-being at the center of a healthier, more sane college admissions process. And parents with children of all ages can use our “7 Tips for Raising Caring Kids” as guideposts for raising empathic and ethical children who grow into caring, well-adjusted, and justice-minded adults.

[1] Valliant, G. (2012). Triumphs of experience: The men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

[2] Miller, A. (1997). The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[3] Weissbourd, R. (2009). The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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