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Duck Syndrome: How to Help Your Stressed-Out Teen

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"Duck syndrome" was first identified by Stanford University in reference to its incoming freshmen. Like a duck gliding peacefully along the water but paddling frantically underneath, Stanford freshmen tried in earnest to appear at ease despite real internal chaos associated with the increased demands of college life and the pressure to fit in socially and academically.

Recently, some attention has been given to the notion that duck syndrome may begin in high school. As one who works extensively with teenagers, I can verify this is true. But why?

So far as the tendency to be overinvolved and overwhelmed with school and social life, I don't suspect that teenagers today are fundamentally different than those from 10 or 20 years ago -- too much pressure on a foundation has always resulted in cracks.

Yet, I suspect there are at least two cultural changes that do make teens today feel these pressures more acutely:

1. The Educational Crisis

One can barely engage media these days without hearing some news about the U.S. "educational crisis," where experts cite convincing statistics that demonstrate certain schools or school districts are grossly behind others, or worse yet, all U.S. schools are substantially behind foreign schools. And don't look now, but for years still others have reminded us that since the economy is down, education is more important than ever.

News pundits and motivated political parties spout off their polarizing beliefs about why all this is the case, and it just looks like a bloody mess by the end. In turn, we feel anxious, and impress upon our teenagers just what's at stake with every decision they make. But it's reasonable to assume that teens absorb more than just our admonitions. Anxiety is contagious.

2. I Don't Feel as Good as You Look (on Facebook)

Like the rest of us, teens suffer from a healthy bit of "My Insides vs. Your Outsides" comparison/contrast. This is the phenomenon where persons compare the way they feel to the way others appear.

For example, "Today I felt very sad. When I passed a couple laughing together on the way to work, I thought, 'Why am I not that happy?'"

While it is certainly possible that the laughing couple was in fact more happy of course, we don't know how they really feel, and people who look happy aren't always. (I know -- I'm a therapist.)

But the "my insides vs. your outsides" phenomenon takes on new meaning for teens reared in the digital age.

We stop in the middle of otherwise chaotic lives to snap still pictures with iPhones, apply Instagram filters to make our rainy days look sunny, and add captions that hide context more than they reveal it.

As a result, teens have an increasingly unrealistic standard to which they compare themselves. "Look at all her pictures on Facebook. She looks so happy! What's wrong with me?" Multiply this times 100 sent and received text messages and other social media interactions per day, and it's really no big shocker that the CDC's semi-annual survey recently found that 1 in 12 kids has attempted suicide.

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But it doesn't have to be this way, and parents can head this off at the pass. A host of kids pass through high school and college life unscathed. Here are two suggestions for parents looking to keep their ducks afloat.

1. Intentional Family Values

We all have "family values." These are the beliefs we hold about the important issues of life. These come from our parents, our grandparents, our education, our social and economic class, our racial and ethnic identities, our religious and spiritual systems, and more.

Most families rarely communicate these to each other intentionally, but instead do so in the form of unspoken expectations. By failing to address them more overtly, family members struggle when looking to one another as a source of clarification, and can instead find family to be a source of anxiety and confusion.

The families I work with who've been most successful in navigating duck syndrome in their own teenagers make an intentional effort to communicate their family values directly and overtly, through an intentional series of formal and informal communications with one another. And to adjust those values as needed to guide everyone toward health.

Corny as it may sound, regular family meetings are usually very helpful to this end. But consistent dialogue in car rides and evening walks can help too.

As it relates to duck syndrome in teens, here are just a few specific questions to talk through.

Ask yourselves, as a family...

  • What do we believe defines success, and is there room for failure?
  • What is the importance of popularity?
  • What constitutes an appropriate work ethic?
  • To what extent is each of these things is informed by other factors such as moral and spiritual integrity, healthy balance, and deciding between alternatives?

2. What You Do is as Important as What You Say

It's difficult to assure your teenager that what's of paramount importance is to strike a healthy work-family balance when you are at the office 80 hours a week. It's difficult to convince them that social acceptance doesn't trump ethics when they see you sacrifice your integrity to get ahead in church or civic leadership. Modeling matters.

So during family discussions and during regular ol' life, pay as much attention to what you're doing as to what you're saying. And be sure to involve the kids in an ongoing dialogue rather than lecture. While parents are often the primary vehicle for family ideals, kids are usually instrumental in helping families bear in mind reality, or the extent to which everyone is living up to the family standards. When one or more members of the family isn't, rather than coercing or blaming, families can learn to help each other get back on track, or adjust the standards.

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All of this is much easier said than done, and most families struggle, even with well-adjusted parents and kids. Don't buy into the myth that kids don't listen to parents. It just ain't true, and a bunch of research says so.

But if you need some help with all of these, recognize that counseling isn't just for the wackos. Often the biggest hurdle to helping struggling teens and families is a sense of denial or pride regarding fully admitting that family doesn't fully know how to help.

Parents who bring themselves, their families, or their teens to counseling are usually very skilled people, and are very intuitive about everyone's needs. In fact, it is precisely that intuition that leads wise parents to seek professional counseling services when they reach an impasse.

Getting "stuck" is normal, and so is asking for help! Isn't that precisely what we want our little ducks to know?