11/05/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Kids Are Not Alright

Generally, I believe worry is a waste of time and energy. For nearly 20 years I battled what was probably an anxiety disorder disguised as perfectionism, so I know what a happiness-killer anxiety is, so I rarely write posts that will make parents more anxious about their children or parenting. But, I am worried about my children and their friends. It would be irresponsible of me to tell you that our kids are alright. Many are not.

I've just returned from a board meeting at a highly selective prep school that is fending off the "specialization ethos" that dominates the culture of higher education -- the notion, created by the astoundingly competitive college selection process, that kids should not necessarily be well-rounded, but that they should have specialized, honed and unique talents by the time they reach puberty. It isn't enough to be a varsity soccer player or elite cellist anymore; kids need to be the best striker in town or to have played at Carnegie Hall.

Pressuring our children to specialize young, to achieve, to compete with more and more kids for few spots at elite colleges is soul-crushing for them. It destroys the peer culture so important to teens; it ingrains cliques; it heightens their stress. Consider:

-Kids are increasingly self-medicating to deal with the pressure. The Monitoring the Future survey of U.S. secondary school students found that forty percent of high-school students reported using a drug or drugs in the past 12 months. The 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found 31% of kids between the ages of 18 and 21 reported "binge drinking" -- having five or more drinks on one occasion -- in the last month.

-Thirteen to 24 percent of high school students cut or injure themselves deliberately. Self-injury is a distressingly common way for kids to express emotional pain and relieve stress and anxiety.

-According to ANAD, a quarter of college-age women binge and purge to "control their weight" (binge eating and then vomiting is a sign of the eating disorder bulimia). Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

-A nationwide survey of college students at two- and four-year institutions found that nearly 30 percent of college students felt "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time in the past year." About 10 percent of college students have thought seriously about committing suicide or have made a plan to do so.

When we pressure children to achieve, we cut them off from their sources of inspiration, their passions and their natural curiosity. They don't grow up to love learning but instead are schooled in how to game tests and make the grade. This does not make their lives meaningful, or happy.

College-bound kids graduate from high-school knowing very well what is expected of them by others. They know that dad wants them to play lacrosse and mom wants them to be a lawyer, but they don't actually know who they are, or what they want for themselves.

Here is my advice for raising kids who don't fall into the large minority of kids that is really struggling: Don't just worry, do something.

Focus on building skills for happiness, resilience and character (that is what this whole blog, and my entire career, is dedicated to). If you have teenagers, develop an understanding of what teens really need to lead meaningful and happy lives (this will be the subject of my next post).

Finally, redefine success as more than achievement. Think about fostering real mastery in areas where your kids indicate interests (read about the growth mindset, for example). Teach your children what really leads to happiness and fulfillment in life, and parent toward that.

Do you worry about your kids developing depression, an anxiety or eating disorder or self-harming? Why do you worry? If you don't worry, why don't you?

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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