02/16/2016 01:44 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2017

Reclaiming High School Students' Health and Happiness

This is the season of rescheduled and missed psychotherapy appointments. Teens in my practice are busy studying for midterms, finishing the last of their college apps, frantically prepping to raise their ACT scores and, especially, getting sick. When they do come in they look so ashen, exhausted, and congested they should be at home under the covers.

Sure, these kids are striving to get into the best possible colleges. But what are families willing to sacrifice for this goal? With the stresses teens experience today, fatigue, colds, and flus are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Sleep Deprivation

When I ask assemblies of students about their sleep habits, only a few get the recommended 8 to 10 hours per night. Days are so filled with classes, clubs, auditions, practices, games, recitals, and tutoring that many teens are up doing homework until midnight or later and then check out social media before bed. Struggling to get up for school, they go through their days like zombies.

Exhausted students get sick, can't think clearly, and make more mistakes. They also can't cope as well. As I wrote in a recent blog a new study finds that poorly sleeping students overreact to stressful situations (as measured by cortisol levels in their saliva). Chronic stress results in compromised immunity and innumerable, long-term serious health problems.

Disheartened and Disengaged

Just as worrisome, although teens are determinedly busy too many are unhappy, if not utterly miserable; they dread or hate school. Facing seemingly endless piles of homework, projects, and anxiety-provoking tests extinguishes their intellectual curiosity and love of learning.

As they go through the motions, doing the minimum to get by, teens have neither the inclination nor the time to pursue what truly intrigues them. In fact, because they haven't had enough downtime to self-reflect, they may not even know what they're passionate about.

Without self-direction, they're overwhelmed by the choices suddenly available to them in college. And without the wherewithal to perfect their study skills, they're unprepared for higher-level academic demands. These are just some of the reasons I'm seeing so many college students return home after dropping out or flunking out.

Effects on Family Life

The achievement rat race is affecting entire families. Parents yearn to be closer to teens who are rarely home yet, even when they are, hole up in their rooms doing work. If families do eat dinner together, talk too often turns to whether homework and college tasks were done.

Such "nagging," as teens describe it, raises their anxiety and alienates rather than motivates them. Time and again, they complain that their parents aren't interested in them, just their college processes. Ironically, despite all that parental attention teens feel neglected--at least emotionally.

So they avoid their parents. Cherished moments--pleasurable hanging out, spontaneous exchanges, laughter--are lost in the achievement shuffle. Caring mothers and fathers are bewildered and hurt by their teens' withdrawal and resent what they see as a lack of gratitude. Everyone suffers.

Toward a Solution

When I meet with parents, I encourage them to reexamine what they really value and how they define success. What are they willing to sacrifice?

I advocate for lifestyles balanced with work, play, socializing, and rest, which are not only healthier but also make room for vital family time. When parents can support teens without becoming overly invested in their college journeys, they foster closer parent-teen relationships. When kids go off to college, parents less often regret how they spent their last few months together.

This may sound good, but parents are reluctant to do anything they believe could weaken their teens' chances for college acceptance.

Support from Educators

Finally, support from educators may be on the horizon. The New York Times recently reported that about 80 educators nationwide, including high-level officials at major U.S. universities, are endorsing an educational initiative, "Turning the Tide," that aims to reform college admissions. The proposal suggests relying less on anxiety-provoking standardized tests and more on "teens demonstrating a passion for learning and long-term volunteer projects."

This initiative proposes that college admissions start asking applicants to write about two or three extracurricular activities rather than providing long lists of their sports and clubs. It also advocates making standardized tests optional or limiting students from taking them more than twice.


Whether this proposal gains traction, parents can take these guideline to heart and use them to benefit their own teens and families right now. During high school, it's far wiser for teens to grow themselves than their college resumes. Parents need to emphasize strong values, self-knowledge, social awareness, and academic skills, which allow students to thrive once they get to college--and ultimately to become healthy, contented, and high functioning young adults.