The Childhood Pressure Cooker

Are you pushing your kids so hard they’re in danger of cracking under the pressure? Todd Patkin, author of the new book Finding Happiness, wants you to take a serious look at the demands you’re placing on them. He offers parents some practical tips you can use right now to help overstressed, overscheduled, overwhelmed kids create happier, healthier, more balanced lives.

Any parent with a child out of elementary school knows that we live in an achievement-obsessed, ultra-competitive education culture. From government-mandated standardized test scores to “tiger parents” to college admissions requirements, our kids are facing immense pressure to perform. For many students, every minute of the day is devoted to school, studying, homework, and other “necessary” activities ranging from sports to service work-to the exclusion of free time and fun. There’s a great deal of fear from parents that their kids just won’t be able to compete…and kids themselves are at risk of being overwhelmed by what’s expected of them.

According to Todd Patkin, this high-stakes, high-pressure achievement culture might not be as beneficial to our kids as we think. We may not only be pushing our children to excel-in many cases, we’re pushing them over the edge too.

“Of course we want our children to lead fulfilled, successful lives, but subjecting them to relentless academic and extracurricular pressure is not the way,” says Patkin, author of the new book “Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and-Finally-Let the Sunshine In,” “A lot of parents must know it’s not right that their kids are so overstressed, but they have gotten just as caught up in it as their kids.”

Patkin speaks from experience-as a child and teenager he was obsessed with achievement at school and suffered from regular bouts of anxiety that stemmed from his desire for perfection. As an adult, Patkin’s unhealthy focus on doing and being the best caused him to suffer a breakdown at the age of thirty-six. Since then, he has re-evaluated his priorities as well as what truly makes people happy and unhappy.

“As the parent of a teenage son, I still have a personal stake in the well-being of America’s students, and I have seen firsthand just how oppressive our current system can be when the emphasis is on outcomes instead of on *true* education,” Patkin points out. “So many teens today are under the immense pressure I once felt-pressure to succeed, pressure to get the best grades, pressure to be accepted to a ‘good’ college, and more. Too many of them are burning out and making self-destructive decisions, and it’s our responsibility as parents and citizens to start to force a cultural change in America.”

It’s true: across our country, there’s an epidemic of teens and even pre-teens suffering from anxiety and depression, cutting themselves, and using prescription medications just to get through their day-to-day lives. Also, kids are drinking to excess and doing drugs on the weekends in order to escape this incredible pressure, even if only for one night. Most worrying, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens. Sixty percent say they’ve thought about it, and 9 percent of high schoolers admit they’ve attempted it at least once.

“Those realities are absolutely unacceptable,” Patkin insists. “If we truly have our children’s well-being at heart, we need to face the fact that forcing them into a mold of perfection isn’t working. If we really want our kids to grow up to be capable, creative, and inspired problem solvers, we need to focus less on their scores and grades and more on their happiness. It’s not going to be the experts who lead the way on this one-it will be ordinary people changing what we are doing in our homes.”

If the reality of disengaged kids heading for burnout sounds worryingly familiar to you, this is the school year to start doing things differently. Read on for fourteen tips to help you get started:

  • Realize you are doing damage. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed-it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat himself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied with his performance.
  • Accept that not all kids are the same. This fact is pretty obvious, but at times most parents could use the reminder. After all, who hasn’t said something along the lines of: “Your big sister took pre-calculus her junior year; so should you”? Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ children.
  • Be willing to let some things go. All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. Especially in today’s culture, it’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so take time to evaluate what expectations are actually realistic and what achievements are really important.
  • Seek balance and happiness. Seeking balance and happiness for your child goes hand in hand with letting the little things go. Again, every individual has different strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important for parents to have a good feel for what these are in their children so that expectations and requirements are reasonable.
  • Get help if it is needed. You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.
  • Teach kids to be easier on themselves. In any given middle or high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life.
  • Discourage overscheduling. Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be sixteen (or more)-hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected.
  • Discuss perceived stress vs. what is real. Stress and anxiety are insidious: once they take root in your mind, they tend to grow and spread. It’s all too easy for every waking moment to be consumed by fretting about what might happen or go wrong in the future. That’s why it’s very important to talk with your teen about what is stressing him out and to help him determine which worries are productive and which aren’t.
  • Help kids live in the present. If your child spends most of her time thinking about what she could have done better in the past or stressing about what might go wrong in the future, she’ll miss out on actually living her life. (This is a problem that plagues plenty of adults too!) To cut back on stress, help your teen to focus her attention on all of the good things in her life right now.
  • Focus on the importance of organization. The fact is, knowing exactly where everything is, what needs to be done, and the best way to do it never hurt anyone. Teach your children to keep an updated calendar, to make thorough to-do lists, and to keep their school papers in order-even if they don’t think they need to. Being organized will make them more efficient and will cut out quite a bit of needless worry along the lines of “I forget what I’m supposed to do for history class tonight!”
  • Teach kids to take advantage of the most efficient times of their day. Survey a group of high-performing high school students, and most of them will probably tell you that their afternoons and nights are totally consumed by sports practice, school meetings, homework, etc. Chances are, these same kids are also utterly exhausted. As a parent, you might not be able to significantly decrease your child’s workload, but you *can* help him to work as efficiently as possible.
  • Help kids work toward the big things. You don’t want your kids to make themselves sick over things like end-of-year exams or college applications, but at the same time, they can’t ignore these big tasks altogether and live a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna existence. Help them learn to approach major milestones with a plan and a realistic perspective that won’t give them ulcers.
  • Promote exercise. This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys.
  • Encourage kids to spend time with positive people. Your teen’s friends might be good kids, but if they’re constantly worrying about grades, tests, and what they need to improve on, their conversation topics probably aren’t adding to your child’s quality of life; instead, she’s probably picking up these unhealthy attitudes herself. While no child wants to hear from her parents that she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, you can encourage her to spend time with people who approach life with positive attitudes and healthy perspectives.”You must realize that we all tend to be the average of the five people we spend the most time with when it comes to our attitudes and outlooks,” Patkin shares. “So gently encourage your child to spend time with peers, as well as teachers and other mentors, who are positive influences. This is also something you can model yourself. Stop having gripe-fests at the kitchen table with your own friends if you want your child to spend more time around happy people!”

    “Always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success,” Patkin concludes. “Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important-but not at the price of your child’s well-being.”

    About the Author:

    Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.

    About the Book: Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and-Finally-Let the Sunshine In(StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and at