Over the past five years at CRYSC, I’ve seen, heard, and learned more than you would ever be interested in reading. While I’ve made countless mistakes and taken several missteps (a far more entertaining read), I also know that I have made a positive impact on people within and adjacent to our organization. That impact, though, has always existed against a stark backdrop: The nagging feeling like I am not doing enough for our kids. The reason? An inescapable theme brought to me time and again. Kids tell me they are stressed. Coaches tell me kids are soft. Parents tell me kids are struggling. Whatever the label – this is clearly a problem.
While these reports reflect the reality of a country in the throes of a youth mental health crisis, I remain irked by the why. For some kids, the why has been identified and well-studied. Due to circumstances beyond their control (extreme poverty, daily violence, significant trauma, acute discrimination, etc.), a subset of our kiddos fall into identified at-risk groups for poor mental health. I am immensely grateful for the impactful work being done on behalf of those children by the highly capable practitioners with specialized training in those areas.
I am also very aware, though, that many kids who report high anxiety, depression, disordered eating, or substance use exist outside those at-risk groups. Many come from environments and households that are stable, safe, and reasonably affluent; a set of circumstances that, until recently, garnered far less interest and attention from researchers. In my view, a struggling kid is a struggling kid, and we are equally responsible for gaining a better understanding of why these seemingly well-set-up kids are reporting such alarming levels of distress.
While reading Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s (JBW) recent book, Never Enough, I came across a rather convincing potential answer to this puzzling paradox. Why are so many kids who are not at-risk struggling so much, on and off the field? What can we, as coaches and caregivers, do to help them? To explore these important questions, I invite us all to take a deeper look at the realities and impact of today’s insidious achievement culture.
The Air Kids Breathe
Whether it be in conversation – with staff, membership, my mother – a podcast, or a recent academic article, the arguments I hear for the why behind the serious wellness issues facing today’s more privileged youth often fall into three categories:
- It’s the parenting: Parents are either too involved in their kids’ lives, doing everything they can to clear their path and make life easy, OR they are applying too much pressure, and looking to live out their own unactualized dreams through their children.
- It’s the environment: The systems and the people within them are the problem. Whether it be sport or school, coaches and teachers are asking far too much of today’s kids. The time, the effort, the money, the travel – it’s all stretching our kids way too thin.
- It’s the internet: Social media and unlimited access to information is always to blame for everything, period, end of story.
I’m not here to dismiss the merit of these arguments. Rather, I’m here to implore us to stop getting so caught up in them. By spending so much time placing blame, we impede our ability to gain a full understanding of the issue at hand, and slow our progress in creating meaningful change for our kids. And make no mistake, it is our collective responsibility as adults to work together to make that change.
In truth, I’ve seen many kids whose parents don’t subscribe to zamboni or high-pressure parenting, whose coaches don’t hold outlandish standards for performance or commitment, and who, themselves, have a healthy relationship with technology. And yet: They still struggle. It is as if there is something in the very air that our kids breathe that is rewiring them for lower resilience and poorer well-being. And none of our kids are immune. Because, as it turns out, many likely fall into a recently identified, and rather surprising, at-risk group, after all.
In considering the top environmental conditions negatively impacting adolescent mental wellness, public health and policy experts at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlighted poverty, trauma, discrimination, and excessive pressure to excel. Many researchers and psychologists have since echoed this, discovering that what can place a child at-risk for clinically high levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse is growing up in an environment of unrelenting pressure to succeed. Needless to say, such environments add yet another layer of stress for already at-risk kids.
No matter our intentions, the trends are clear: Kids in high-achievement contexts (like competitive schools or sport clubs) are “absorbing the idea that their worth is contingent on their performance…not who they are deep at their core. They feel they only matter to adults in their lives, their peers, and their larger community if they are successful.” This permeating belief is what transforms a culture of healthy striving and achievement into a toxic one. In her surveys, JBW found that more than 70% of young adults thought their parents “valued and appreciated” them more when they were successful in work and school (with 50% going so far as to say they thought their parents loved them more). Those are tough statistics to swallow.
But, if toxic achievement culture is the contaminated air that our kids are breathing, why is it impacting today’s youth so acutely? And what can we do to safeguard against it?
The Bigger Picture
The best solution to a multifaceted problem requires a deep understanding of the source of the issue. After reading quite a bit of literature on the topic, I can confidently share this: The source of this issue is reeeeal complex. Astute takeaway, I know. Until you dive into the literature, yourself (which I’d highly recommend), you’ll have to make do with my rather pedestrian synopsis.
I’m no economist (shocking, I know), but this is what I’ve gleaned: Compared to forty years ago, the world is far more expensive (duh), more uncertain (yep), and more competitive (tracks). These obvious realities are leading to an increasing economic divide, greater feelings of scarcity, and concerns about status, than ever before. And yes, these feelings are undoubtedly compounded by social media. Consider this: Unlike past generations, two-thirds of Americans no longer believe that steady improvement over a generation is a given. That fundamental difference in outlook seems supported by the data, as Millennials, on average, have lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth compared to what other generations had at their age.
Please note that, here, your Millennial author had to take an extended break from crafting this blog in order to digest that rather upsetting piece of information. But it’s fine. We’re fine.
Ahem. Where was I…nothing is certain, everyone is coming for you, this cheese costs twelve dollars…oh right, the kids! Thanks to the internet, today’s kids also have a far greater awareness of these factors. Statistics on everything from declining college admission rates to rising sports participation costs to perceived social standing are only a click away. This access to intel gives kids even more reasons to stress, and stress early.
And, a final piece that many psychologists and researchers label as critical: The increasingly narrow definition of “success” set by the communities of which we are a part. More than ever before, success (especially in more affluent spaces) looks a very specific way, and is achieved by following a strict path – do X activities, go to Y college, get Z job. You get the idea.
Taking all of this into consideration, it is no wonder that parents and kids alike are feeling the heat. The overinvolved parenting, the high self-imposed expectations, the overscheduling, are all natural responses to significantly changing economic conditions. When the perception, accurate or not, is that there are fewer tracks that lead to “success”, fewer trains on said tracks, and, in order to get a ticket, you have to know all of the right people and do all of the right things from day zero with little to no margin for error (whew), the queue is bound to get pretty wild.
Now…what exactly are we going to do about it?
The Mattering Linchpin
Let’s remember: High achievement is not the enemy. There is no doubt that we want our kids to strive, meet their potential, and achieve whatever they set their minds to. And most of our kids want that, too! The name of the game is healthy achievement. What sets apart the kids who enjoy high achievement and high wellness? Per the research, they experience high levels of mattering.
Mattering captures the feeling of both being valued without condition and adding value to others. High levels of mattering protect against stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, while a lack of mattering is a strong predictor of these metrics, along with substance use and suicide. Again, it’s important not to over-personalize this. In many cases, parents/coaches don’t overtly communicate that kids don’t matter; it is simply in the air that many of our kids breathe. The good news? Mattering is incredibly actionable.*
Consider these ideas:
- Put on Your Oxygen Mask First: Our kids’ mattering rests on our own. Decades of research make it crystal clear that a child’s resilience depends on their primary caregiver’s resilience. To be good parents, we have to have the emotional and physical resources to do so. We have to take care of ourselves, primarily through meaningful connections. Adults: Go play with your friends!
- Understanding Over Judgment: A majority of people would rather be known than praised. To boost mattering, meet success and setbacks with less praise and criticism, and more curiosity. It’s ok to be disappointed/excited when kids don’t/do meet expectations, but instead of jumping to critique/praise them, seek to understand where things went wrong/right.
- Take a Values Inventory: Many adults don’t think that they’re overemphasizing achievement. But take a step back, and look at what the structure of your life is communicating to your kids about what matters most. How do you spend your money on your kids? What activities fill their calendar? What do you ask your kids about? What do you argue with your kids about? What do you put on your wall (virtual and literal)? Many of us are surprised by what we find.
- Take the Kettle Off the Heat: Paraphrasing JBW, if it looks like a kid is at risk of drowning, give them permission to get out of the water. If they can’t do it themselves, pull them out. Even if they argue that you are limiting them, be willing to say no – to the extra AP class, added training, or new extracurricular. Sometimes it isn’t about working hard or doing more. Kids in these environments know how to work hard.** What they need to learn is when to stop. When to pump the brakes. When the best thing they can do for themselves is accept something as good enough.
- Ask Kids to Add Value: Kids need to feel that they add value (to their home, team, community) just as much as they need to feel valued. Give them a weekly chore, or practice responsibility. Volunteer on a regular basis. Directly communicate how their presence and contribution are needed by others.
- Be a Team: For us to create true change for our kids, adults have to work together. It can’t be parents v. coaches or school systems v. kids. It has to be all of us v. the problem. Work with the other adults in your child’s life; I assure you, we are almost always on the same team.
It’s On Us
In the time I have spent preparing this blog, it’s extraordinary the things that I have heard more clearly: One of my sixth grade clients’ passing mention of a “post-high school success” class they started this semester. A teen at Panera Bread asking their friend group, “So, what are the GPAs around the table?” A parent at my local coffee shop venting about their fourth grader’s lack of personal agency with her schoolwork.
There is nothing wrong with wanting our kids to achieve. Heck, a self-labeled high-achiever is penning this very blog! With that, to safeguard our kids’ health and wellness, we must be aware of the air they are breathing. Today’s hustle, grind, work-hard/play-hard culture makes many kids feel that they are not worthy and valuable as themselves until they actively make something of themselves. It’s on us, the team of adults in our kids’ lives, to intentionally send the messages of mattering – through our words and our actions – that better equip our youth to thrive. As is often the case, I leave us with plenty of work to do. So, let’s get to it.
If you found this blog interesting, I’d highly recommend checking out Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It, for a fuller understanding and more insights. As of this publication, it’s free with Spotify Premium!
*In addition to these more novel action items, previously addressed practices for safety and connection, like managing responses to failure, modeling vulnerability, and practicing gratitude, are all relevant here.
**Notably, from JBW: “In communities where the norm is to push and push and push, experts say a growth mindset, if not employed correctly, can backfire…Kids can wrongly assume that if they aren’t being successful, they aren’t trying hard enough.” As you can imagine, this outlook can turn dangerous, quick.