By Mary Niederberger, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When is enough, well, enough?
For teens in the race to try to get into the colleges of their choice, the decision can be excruciating, the process exhausting. There’s always one more Advanced Placement course to squeeze in, one additional activity or sport to add to the list. And then there’s community service and part-time jobs to consider as well.
“I feel like I should challenge myself as much as possible,” said Marika Countouris, 17, a junior at Woodland Hills High School who is taking three advanced placement courses — English, calculus and U.S. history — and is a member of the marching band, on the swim team and has a lead in the school musical. She also takes private voice and piano lessons and sings with her church choir.
“You never know if you are looking at a college and there could be that one person they are looking at and it’s either you or them and they have that one more activity than you and they get in,” Marika said.
As high-achieving students push themselves further and further, parents, educators, counselors and physicians find themselves questioning: How much is too much?
Balance, not burnout
The issue was the topic of a panel discussion last month at Mt. Lebanon High School, which held a forum called “Striking a Balance: Helping our kids thrive, not just survive.”
The panel included professionals and students who gave their views to an audience of parents and community members.
The point of the discussion was to try to figure out the balancing act between pushing students hard enough to succeed but not so hard that they crack.
The discussion followed an airing last spring by the PTA council of the film “Race to Nowhere,” which depicts the hectic lifestyle of American teens as they strive to be the best in academics, athletics and other areas, while sometimes burning themselves out in the process.
“Do kids need to compete in a complex world, yes. But at what cost? There’s always a balance to be struck,” said Jeff Longo, student assistance program coordinator at North Allegheny Senior High School and a counselor at Outreach Teen & Family Services Inc.
Mr. Longo and other educators said that some students can easily handle multiple advanced classes and activities and athletics. But others cannot — and should not feel the pressure to do so at any cost.
Jennifer Winge, dean of admissions at The College of Wooster and a member of the Mt. Lebanon panel, said she understands the mixed messages teens are getting about college acceptance. She said while most colleges look for students who have succeeded in rigorous academic programs, they aren’t necessarily looking for a laundry list of activities.
“I ask the students what was their most meaningful activity,” Ms. Winge said. “I say tell me about your involvement with that organization.”
However, she noted that the Common Application — a college application used by more than 400 colleges, including the Ivy League and other exclusive colleges — used to have four lines for activities and now has 10 lines.
“There is pressure to fill those spaces,” she said.
Marika said she put the pressure on herself, starting in about eighth grade, when she decided she wanted to major in musical theater in college and wanted to get into a good school. She said her parents sometimes worry about her packed schedule, and she admits that she often feels overwhelmed but said she reminds herself that her extraordinary efforts will pay off.
Jonathan Pletcher, clinical director of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, said students such as Marika, who are self-motivated, are an exception.
Dr. Pletcher said he sees stressed-out teens daily and he believes the root of the problem lies in the fact that teens are trying to meet expectations set by their parents, peers or society.
“My experience is it’s quite the exception that the teen is motivated themselves and it’s not some outside force,” Dr. Pletcher said. “If not parents, it’s the media, community or other teens who reinforce the message that students need to compete to be the best, not only in academics but in many other areas as well. It may be about winning the dance competition or getting onto that travel basketball team.”
At the Mt. Lebanon panel discussion, high school teachers Tom Jackson and Dan Petrich talked about pressure in the community that compels parents and their children to get involved in numerous activities and to excel in academics.
“It’s hard to live in a community and make independent decisions because you hear parents talking about how many activities their kids are involved with,” said Mr. Petrich, a father of three who lives in Mt. Lebanon.
In addition, he said the wide array of AP classes offered at the high school prompts students to feel pressure to take all of them. “We want to offer courses that are challenging to kids, but if kids feel the obligation to take all of them, no one can sustain that,” he said.
Students on the panel said in most cases they have made the choices that have loaded their schedules and they’ve watched their peers do the same. Pressure from their parents comes into the equation when parents try to manage the students’ progress or performance in the courses and activities they’ve chosen, the students said.
“Parents need to stop freaking out all of the time about everything and save the freakouts for the big stuff,” said Emma Pellicano, a Mt. Lebanon senior, who is taking two AP courses, is a standout on the girls basketball team and plans to attend Allegheny College.
Emma and classmates Zeke Kaplan and Nate Bateman said one of the biggest stresses for students is the constant attention that parents pay to grades. Online programs allow instant access to grades as soon as they are posted by teachers, and parents often see their children’s grades before the students do.
Zeke, Nate and Emma said parents should not “freak out” about one bad grade but instead give their teens the chance to work their way back to a better overall grade in the course.
Mr. Jackson agreed with the students about online grade posting.
“Kids don’t have time to fix their own problems,” he said. “There’s less places for them to hide.”
The backdrop to the academic pressures are the social pressures students feel to fit in, be considered “cool” and be accepted.
Zeke, who is editor-in-chief of the high school literary magazine, said sometimes social pressure is more intense than the academic pressure and sometimes it comes more from parents than peers. He said social pressure causes students to drink or try drugs to fit into a popular crowd.
“I definitely think that if you were desperate to be cool then you could start up the party lifestyle, and I feel as though the parents are in many cases the ones partially to blame,” Zeke said.
Dr. Pletcher and Mr. Longo said they both have seen students who engage in risky behaviors with drugs and alcohol to be accepted into socially popular groups. But they’ve also seen teens who abuse drugs and alcohol to withstand the pressure of their schedules and the expectations they face.
They cited the use by teens of prescription drugs Adderall and Ritalin, which are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but provide enhanced energy when used by those not diagnosed with the disorder. They’ve also seen teens using alcohol and marijuana as stress relievers.
“Marijuana is alive and well, I can tell you that,” Mr. Longo said.
Take time, step back
Both Mr. Longo and Dr. Pletcher said they believe teaching teens to live a balanced lifestyle will better prepare them for college and life than a hectic lifestyle packed beyond their capabilities. Both suggest parents and students take time to evaluate their schedules and to choose coursework and activities that are meaningful and challenging — but not burdensome.
“There is no manual on this. Parents need to be in tune with their kids,” Mr. Longo said. “They need to learn how to push, but not too much.”
And, they said, parents need to learn to let their children fail. Both the adults and teens on the Mt. Lebanon panel agreed.
“We don’t need to be nagged about things we know we need to do, like college applications and school projects,” Emma said. “Even if it means I have to stay up most of the night to meet a deadline. I’ve learned from that. The next morning isn’t too much fun.”
One mother who has learned to back off is Terri Kisan, a McKeesport mother of seven who, by her own admission, participated in the rat race with her three older children, ages 20, 18 and 17, by encouraging them to take numerous AP courses for which they received college credit, signing them up for competitive swim leagues from an early age through high school and getting them involved in theater arts and music activities.
But with her four younger children, ages 14. 12, 10 and 8, she’s decided to forgo organized sports, instead encouraging them to play outside with neighbors.
“I pushed to have [the older children] tested for the gifted program and I pushed the AP classes and all of the activities,” she said. “Everybody played basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.” But she started to notice burnout in her children and in her family.
“It just became too much. We were tired. We were up late. We weren’t eating well. So we changed. It was scary at first. I worried that I was depriving them of something,” said Mrs. Kisan, who became a McKeesport Area school director in December.
“The jury is still out, but I think in the end, you get to the same place. You get to wherever you need to be, but I don’t think you have to be busy all day.”