MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
OF STRESS and RESILIENCE
Fault Lines in the World of Today’s Youth
Academic intelligence offers virtually no preparation for the turmoil—or opportunity—life’s vicissitudes bring.
—DANIEL GOLEMAN, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Carson was the salutatorian of his large public high school, earning the school’s English award and a partial merit scholarship to a top-rated college. He felt proud and enormously relieved. His hard work had paid off. Without that scholarship, the commuter branch of the state university would have been his destination. And his parents had generously offered to help repay his student loans from the prestigious institution that had accepted him.
Their hopes, his dreams, mocked him as he sat in Freshman English, staring at his paper, marked with a large red “D”. The class hour passed in a blur, and Carson next found himself on the eighth floor of the University Library overlooking the Great Hall below. He observed himself, contemplating what he would hit if he jumped. The glassed-in archive displays? The long polished table profiling the many recent faculty publications? A fellow student wafted through his thoughts. A girl in his French class had committed suicide only a month into the semester. She’d had a wonderfully droll sense of humor. Carson hadn’t understood why she’d killed herself. It seemed she had everything going for her. So sad, so strange. But now, panicked and believing his scholarship jeopardized, his future ruined, he grasped her desperation.
A wave of vertigo forced him back from the library’s overhang. He sat down and numbly hit the speed dial for the college hotline. Another student answered and kept Carson on the phone long enough for him to calm down and agree to go to the walk-in campus counseling service. And so, Carson resisted his terrible and momentary impulse. Very fortunately for him, his crisis of confidence was not superimposed upon major depression or bipolar disease. His momentary panic eventually led to therapy, which promoted a greater resilience and better ability to tolerate setbacks and distress.
In addition to vertigo and the absence of mental illness, the serendipity of many emotional skills came to Carson’s aid that afternoon. A strong connection to his family and friends and a willingness to seek help also enabled him to step back from the balcony and make that call. His family environment had fostered the noncognitive skills that empowered him to ask for help when needed. His parents consistently praised his effort more than the outcome; they quietly noticed and supported his interests. When Carson made mistakes, they joked, “pobody’s nerfect.” His family talked through problems but didn’t solve them for him. His emotional preparation broke through his fleeting despair. As his thinking cleared, he recalled how he had coped with another D—on a high school calculus test. At first he had freaked out—“my high school ranking will drop”—then he told his parents, who encouraged him to talk with the teacher. It was this emotional resilience and preparation for adversity that saved him when his academics failed him. Whether coming early or late to these skills, we firmly believe that all students can learn them.
Yet the sad truth is that many students are not so fortunate or so well-prepared when caught in the epidemic of college-age mental health problems. The current and incoming generations of college students need to be better equipped with the maturity boost that social-emotional intelligence provides. Being better prepared for the roller coaster of college life will reduce the chances of their coming off the rails.
And what about the parents on the other side of these frightening experiences? Instead of the nostalgic truism that college will be “the best years of your life,” we hear from countless parents concerned about how their children’s lives are falling apart. Despite all they’ve done to educate and support their talented child, they see signs of wobbling begin to appear in the form of poor coping, anxiety, depression, or emotional upheaval.
As two well-established experts on late adolescent psychiatry and family psychology, we’ve coached families through such times, giving parents tools to help their once-confident students preserve or regain their ability to organize time, work, and even the basics of sleeping and eating. Yet, many students are unprepared for the removal of home’s invisibly embedded emotional and cognitive scaffolding.
In his role as Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and co-chair of the President’s and Provost’s Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Well Being, Dr. Rostain has closely watched the dramatic rise in campus mental-illness rates with deep concern. Colleges and universities across the country are reporting an explosion of mental health problems verging on an epidemic, with a skyrocketing number of students seeking help. Rostain is very familiar with the risks, challenges, and complex systems issues facing young people, and has made it his mission to find solutions for these students and parents alike. As a family psychologist, faculty member, and clinical supervisor, Dr. Hibbs has had decades of experience helping parents and students cope in challenging and crisis-laden times.
As parents ourselves, we know all too intimately the gnawing anxiety that can be fed by pervasive media coverage of such campus hazards as hazing, binge drinking, drug use, and sexual assault, as well as the quieter desperations of “not fitting in” or feeling that you’re “not making it.” When these all-too-common risks give rise to emotional disorders or psychiatric illnesses, students and parents alike can be overwhelmed.
That was Dr. Hibbs’s experience when her son Jensen suffered a depression that required a medical leave from college. Despite her professional expertise, Jensen’s harrowing crisis left Hibbs humbled and scrambling for answers, while more deeply informing her of the preparation, knowledge, and skills that parents and students need. Following Jensen’s treatment by Dr. Rostain—and his subsequent recovery—we resolved to coauthor The Stressed Years of Their Lives, a book that provides solutions, strategies, and solidarity for parents who want to help their students avoid, resolve, or recover from a mental health problem or crisis. It is also a book to give hope and support to students, through the stories of their peers. We thank Jensen, as well as the many students, parents, and educators who so generously lent their stories to this book.1
However rapid the recent and ongoing shifts in our culture, we’re optimistic that today’s parents have better tools at their disposal than ever before to build a sturdy and enduring emotional scaffold for their children. To help you assess its stability, we’ll show you how to strengthen some key skills—namely resilience, executive functioning, and healthy habits of independent living—that can reinforce a young person’s ability to cope with the coming challenges. Though individual lives are complicated, we are convinced that both parents and students alike can benefit through the thoughtful discussions, skills, and lessons described in this book. We hope that our experiences and insights will help many generations to come.
When the Best Are Stressed
Beyond panic and resilience, Carson’s story acquaints us with a generational truth. Like Carson, everyone will experience a crushing disappointment at some point in time, yet in the college of a generation past, a single bad grade didn’t portend doom. Nor was life success so inextricably linked with a linear trajectory from high school through the perfect college and on to a high-paying career, without allowing for a single stumble.
Increasingly, however, it can often seem as if this is the case. Contemplating adulthood, today’s youth confront a gloomy forecast of increased competition and narrowing possibilities. “The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma,” The New York Times recently intoned, “the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.”2
Given the pressure to succeed, it’s no wonder that today’s adolescents vie with adults for the dubious title of “America’s Most Stressed.”3 The younger group may even be pulling ahead: According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, teens experience higher stress than adults, even in summer. That pressure, the APA survey revealed, leaves a third of teens feeling overwhelmed, depressed, and fatigued.4 Nor does it show any sign of letting up soon: 34 percent of the teen survey respondents expected their stress levels to rise even higher in the year ahead.5
And how are both groups handling the pressure? Not well: neither the teens nor the adults reported doing enough to manage their stress. Most were indulging in unhealthy behaviors: skipping meals or “stress eating” and getting nowhere near enough exercise or sleep.6 By college, stress combusts with mental health diagnoses and an increased risk of self-harm.
Parents sound confused and alarmed: What’s the deal with kids’ stress levels today? And how long does it take for a kid to grow up? We often hear parents voice variations of a standard lament: “We’re at our wits’ end. We’ve struggled to give him every chance to succeed—more than we had at his age, certainly—so what’s gone wrong?”
Beginning with the Millennials and continuing in Generation Z (also known as iGen),7 students experience the very real burdens of constant striving on behalf of uncertain futures, amidst swiftly changing political and economic landscapes. They’re also stressed by the 24/7 availability of the Internet, by social media pressures, and by the resulting metrics of constant comparisons, whether social or academic. GPAs, the dream college, scholarships, prestigious summer internships, and later, starting salaries, are all insubstantial proxies for meaning and purpose, as one MIT professor observed.8 Today’s pressures can overwhelm brains already struggling with developmental tasks and insecurities, among them: forming an identity, developing friendships, exploring romantic relationships, and germinating the seeds of a career.
Parents are stressed too. The parental urge to protect their young can result in over-parenting, which paradoxically hinders the emotional skills needed for a successful launch. These multiple forces often come to a head in the crucible of college life and immediately thereafter, when many stress-induced emotional problems first appear. These two phenomena—college stressors and the emergence of mental health problems—feed into one another in a closed loop, increasing the pressure of both.
Let’s crunch the numbers on college mental health, then take a look at the uniquely stressful climate in which young people are coming of age today. With this understanding, we’ll see how parents can teach—and students can learn—what’s truly necessary to thrive in college and beyond.
Crunching the Numbers
In recent years there has been no shortage of reports about students’ stress responses to the academic pressure cooker of college, with antidepressant use, mental health problems, and prescription-medication misuse all on the rise. “Rates of anxiety and depression have soared in the last decade,” notes The Chronicle of Higher Education.9 The rise in the rate of college students seeking counseling is five times higher than the average rate of enrollment growth.
According to the American College Health Association’s recent annual survey, 1 in 4 college students was either diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the prior year.10 This is approximately the same number as those reporting that a cold or flu hurt their academics in the prior 12 months.11 Untold millions went undiagnosed and untreated. Another large student survey reveals a glimpse of the magnitude of the campus problem: more than half reported the experience of overwhelming anxiety during the prior school year, while about a third reported that depression had significantly affected their academic performance.12 The numbers only go up from there, with even more feeling “hopeless” and “overwhelmed.” Yet only about one-fourth of the affected students received counseling for these conditions,13 and many of those in counseling often dropped out of treatment prematurely.14
The following lists summarize this alarming trend:
Mental Health–Related College Problems15
• Anxiety is the most common student mental health problem.
• Almost one-third of all college students report having felt so depressed that they had trouble functioning in the last twelve months.
• Mental health issues in the college student population, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, are associated with lower GPA and higher probability of dropping out of college.
• More than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year, and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless.
• Minority students are less likely to seek treatment.
Mental Health Issues Can Be Deadly
• Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, claiming the lives of 1,100 students each year.
• 67 percent of college students tell a friend they are feeling suicidal before telling anyone else.
• More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts and 1 in 10 students seriously consider attempting suicide. Half of the students who have suicidal thoughts never seek counseling or treatment.
• 80 to 90 percent of college students who die by suicide were not receiving help from their college counseling centers.
Why are these numbers so high? A key contributor is the fact that most psychiatric disorders show up from ages 14 to 2616—possibly the most tumultuous decade in a person’s life. The academic and social demands of college can readily magnify emotional and learning problems that were mild enough to be overlooked or successfully handled in childhood or later dismissed as just a “passing teenage phase.”
Certain disorders typically emerge right before and during the college years. Eating disorders reach their peak among young women, while binge drinking and substance abuse hit their crest among young men. Also common to many are anxiety, depression, and what psychologists call “problems of executive functioning”—that is, the capacity for unsupervised self-management that underlies good judgment, organization, and self-control. Combine the psychological and social vulnerabilities of college-age kids with the heightened stress of leaving home and learning to swim in an academic shark tank, and it’s easy to see why the core symptoms of so many mental health disorders appear at this vulnerable time in their lives.
Emelia’s story puts a face on these statistics. The distress call came from Mrs. Carr, who left an urgent message on Dr. Rostain’s voicemail. Uncharacteristically, Emelia hadn’t answered her mother’s phone calls or texts for almost twenty-four hours.
When Dr. Rostain reached Mrs. Carr, she was less panicked but still very concerned. She had just spoken to Emelia and learned that her roommate had moved out of their dorm room. Emelia sounded annoyed with her mother for “checking up” on her, but insisted that she was “basically fine.”
Two weeks later, the college called Mrs. Carr and told her to pick up Emelia and bring her home. She was failing every class and wouldn’t be able to salvage the semester.
Emelia’s college experience is common to many unsuccessful launches: she lacked the necessary executive functioning skills to independently organize the many academic, social, and emotional demands of being away from home. Until college, Emelia had never done a trial run of managing independently, even if that meant missing assignments or failing a subject. Mrs. Carr had helped her daughter to succeed at all costs; the stakes seemed too high to let her flounder. Once at college, Emelia was too embarrassed, ashamed, anxious, and overwhelmed to ask for help. We’ll return to the dilemma many parents share: When is help unhelpful? Where is the fine line between parenting and over-parenting? But what Mrs. Carr first wanted to know was: What were colleges doing to help? She was furious with Emelia’s school for not alerting her “until it was too late to do anything about it.”
The Stressed Years: What Are Colleges Doing?
Beginning in the late 1990s, colleges observed a sudden rise in student mental health problems. By the early 2000s, mental health task forces were springing up on campuses across the country. Colleges were pressed to furnish additional services—including academic support and psychological counseling—that many of them were not prepared to provide. Over the past six years, there has been a 30 percent national increase in the number of students seeking counseling on campus.17 By some estimates, approximately one-half of current college students will seek mental health services at least once during their college career. “I don’t know if [this trend is] related to the way we parent,” says Marvin Krislov, formerly president of Oberlin college, now president of Pace University. “I don’t know if it’s related to the media or the pervasive role of technology. What I can tell you is that every campus I know is investing more resources in mental health.”18 In response to the startling rise in students seeking help, colleges have beefed up their support. The good news: the rise reflects a few positive trends:
1. Admissions policies have widened to include talented young people who might have been denied a college education in an earlier era. Among them, students of lower income, first-generation students, and youth with preexisting psychiatric conditions, as well as those needing accommodations for social, emotional, and learning challenges.
2. Awareness of campus mental health needs and services is rising.
3. The stigma of mental illness is receding.
Over the past decade, colleges have spent millions to augment counseling staff and to focus on suicide prevention, risk reduction, threat assessment, and the identification and treatment of troubled students. In addition to traditional, individual, and face-to-face therapy, colleges have expanded services to include telepsychology/telepsychiatry, group therapy, and mental health apps.
These trends have converged to trigger a welcoming campus outreach. Students are repeatedly advised of the wide range of student support and mental health services that can quickly come to their aid. Thanks largely to counseling-outreach efforts, more faculty members are referring students for treatment, and more students are seeking treatment of their own accord. Many colleges, especially those with a ratio of one full-time counselor to every 1,000 to 1,500 students, are on target to meet the accrediting standards recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services.
Yet challenges remain. Many counseling offices and mental health centers have been unprepared for this unprecedented demand for services. One-third of colleges have long waiting lists for therapy, and half of all college dropouts have never availed themselves of mental health services.19 That was true for Emelia. She needed help, but never sought it. Nor did Emelia sign HIPAA and FERPA confidentiality waivers to allow the administration to alert Mrs. Carr. We’ll return to this issue in depth in an upcoming chapter.
For all their efforts, schools can’t staff their way out of the growing demand. Colleges are increasingly looking to parents to help prepare their students for the challenges ahead. Preparation relies first on an understanding of the component parts of “stress and distress,” and next on what parents and students can do to promote the social-emotional maturity that true independence requires.
Mental Health and Stress
Although the word “stress” has become something of a throwaway term, the phenomenon itself has long been understood to be a potent precursor to mental health disorders. It’s normal for individuals to respond to the potential threat or intense emotions of stress for short periods of time. Yet new findings from neuroscience and social science point to toxic long-term consequences of chronic stress. When the brain’s “alert system” stays on too long, it creates anxious and maladaptive responses that contribute to psychiatric disorders.
Nowadays, mental health problems are as prevalent as the common cold. And, like a cold, an emotional problem or mental disorder can vary by severity and length. By young adulthood, almost everyone will experience an emotional upheaval.20 At any one time, only about 20 percent of the population is experiencing a mental health disturbance, though it may be invisible to others. An episode for some will be so transient that the individual won’t seek treatment. Similarly, parents may chalk up the “cold” symptom of moodiness to adolescent angst or miss the stealth flyover of an anxiety disorder or a bout of depression. When a depressive episode or anxiety disorder is unrecognized, we “let it pass,” just as we do with a cold. Sometimes that’s okay, but more often it isn’t. Undiagnosed and untreated, a mental health problem may worsen into an illness episode that amplifies the effect of the next occurrence. For example, half of all individuals with alcohol use disorder at age 19 will still suffer from it by age 25.21
And, despite its prevalence—its utter ordinariness—a bout of such an emotional illness typically takes both students and parents by surprise.22 The frequency of undiagnosed and undertreated mental illness helps explain why having a mental health problem is the number-one cause of college dropouts.
Unlike an indiscriminate cold, there’s a gender split for just what kind of mental health problems will occur for young women and men and what the prevailing symptoms will be. Because brain networks operate differently, women may be more vulnerable to stress-related conditions.23 The chart below summarizes some recent studies of such disorders in U.S. adolescents and young adults.
LIFETIME OCCURRENCE OF STRESS-RELATED DISORDERS, BY SEX
Source: D. A. Bangasser and R. J. Valentino, 201424
Clinicians pinpoint many contributing stressors: economic worries, tuition inflation, the continuous self-metrics of academic and social comparisons, stiffer competition, even “helicopter” or over-parenting tendencies that prevent adolescents from learning from failure. But what has gone into creating this uniquely challenging time?
Some of This Isn’t New
Fretting over “the wreck of American childhood,” historian Steven Mintz reassures us, is habitual to periods of economic stress and rapid social change. Indeed, the parental influence on anxiety-driven change goes back to our country’s earliest days.25 The religious freedom sought by the Puritans in the New World was an outgrowth of their fretful moral imperative to save “posterity [who] would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted” in the Old World.26 In today’s New World of social and economic disruptions, with the omnipresent Internet, social media pressures, and heightened global competition, anxious parents endeavor to “save” their children from screen time, the disappearance of secure jobs, or even an imagined robotic and jobless future.
Whether colonial or contemporary, parenting seesaws between protective control and the promotion of childhood independence. Autonomy and self-reliance in childhood and adolescence are embraced during periods of necessity—the American frontier, for example—but also in times of political and economic stability. In the post–World War II era in American family life, parents experienced decades of stable jobs, rising incomes, and more predictable family structures. In this relatively safe domestic era, children were allowed to exercise more freedom. By contrast, parental protection and increased control asserts itself most during epochs of great social change—incidentally, a characteristic of the past forty years.27
The 1980s unfurled four decades of precipitous social and economic change and resulted in a renewed panic over children’s safety and well-being.28 The free-range youth of Boomers and Gen-Xers has disappeared, first with milk carton warnings of child abductions, followed by the Columbine era of school shootings, the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and the global Great Recession of 2008. Parents reacted with heightened control and by adapting a more rigid definition of success that has exalted protection over childhood autonomy and self-reliance. Protection now includes arranged playdates, no peanut butter in school, and trigger warnings in classrooms. Successful parenting today means a “well-managed child,” honed to a fine edge from an early age.
Mintz suggests that the recurrent worries about young people actually reflect the unmooring of adult lives and the concomitant stressors on parents. Viewed through the filter of history, parents may be reassured to learn that their periodic panics over the well-being of their children are commonplace. Let’s face it: the troubled essence of growing up long predates the anxieties of American parents. “Youth are heated by nature,” wrote Aristotle, “as drunken men by wine.” Two millennia later, Shakespeare arranged for an unnamed shepherd to lament in The Winter’s Tale, “I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest.”
More recently, parents influenced by time’s nostalgic effect of selective amnesia may idealize their own college years as carefree and wonder why their children aren’t experiencing a similarly halcyon time. Yet, the very nature of generational change, Mintz reminds us, is that parents can neither replicate their past nor predict the future. The future uncertain, the present unprecedented, leaves today’s youth uniquely stressed.
But Some of It Is Unprecedented
“I must be a soldier so my son can be a farmer and his son a poet.”
That classically American parental aspiration—a better life for his children and successive generations—appeared in a 1780 letter to his wife, Abigail, from future U.S. president John Adams.29 Today, parents with the same aspirations often behave as if their children still face only three choices: college, the military, or a minimum-wage job (i.e. failure).
When—and why—did this blinkered view occur?
In the post–World War II period, the path to a good life wasn’t nearly so narrow. It neither mandated attendance at a brand-name college nor even required a college degree. The cultural narrative said it was okay to go to work after high school, then go to college if your job or aspirations warranted it. Not until the 1980s did the expectation of attending a four-year college become a national imperative.
The gradual shift to “College for All” began decades earlier, with the 1944 introduction of the G.I. Bill. The number of degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled from 1940 to 1950, while the percentage of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose from 4.6 percent in 1945 to 25 percent half a century later.30 As more and more mid-century adults obtained college degrees, they transferred their aspirations for the same—or better—to their children.
The College for All movement was further propelled by the civil rights movement, with its emphasis on equal educational opportunity, and by the 1983 presidential report, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,”31 which sparked the federal and state dismantling of vocational tracks. The unintended consequences: unrealistic expectations for a linear academic path, lengthier post-secondary education, marginalization of skilled trades, prolonged parental financial dependence, and—importantly—a deferral of full adulthood.32
Simultaneously, automation and globalization spurred the decline of well-paid but low-skill jobs in trade and U.S. manufacturing. As these and other viable paths to the middle class shrank, graduating from a four-year college became the benchmark for successful “launching” into adulthood. Recently, education has become synonymous with institutional stress and its narrow and intense focus on academic metrics that ratchet up the pressure on teens from middle school through college.33
It used to be enough to think that your child was learning, broadening his experiences, or finding a purpose. Yet, as parents grew more anxious about the stiffer competition their children faced, striving became the norm. Stress became the parental badge of honor and the test for providing the “good enough” preparation for college admissions. You may well be acquainted with this pressure: Did you ever feel you hadn’t done enough in comparison with other parents? Fretted that you were a slacker upon learning that the playmate of your five-year-old was taking Chinese as a second language? Or that your child’s résumé wasn’t packed with extracurriculars?
In parallel, high school students were encouraged to shoulder a heavy load of Advanced Placement (AP) courses that fuel sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression.34 This premium on success, in turn, seduced many students into equating mistakes with disaster. We are now recognizing that our widely accepted education benchmarks—standardized tests, honors in high school, the increasing necessity of a degree from a name-brand college—all intended to prepare children for adult success, are often toxic to emotional development. Professor and pediatrician Stuart Slavin asserts:
My personal feeling is that we are conducting an enormous and unprecedented social experiment on an entire generation of American children, and the evidence of a negative impact on adolescent mental health is overwhelming. This is particularly disturbing given the fact that having mental health problems in the teen years predisposes to mental health problems in adulthood. It is even more profoundly disturbing when one considers that there is absolutely no evidence that this educational approach actually leads to better educational outcomes.35
Educators, guidance counselors, and admissions officers nationwide are taking note. In pressure-cooker high schools across the country, midterm and final exams are being abolished. Weekend homework is being phased out. The number of AP courses is being capped, and classes are starting later in the morning. (Though many sleep deficits can be traced to late-night online activities, later class start times acknowledge the correlation between sleep deprivation and adolescent depression.)36 High schools and colleges are likewise implementing creative solutions to alter their achievement metrics, combating the culture of overachieving perfectionism that can destroy students’ psychological health.
With these trends under scrutiny, it’s easy to see how a myopic focus on academic success feeds an intense fear of failure and a profound sense of shame that can result from real or even imagined underachievement. This destructive perfectionism distorts self-worth, making it nearly impossible for young people to tolerate personal flaws, take reasonable risks, or face the failures they will inevitably encounter on the road to maturity. Of far graver import, it undermines students’ willingness to seek help when needed.
Branding the Self
Our branding culture has also promoted striving at younger and younger ages. In certain circles, there are feeder preschools for the “right” K–12 school, whose glossy brochures announce their graduates’ acceptances to the “right” colleges, defined in turn by real or engineered admissions scarcity. An army of test tutors and résumé and essay advisers stand in the wings, ready to correct any deficit, provide any advantage. As college branding has come to mean “this way to a good life,” the competition has stiffened. Sadly, we even brand ourselves, through social persona management.
Teens feel intense pressure to construct and present an acceptable media pseudo-self. At a time in life when everyone seeks “likes” on Instagram and Facebook and views on Snapchat, many young people feel that to fit in, they must project endless confidence and popularity. These popular social media sites stoke the contagion of conforming “Be happy” posts and propagate FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).37
The cheerful Facebook posts of one college sophomore we counseled, for example, flummoxed her parents, who were simultaneously fielding her high-volume anxious texts. Asked to decipher this stark contrast, she texted them: “Don’t want my friends to think I’m a downer.” Like many students, she was engaged in impression management—strategically filtering information to shape her friends’ (and others’) perceptions of her. The experience of emotional challenges or of mental disorders in this era of media immersion can lead many to feel incompetent and isolated, lowering their sense of self-worth—and worsening their feelings of hopelessness. The bifurcation between inner life and self-exposure grows wider and deeper.
This phenomenon has been tragically noted in certain college suicides. The split screen of inner turmoil, in sharp contrast with the projected happiness of online posts, was recently observed in the highly publicized suicide of a University of Pennsylvania freshman. “Over the course of the semester before she died, Madison posted uplifting pictures on Instagram with captions implying that she was having a great time at Penn, but she was not.”38
Persona management is among the many stressors fanning the rise in adolescent mental health problems. The emergence of smartphone connectedness has profoundly changed the lifestyles, sleep patterns, and learning environments of young people. The online world floods youth with endless sources of stimulation, distraction, pleasure, obsession, compulsion, and even addiction. We know that social media’s power to link kids day and night also exacerbates the experience of feeling left out and, more often than not, leaves its users feeling unhappier.39 The parallel pressures of endless striving, academically and socially, extract a high price, as reflected in the greater numbers of stress-related illnesses in adolescents and young adults.
The Yin and Yang of Youth
Accompanying these stressors, a new developmental period of delayed adulthood has been accepted as normal in industrialized nations. Just as childhood wasn’t recognized as a distinct developmental stage until the late nineteenth century (and adolescence not until the 1940s), deferred adulthood has required a new terminology for this new stage of life. Backed by extensive international research, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett has proposed emerging adulthood as the stage from late adolescence through one’s twenties. It is a period of growing independence from parents but delayed arrival of fully adult roles. Recognizing this new developmental stage is vital because traditional adult markers—the financial independence of a steady job, stable housing, marriage and parenthood—may no longer reliably occur in one’s twenties.40 By the turn of the twenty-first century, the experiences of our youth are vastly different in industrialized countries than they have ever been.41
Millennials and their younger counterparts in Gen Z are taking longer and struggling harder to reach adulthood than any previous generation. “30 is the new 20,” Arnett alerts parents.42 Prior to the Great Recession of 2008, many parents encouraged their college-bound students to search for a personally meaningful career. Students imbued with this noble ambition often unknowingly prolonged their financial dependence—and instilled a vague unease in parents now witnessing what can feel like an eternal launch. For this reason, the Millennial generation often gets a bad rap as selfish, lazy, or dilatory. That caricature is harsh and undeserved.
Since the 2008 recession, parents and teens have been awash in media reports about income inequality, economic uncertainty, and job market stagnation. Today’s longer path to full adulthood simply reflects certain new realities, chief among them: salaries and wages have not increased alongside the cost of living. This makes it stressful or impossible for emerging adults to live independently or attain those “traditional adult markers,” all of which are based on financial independence. College is a scam, according to many young skeptics. Why pay all this money for a credential that doesn’t even get you a job with a decent living wage? they challenge. You can’t buy a house, let alone furnish your one room and go to the dentist, if you’re spending 60 to 75 percent of your income on rent and student loans.
Emerging adults know they will have to compete for good jobs of any kind, never mind top jobs and professional careers. It is often the pressure to make good money from your career, and the feeling that if you fail even once in college your entire future is over, that pushes students over the edge. Or perilously close to the edge, as we saw with Carson.
In this brave new world, where extended parental protection exists alongside exposure to adult pressures at ever-younger ages,43 it’s not surprising that the standard milestones to full independence are taking longer to reach. Not only do today’s college students take longer to graduate—six is the new four—but they more frequently change majors, transfer from one institution to another, drop out, or re-enroll.
This generational shift also gives rise to the boomerang kids. Today, more young adults aged 18 to 34 live at home with a parent than ever in recorded history (U.S. census data goes back only to 1880).44 With wage stagnation and towering student loans, parental support often includes financial assistance. Consequently, the yin and yang of youth experience, as Arnett notes, includes the feeling of in-betweenness, as neither adolescent nor adult.
The upside? Remember the Generation Gap? Boomers who embraced its mantra (“Never trust anyone over thirty”) and Generation X (the latchkey kids, turned cynical on authority) are both startled and delighted to discover they’ve become best friends with their teenage and adult children.45 This closer relationship allows today’s parents to provide genuine emotional support and connectedness well beyond the launch from home.46 Yet, the new developmental era for the emerging adult presents dangers for parents.
The Dangers of Parental Investment
Heightening parents’ sense of competitive threat is the tremendous investment made in raising a child. We’re not sea turtles, after all: we don’t lay eggs on the beach, then swim away and hope that a few survive. Instead, we spend long years nurturing a child, long past what was once regarded as late adolescence—and, as just discussed, this period is steadily lengthening.
The modern parent assumes the burdens of a child’s physical and psychological well-being, socialization, and an extensive and expensive education, all to ensure future success, backstopped by a boomerang-ready home. The good news is that the stigma of returning home is going away. Parents are often glad to facilitate the next step toward full independence. No matter the age, we’re strongly attached, deeply dedicated, and emotionally driven to exert whatever effort we can summon to protect our young, sometimes well beyond college.
However, when parental concern leads to over-investment, dangers emerge. The reality is that not only the youth have become more stressed—parents agree the feeling is entirely mutual. Parents are juggling too many demands, with too little time and too few resources. Many have a family constellation far different from the one in which they were raised. According to the Pew Research Center, the twenty-first-century U.S. family is no longer “one dominant family form.”47 Two-parent families have been decreasing and single-parent families have been increasing, as have step-families. Many parents are dual-wage earners, as more mothers (64 percent) with preschool-aged children work.48
Parents who are overworked, stretched thin, or anxious that their kids deserve a better life than they had (remember John Adams?) can unintentionally pass this pressure on, as parenting today has also become a stressful, striver’s job. We feel the same pressures our children do, to do everything right, to make sure they succeed, to take on their failures as our failures. We forget that until the seventies came along, the word “parenting” was neither in common use nor a tyrannical verb instructing parents what they “should do.” Just listen to Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson describe her 1950s childhood:
… they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed me doing something—drawing a painting or whatever we were doing—then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.49
Robinson’s parents were attuned to her needs. They noticed and quietly supported her interests with no special outcome in mind. Developmental psychologists today would define this orientation as flourishing, as opposed to the narrower, outcome-driven model of success. Educational experts say that certain key developmental changes from ages fifteen to twenty-two rely on the parents’ promotion of autonomy, self-regulation, a reflective mindset, and the ability to navigate the larger world of healthy relationships and community engagement.50 Flourishing encompasses these developmental goals and allows a child to pursue his own needs, pastimes, and even quirky interests.
In healthy parent–child relationships, parents maintain age-appropriate expectations and promote a child’s assumption of increasing responsibilities for herself and others, best served up with warmth and loving support. The fundamentals of good parenting haven’t changed, but times have.
Instead of quirky interests and self-directed play, there is screen time, scheduled sports, and extracurriculars to fill a résumé. All accompanied by decreasing expectations for age-appropriate help—old-fashioned chores. Parents may hesitate to assign family responsibilities that seem too time-consuming and unimportant to youth, who are too busy studying or playing violin or performing community service. When these parental shifts promote the competitive child, they risk eroding traditional parental authority, making it harder for parents to set limits and enforce demands.51
This pressured emphasis on achievement can contribute to students who carry a distorted view of what it takes to become self-sufficient. There’s a harmful feedback loop when the pressure on youth to achieve academically is not being offset by the inherent balance of everyday, non-stimulating, non-goal-directed activity. It was a part of childhood past, alongside an ordinary parental role that’s gone AWOL for many.
We forget that chores are good for kids and so are interests that aren’t geared to the brag sheet. Stressed kids and parents today tend to overvalue striving and underestimate just how much simple grunt work and tedium go into success. The underlying message? A youth’s dismissal of humdrum tasks as boring or somehow beneath them. Yet if children into adolescence never learn to manage their frustration at the necessity of performing unpleasant household tasks, or later, work a boring job, how will they develop the “grit” to accept a bad grade rather than drop a course, the discipline to try again rather than give up, and the insight to recognize that perfect is the enemy of the completed? How will they learn to turn off the Internet … opt for healing sleep … say no to friends who want to party?
For both generations, this means the sources of distress are not just around us, but within us and between us. It’s therefore worth the time it takes to become aware of this mutually reinforcing dynamic. Parents will be better able to help their children balance the stressors in their lives if they bear in mind that independent living demands many small sacrifices—and parents must impose exposure to these tradeoffs. As role models, parents can both free their children from incessant striving and simultaneously gird their children for the anxieties, tedium, and disappointments that inevitably lie ahead, whether in a college career or in life itself.
Yes, today’s world may be a more competitive and less forgiving place, but when that assessment yields a constricted definition of personal success—one that magnifies unnecessary tensions and undermines a balanced approach to pursuing one’s goals—then it fans the flames of destructive perfectionism. The all-or-nothing thinking of success versus failure can also rob youth of creativity and diminish the value of caring for others. It’s vital to recall how varied the pathways are to a happy and successful life. When parents can separate their own anxieties from their children’s personal choices, they promote autonomy and well-being.
A Parent’s Job in the Age of Anxiety
“Your job is to be there to be left.”
A parent’s fundamental goal of providing safety and security earlier in childhood is precisely to allow adolescents and young adults to take risks—that is, to meet the challenges of the new world that each generation inherits. We provide safety and security early on, first for a child’s survival, and then “to be there to be left.”
The monkey wrench thrown into this eloquent generational sequence occurs when parents perceive any sort of threat in their children’s environment. Then they instinctively try to exert more control over their fledglings. And this protective urge is hardwired, with three factors that may trigger it:52
1. The perception of a danger that threatens a child’s well-being or survival
2. Activation of parental fight-or-flight response
3. Degree of parental investment
Today’s first-world “dangers” are no longer the survival threats of centuries past; yet eons of human evolution amid predatory animals, tribal warfare, pestilence, and famine have conditioned us to perceive and react to potential as well as actual risks to our children’s future. Those physical threats have receded, replaced by changes in modern complex societies, globalized economies, and fast-paced telecommunications. The result? Our brains still have trouble discerning a true survival threat from an imagined one, and we exist in a default state of near-constant fight-or-flight readiness. These factors reflect the stark reality that we are parenting in a state of chronic anxiety.
The college years see students undergo remarkable developmental tasks and changes in their final ramp-up to adulthood. During this critical period—just before and after students head off to college—parents understandably want to hold on ever more tightly. Yet this is precisely the time when a youth’s normal psychological development compels him to pull away.
Help Not Helicopter
Recognizing this dilemma, college administrators have taken to sponsoring “parent bouncer” events at new-student orientations to facilitate goodbyes and calm jittery parents about letting go.53 Given the headlines about campus life, of course, and all the stressors we just discussed, such reassurances may ring hollow. Within one recent four-week span in August–September, reports Inside Higher Ed, at least eight freshmen died on U.S. university campuses. Several fatalities were from alcohol poisoning or other party-related accidents, the leading cause of college deaths; others were due to suicide, the second-leading cause.54
Out of a pure nurturing instinct, many parents react to these perils by attempting to eliminate them altogether. They may even go so far as to immerse themselves in the day-to-day management of their child’s high school and college experience. Indeed, it’s probably not too much of a stretch for any fretful parent to imagine being in the shoes of one concerned mother of an incoming freshman who heard about the heavy partying that typically goes on during new-student orientation week. In response, she rented an apartment just two blocks from campus to keep a watchful eye on her daughter’s comings and goings. It was just one more case of a well-meaning parent who transformed her fears into the belief that her child was in actual danger.
It is crucial for parents to remember that despite the headlines, only rarely is a student in bona fide jeopardy. Yes, college does present young people with high-risk situations aplenty—and bounteous opportunities to make bad decisions. But doesn’t the rest of adult life too? So long as a teen’s family life affords a sturdy platform for the transition, the college years will not be inherently dangerous. As colleges turn to parents to better prepare students, parents are left to discern, “What is the difference between help and helicopter?”
Recall Mrs. Carr, who had dedicated herself to Emelia’s high school success? She had over-dedicated herself, over-parented her daughter. Worried that her daughter’s problems with organization would sink her college chances, Mrs. Carr was afraid to let Emelia learn from her mistakes. During her daughter’s high school years, Mrs. Carr functioned as the morning alarm clock, the external memory drive, and reminder prompt. Mrs. Carr’s efforts left Emelia ill-equipped to manage these necessary life skills, which resulted in a failed semester and boomerang from college.
Propelled by critiques of helicopter parenting, and general dismay at a younger generation of “excellent sheep,”55 the pendulum today is swinging back toward the promotion of childhood independence. Parents can play a part in this groundswell, and cushion the body blows of destructive perfectionism by avoiding three common pitfalls:56
1. Over-preparation. It’s easy to overemphasize a child’s academic preparation. But do you really want to wind up with regrets like: Did we push too hard, requiring five years of Spanish? Does our young person care more about grades than about learning?
2. Over-parenting. This arises from the quandary between protecting and hovering. Yes, “protection” generally carries positive associations, yet its impact on a child’s psychosocial development isn’t always beneficial. If you’ve ever “helped” with a teen’s report or lent a heavy hand on a school project, you’re familiar with over-parenting.
3. Over-investment. This third peril is the backfire that results when “wanting the best” makes you lose sight of your underlying motivations. A child presents a seductively vicarious chance to become the ballerina or pro athlete you always longed to be. Or, thanks to the sacrifices you’ve made, your child can pursue the scientific career you couldn’t, or become the painter or musician you are not. Or perhaps there’s simply the academic degree you missed out on, and still regret. Isn’t this all just wanting the best for your child? Won’t they thank you later that you pushed them so hard to excel?57
But how do you avoid these mistakes and build a platform of support that serves as a springboard for launch?
Let’s face it: a brave new world awaits adolescents in their launch from home. As discussed above, the youth scene has been forever transformed by the globalization of the economy, sweeping cultural and lifestyle changes ushered in by the Internet, the widespread use of smartphones and other mobile technologies, and the amplifications and distortions of social media. In our current era, it makes perfect sense that parents are likely to favor control and protection—that is, “holding tight”—over independence and letting go. Yet “holding tight” constricts an individual’s readiness, at just the time that colleges are asking parents to better prepare incoming students for the high-risk situations and mental health demands of this phase of life.
What can parents do? They can promote mature autonomy through readiness, both cognitive and noncognitive. The ultimate goal of cognitive readiness (as reflected in grades, etc.) is academic success—that’s a given. Yet, we often over-focus on cognitive skills, and disregard the noncognitive ones, even though the best predictors of college (and life) success are actually social and emotional readiness, or old-fashioned life skills and maturity.
Rather than pushing a narrow definition of success, parents can promote flexible pathways toward the true goal of a mentally healthy adulthood: developing the skills to overcome obstacles, handle stress, and flourish. Parents can resist the urge to run social interference (and hinder social competence). Without practice in social skills, a college student may wind up like Sal.
As a college sophomore, Sal complained to his mother that his roommate, Joey, was smoking pot in the privacy of his bedroom in their off-campus apartment. Sal objected to marijuana use, though not to underage drinking, for which he had a fake ID. Sal’s mother emailed Joey’s mother twice, then called and asked her to intervene. Joey’s mother politely but firmly refused, suggesting the roommates solve the problem themselves. Eventually, of course, they did. The takeaway? By learning to recognize how it hamstrings autonomy, parents can conquer the fear-based impulse to resolve social tensions on behalf of teens.
The linear view of preparation concentrates overwhelmingly on intellectual skills and academic achievement. Parents can fall into the trap of vicariously memorizing and—be honest, now—sometimes even crowing about our children’s AP grades or standardized test scores. Yet, equating success to align self-worth with achievement yields a predictably hollow identity for the student. Such self-regard can crater as demands and stress rise and performance drops below the high-water mark: How can I face my life when I’m no longer a 4.0 high school student, but a 2.75 college student?
A young person is truly prepared for college or life only when success is a by-product of life interests, sustained effort, or valued personality traits (“I’m a hard worker; I’m a team player; I’m a caring and worthwhile person—even when I screw up”), not when defined by the ephemeral outcome of grades or “likes.” That is when they are emotionally ready.
If noncognitive skills have been largely overlooked until now, it’s because they are so hard to quantify: What parent can say precisely what percentages of “resilience,” or “grit,” or “life-management skills” are present in their student’s character? While chores and family responsibilities teach competence, endurance, and self-sufficiency, more and more, experts are embracing the need to teach students skills in self-awareness.58 These include the ability to recognize emotions in one’s self and others, which builds compassion and tolerance for the inevitable mistakes and failures everyone encounters. It also includes the ability to self-regulate one’s emotions and behavior. Self-regulation promotes better coping and allows an individual to thoughtfully respond rather than impulsively react, and to make better choices in the face of powerful urges. Increasingly, these noncognitive skills are regarded as critical to college readiness—an essential ingredient in any recipe for coping well as pressures increase and problems arise. These skills equip young people to face life’s inevitable disappointments and failures with equanimity and resolve, becoming resilient enough to seek help for themselves when it is needed.
Parents can steep their kids in emotional intelligence by giving them the courage to own up to being lonely or depressed and to face these difficult feelings. Make them aware that masking psychic pain is a double-edged sword: not only does it suppress the motivation to seek treatment, it can also spur a cultural contagion of interrelated phenomena, including drinking, substance misuse/abuse, eating disorders, sexual risk-taking, and suicide attempts. With a combined sixty years of clinical practice, we’ve come to believe that a college student stands the best chance of success when his parents make him aware of—and prepare him to overcome—the emotional obstacles ahead.
Emotional-preparedness training is also a handy way to quell parental anxiety, whose levels tend to spike at this time. Preparing yourself—and your student—to deal effectively with any mental health concerns that emerge down the road is not just prudent but empowering. Even highly resilient youth encounter situations that can stress and sometimes overwhelm them, whether it’s a major loss, such as a death or divorce in the family, an anguished romantic breakup, the trauma of sexual assault, or the more mundane torments of blowing an important exam, nagging fears of not fitting in, or just not making it. Knowing that you and your child have prepared for inevitable ups and downs will go a long way toward calming that anxiety.
Help Is Here
That’s where The Stressed Years of Their Lives comes in: this book is designed to backstop parents as they impart the social, emotional, and life-management skills their kids will need to thrive in college and beyond. With the increasing occurrence of college mental health challenges, the book is both a cautionary tale and a survival guide. It alerts you to what we deem to be the likelihood of a mental illness surfacing during the college years, but in the same breath it presents resources and ideas to help both generations handle that scenario, should it occur. We share the stories of many others—both university students and their parents, frequently in their own voices—who have weathered a mental health challenge together.
As practitioners of family systems therapy (a clinical framework that views the individual through the social-emotional context of the family), we see parents as crucial partners to emerging adult development. We prize active listening, honest communication, a willingness to resolve family conflicts in a face-the-facts way, and a high degree of mental health awareness.
That latter attribute in particular can stave off the social stigma that can make teens reluctant to seek counseling. Mental health prejudices remain both prevalent and persistent. This sort of blinkered thinking associates seeking help with feeling “weak, crazy, or broken.” In the absence of such stigma, the mental health profession’s holy triad—prevention, early identification, and effective intervention—can spell the difference between sustained illness and recovery.
The Stressed Years of Their Lives organizes this triad into two parts. Part One focuses on readiness and the early identification of barriers to success. There’s no test for readiness, but there are key conversations we’ll provide to help parent and student discern strengths and vulnerabilities. We’ll show how to shed mindset barriers, gain self-acceptance, and build resilience. Parents can help reduce stigma and learn what to expect when problems arise.
Part Two takes you behind the scenes and into the lives of college students and their families as they encounter both normative and difficult mental health concerns. Parents and students alike need insight to distinguish normal mood swings from full-blown clinical disorders.
Drawing on three different wells of knowledge—the scientific literature; our interviews with students, parents, high school principals, and college mental health student-support personnel; and our decades of clinical experience helping young people make the “jump to hyperspace”—we’ll help you differentiate worrisome problems of the college era from true mental health crises. We’ll discuss and review the signs of poor coping, the symptoms of emotional turmoil, and the markers of a true mental health or substance-use disorder. And if a mental health crisis does emerge, we’ll show exactly how your direct involvement can accelerate your student’s recovery.
Many students will experience relatively smooth sailing, though all will face challenges. Demanding circumstances, lack of emotional preparation, immaturity, an undiagnosed or untreated disorder, or an unwillingness to seek help will create a stutter start for some, while a few may crash and return home to regroup and relaunch. We’ll look at the necessary supports that allow a student to overcome obstacles and remain in college, as well as the stories of those who temporarily fall out of the expected trajectory and require more intensive mental health treatment. Part Two concludes with an overview of the baton pass from home to college, as college administrators join parents’ collaborative efforts to keep students safe and emotionally healthy and help them succeed.
With these insights, The Stressed Years of Their Lives offers a road map that steers you along a middle path between intense parental involvement on one hand and unfettered student freedom on the other. Older adolescents and young adults yearn to pilot their own course through life, so we don’t stint on the “route details” of what this will mean for parents: You must let this age group make their own choices—even the questionable ones! You must realize that they are going to do things you aren’t comfortable with or of which you don’t approve. And you must accept that they will make mistakes and suffer the consequences. Despite the current vogue for vicarious and virtual sensations, it remains vitally important to allow young adults to learn life’s lessons through direct experience.
Because true independence is a multi-year project, both parent and child must be prepared for stumbles along the circuitous path to adulthood. Both must gather the courage to ask for and receive help when needed.
Finally, we issue both a challenge and an invitation to parents and students to evaluate any misconceptions they may still harbor about mental health; bias is the enemy of treatment. Our hard-won insight on the matter is that many seemingly insurmountable difficulties of the college years are in fact common, predictable, and solvable. It’s therefore crucial that parents and students start thinking about mental health as an integral part of college planning and experience.
You’ve spent years raising your child, preparing them for the exciting launch to independence. Whether your student is about to lift off, needs a course correction, or has returned home to refuel, we’re confident that parents and youth can work together to minimize the risks of a mental health crisis in the years ahead. The stressed years, it turns out, can also be the best years of both of your lives. We are eager to share our guidance for getting through them. In short, you are not alone. Help is here.
Copyright © 2019 by B. Janet Hibbs and Anthony Rostain.