How To Raise A Human: The Perils Of Pushing Too Hard

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From high-expectation play-dates to AP exams, kids are excelling at an unprecedented rate. Which means some kids are falling behind. And lots of parents are worried.

NPR is taking a look at #HowToRaiseAHuman. We bring the conversation home to South Daktoa today by talking about "The Perils of Pushing Too Hard" with Larry Ling. He's a clinical social worker with Avera Health. This conversation has been edited for web use, to listen to it in its entirety click here.

Lori Walsh:      

Welcome back to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. How much do those developmental milestones matter. Is getting a C in chemistry going to keep your young scholar out of her dream college? From high expectation play dates to AP exams, NPR is taking a look at How to Raise a Human. You can find stories and features and podcasts about what those parenting books might not tell you. Visit npr.org/howtoraiseahuman, and we're bringing those conversations home to South Dakota this month as we talk about different topics on how to raise a human. Today, we look at The Perils of Pushing Too Hard. Our guest is Larry Ling. He's a clinical social worker with Avera Health, and he joins us on the phone now from Sioux Falls. Larry, welcome to the program. Thanks for being here.

Larry Ling:       

Thank you for having me.

Lori Walsh:      

Let's start with whether or not in South Dakota ... Sometimes as a parent, you read these stories about signing your kid up for preschool before they're even born. Maybe that just doesn't play South Dakota the same way, so my first question is, do we see anxiety and struggles from kids from just high expectations and pushing too hard? Is it a problem here?

Larry Ling:       

Yes, it is definitely a problem here. In our clinic, we have a number of therapists here. Actually, we've been talking about it recently at staff meetings that the increase on our case loads of high schoolers who are stressed out has increased.

Lori Walsh:      

I have a high schooler who has finished four AP exams this year. She's got six classes, AP classes, next year, and I sit and pause and how is that even possible? Are you seeing a lot of these kids? Are they high achievers and then they just sort of crash from a mental health standpoint and they really need extra support or are you seeing kids who just are not on that path and feel left behind or you see all of that?

Larry Ling:       

No. I think it's more what you said first. There's a number of educational pressures, and I do think that the majority of it is self-imposed, meaning the kids want to be high achievers. At the same time, it's almost been built into our school system now that if you don't take AP classes, then somehow you're not going to get into college. I mean, that's not true. A lot of these kids may be pushed into taking or feel they have to take these AP classes, and they can't manage them, and then they get anxious like, "I'm not going to get into college. I'm going to fail these classes." They just get overloaded, and then like, "How do I get out of this?" once you're in those AP classes.

Larry Ling:       

As a parent, because I've been through this twice, AP classes give you a step up if you decide to go to college, but they're not a must because, really, you're just getting a jump up on some of the college credits that you would be getting if you just started fresh. I don't know. I think there's a lot of pressure because of AP stuff. I think there's pressure to be involved in activity groups, volunteer groups, have all these things on your resume when you go to college so that you can get in. My experience with all that is that that's only partly what colleges are looking for. These kids just really feel a lot of pressure. What I'm seeing is, it's a trickle-down. I think a lot of kids, when they get to their freshman year in college, they don't really know what they want to do. I mean, they're still trying to figure that out. I have kids coming in here that are freshmen in high school and already feel like they're being pressured to think about college.

Lori Walsh:      

It's true, isn't it? Fifteen years old.

Larry Ling:       

... Who are just now transitioning from middle school to high school, which is a big deal, and also, "Oh, yeah. You got to think about do you want to take AP classes? Do you want to get Honors Certificate? All these kids are like, "Well, I just kind of want to go to school."

Lori Walsh:      

I was hoping to make some friends here.

Larry Ling:       

All this pressure. Here I am like, "You know, you really don't have to decide this in your freshman year. You got time. Be a kid. Enjoy high school. If you want to take these other classes down the road, go ahead." My advice to parents in here is, a freshman should not be taking any sort of advanced classes. They just need to go to school for a year, get used to high school. Then, if you want to take your AP stuff and get going, maybe the second year.

Lori Walsh:      

All right, I'm going to push back because when my little one went as a freshman, she wanted to take chemistry, and I said, "No, take biology. You don't need that accelerated chemistry. Just take your time." Told her that. You know what? All the other “smartical” kids did that. They took accelerated chemistry. She's like, "I'm behind." There is a sense that the parents might say this and they might tell their children. The kids pick up this message by the time they're graduating that, "You know what, mom, dad? It's different now." It's not like when I was in school, and they start feeling like, "You might not understand how to get where I need to go because it's all changed." That shifts the influence to the schools in a lot of ways, and it puts a lot of responsibility on the teachers.

Larry Ling:       

It does, and not all kids who feel pressured to take the advanced classes, intellectually and study-wise, can manage them. It really is a step up. I saw my daughter and my son take those classes, and they're both smart kids. It was a struggle. Those classes are a step up. I just think, as freshmen, to put that kind of pressure on people, kids at that age, when you can take those classes later.

Lori Walsh:      

There are consequences, consequences to it.

Larry Ling:       

I know, once you get to college, I don't think kids are sitting, comparing, and saying, "How many AP classes did you take in high school?" When you're in college, you're in college. Somehow you got there.

Lori Walsh:      

It seems like every student is going to have a point where, a year where it becomes hard. I'm thinking about gifted kids, high achievers who maybe some things have come more easily. They are going to get to the point, whether it's in high school, in advanced class or in college where, all of a sudden, they have to study. You can have some really smart kids who haven't developed that growth mindset yet, and that could cause a lot of anxiety and depression, as well. They might be in college by then. What's the first thing you say when kids come in and say, "Okay, I am under all this pressure. I feel like I have to do this, this, and this. How do I get out of this? Where do you begin with them in a counseling room?

Larry Ling:       

I try to first get a sense of what their, the kids', priorities are and then try to compare that with what they think their parents' priorities are. Sometimes, they're not the same. What I try to encourage both the student and the parents to do is say, "Okay, what can give? Is there something that can be let go right now that isn't going to have some major impact on their ability to get into college, if that's what you're concerned about?" Maybe they give up a club. The other thing that's happening is, some of these kids in high school are in multiple sports. They're trying to do football and basketball and all this stuff and take AP classes. It's too much, so I just encourage parents and kids and say, "What can you back off of? What is it that you can give up right now so you have a little more time for the schooling, if that's what your priority is?"

Lori Walsh:      

What about the argument that it's the sport or it's the orchestra or it's the play that makes me want to show up for school, so please don't take away the things that I find are fun. That would be just shifting of priorities then, right, so then you would say, "Okay, is there a class that you can back off of?" Is that ... If the kid is the one who has that priority.

Larry Ling:       

If they've taken some AP classes and struggled, it's okay to say, maybe just take less, maybe take one this semester versus two or three and still get those credits. I think what they find is, when they get to those ... If they were to then get into the regular classroom, it's kind of a relief because the pace is way different. There isn't that pressure like, "If I don't pass this test, I'm not getting college credit," and it's that on top of just the grade for high school.

Lori Walsh:      

That feels really real to me because I think in our lives, the math class this year was pre-calculus. I swear, it must've been the easiest class in the world, and you know it's not easy, but it wasn't an AP class, so just the nature of it being an AP class and having that test hanging over your head at the end of the year changed the whole dynamic. The material might've been just as challenging for all I know. I'm not sure. Just saying AP, saying college acceptance, saying ACT can cause some anxiety, as well. How do you prepare ...

Larry Ling:       

I think, as parents, we just sort of owe it to our kids to say it's more of a perception than a reality and try to help our kids do a little reality check on, "If I really don't take these three AP classes one semester, I can still get into college." Just do a little reality check with our kids and say, "That's only one part of the whole picture of why people get accepted by colleges. There's the standardized testing. There's just who you are as a person, your interests. Are you a good fit? They may be also going to be looking at grades, too, but the AP stuff really is just for you as a kid to get just some extra credits so when you start college, some of those classes, you don't have to take.

Lori Walsh:      

What is the parent's job here? When do we know there are real warning signs where we say, "It's time to give my student someone else to talk to about this. Let's try some counseling." What are the warning signs?

Larry Ling:       

What I hear from kids in here is, they really start to push back against their parents with anger. What you will see is just a shorter fuse when a kid typically hasn't been like that, just a shorter fuse with their parents, with their siblings maybe, and even at school. There certainly might be some signs of depression, like having a harder time getting motivated, getting to get to school in the morning because it's hard, and not wanting to get out of the bed in the morning and have to face the school day. Sometimes, there's a change in eating patterns and sleeping, too. Some kids will just start telling their parents, "I just can't sleep at night. I can't turn my brain off from all the stuff that's going on." Those are signs. I think if a parent gets the inclination that it is starting to interfere, either in family life or in their child's life in some way, like sleep, not eating enough, or just being constantly exhausted, then you need to get some help, sort out what it is. Oftentimes, kids won't really confess everything to their parents because they don't want to disappoint them, so they'll keep pushing anyways. When you get them into a counselor like me, I have no horse in the race, so I can look at it from the outside and say, "Wow! That's a lot! Is there something we can do about this right now so that some of the pressure's off, and then you still feel like you're meeting some of the expectations of your parents."

Lori Walsh:      

We're talking today with Larry Ling. He's with Avera Health. He's a clinical social worker, and we're talking about the perils of pushing too hard, not just pushing, but pushing too hard and when you know you've sort of gone overboard. We want to hear your comments about this. You can send me an email at inthemoment@sdpb.org. Larry, I'm wondering if they also look at us. Are they seeing in this society and with their parents that their parents are doing ... Is this modeled behavior or is this the narrative of high school right now?

Larry Ling:       

I think there's some where it's modeled. I think parents have a hard time saying no to certain things because they feel that they're going to disappoint their kids so, early on, instead of saying, "Hey, why don't you try five sports?", you start out with, "Let's just try a couple." Right away, you don't even set the groundwork for more sports. That way, as they grow up and they decide that one of those two is what catches on, then they're likely to just do one sport in high school. They're not going to feel pressured to be part of the baseball team and the football team and the basketball team, so it's some modeling of that. Some parents are burning the candle at both ends, working full time, parenting, and they've got a lot going on. Sometimes, the families don't hardly even see each other during the day. That is definitely a role model that kids can tune into and say, "Hey, this pace is a little too fast for me," and they'll start showing it through their behavior like, "I'm just not happy with this. I would like to see you guys more, and I'd like to be home a little bit more instead of being on the run all the time."

Lori Walsh:      

Give me an idea of, do you see success? Do you see kids who have been at the brink and, through counseling, have been able to really think about what they want their lives to look like, still as high achievers, but also with some reasonable expectations and some healthy choices? Do you see that a lot? Is it something that can be overcome with the right assistance and support?

Larry Ling:       

Yes. In the end, what I try to do is create a team effort, and I absolutely consider the parents one of the most important parts of that team. They live with the child. They've raised them. I'm looking at it from the outside. Sometimes, when we get down to it and we can get the parents and the child in here at the same time and say, "Hey, here's some things they haven't told you because they don't want to disappoint you, but here's the reality of it. Let's just take this into account as you guys move forward because, if you take some of this pressure off, you're likely to see your child be a little happier and a little more content and not as angry at home." Some of that pressure is self-caused. Parents will probably say sometimes, "Well, we didn't do it on purpose. We're not pushing him to take all these AP classes, but he just goes into high school saying he want to take them because that's what everybody's doing." They just kind of go with it and, once they realize how stressed out their child is, they're willing to help look at, "Okay, how can we do the schedule different or back off of a sport or whatever?" The kids will typically tell you where the pressure points are and what would work.

Lori Walsh:      

Interesting stuff. Larry Ling, he's a clinical social worker with Avera Health. I feel like we all got a little free therapy today so, Larry, thank you so much for being here. Go to Avera Health to find more. Maybe you want to spend some more time talking with Larry. We appreciate your time. Thank you.

Larry Ling:       

Thank you.

 

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