“Even though I’m trying my best, it never really goes the way I wished,” a student Dr. Luthar studied wrote, “and my mother adds stress because she is always saying that I NEED to have a 90 or higher averages in all my classes.”
Other research supports these findings. In a nationally representative study conducted by NBC News and Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford’s education school, researchers studied over 10,000 high school students in the fall of 2020. Comparing the experience of these students to about 65,000 adolescents surveyed between 2018 and February 2020, these researchers, too, found that many students reported feeling more stressed about school during the fall 2020 than before the pandemic. A chief cause of their stress: the pressure to achieve.
Nearly half of all students reported that the pressure to do well in school had increased since 2019, and over half said their school-related stress overall had risen. Grades, workload, time management, lack of sleep and college fears were the most commonly cited sources of stress. These findings held across socioeconomically diverse schools. At underresourced schools, students were more likely to report being stressed about family finances, according to Denise Pope, a founder of Challenge Success, but the top stressors were still grades, assessments and college.
“My school is giving too much work,” a 10th grader in this study wrote, “even though times are tough for everyone. At first, this was just a break from school, but now all I feel is stress, anxiety, and pain.”
Parents appear to play a big role in this phenomenon. Fifty-seven percent of students said that their parents’ expectations for their performance stayed the same during the pandemic, while 34 percent said their expectations increased. The stereotype of the adolescent aloof from parental influence doesn’t seem to apply to these students, who report feeling more stressed about family pressure than peer pressure.
When Dr. Pope asks parents to define success, they inevitably say that they want their children to be happy and healthy, have loving relationships and give back to society. But when she asks children how they define success, many describe a narrow path: getting good grades, going to college and securing a high-paying job.
Dr. Pope believes the gap is due in part to how parents praise their kids. Many parents reward their children when they perform well, which sends a signal to the kids that the approval and love of their parents depends on how much they’re achieving. So inevitably, if they believe they are falling short of their parents’ expectations, their sense of worth and well-being suffers.