Life as a teen has never been easy, but today it’s a stressed out pressure cooker of grades, tests, and college admissions. According to a study from New York University in 2015, “youth experience high levels of chronic stress,” most of it related to the pressure to succeed. What’s worse, this stress and anxiety can actually lead to other mental health concerns.
As an adolescent, the world begins to open up to you. You have a little more freedom, you can drive, try new activities, and meet new people. You’re beginning to think about which what you might like to do with your life. The possibilities seem endless, but sometimes all these choices become a burden. With so many options, how do you choose which to explore?
All of these choices, however, also stressors such as:
- Deciding a career path
- Selecting the “best” school
- Dealing with parents’ expectations
- Studying for advanced placement or college entrance exams
- Choosing extracurricular activities
What begins as an exciting stage in your life, full of new experiences, becomes overwhelming. In my practice, I find many teens feel enormous pressure to know exactly what they want out of life immediately and exactly how to get there.
The truth is, most kids simply don’t know the answer yet. We often feel there’s something wrong if we don’t have a clear plan. Proper perspective that allows you to know exactly what you want takes time.
Let’s take a more realistic look at these stressors, and how to protect your mental health as you approach college or a career.
Choosing a Career Path
So many people ask kids what they want to do after graduation — aunts, uncles, absolute strangers — but you’re not supposed to know exactly who you are at this age. That’s what the time is for. Your brain is still growing and you don’t have all the real-world experiences you’ll use to help you make decisions.
Instead of feeling locked into making a lifelong choice before you’re even living on your own, find people who actually do things you’re interested in and pick their brains. Learn more about the day-to-day tasks of jobs you find intriguing.
Go beyond standard college tours by going to department-specific open-house events. You can talk to professors and students about career options within a specific field. Who better to tell you about careers in chemistry or foreign language than the people who do the work? Department presentations are a great way to find out if a certain major is a good fit for you.
Also, talk to career service staff and guidance counselors. Even if you’re still in high school, some college career service centers can help applicants assess interests and learn more about specific majors. In addition, your high school guidance counselor should know more about local job opportunities or community college programs.
Choosing the Best School
Contrary to popular belief, unless you’re in a highly specialized, competitive field, most schools are good enough for most people. Getting into the “top school” is a lot of time more about ego than education.
And remember school choice is just as much about fit. Where are you comfortable? Where can you have a lifestyle that supports your growth? Where are the staff most responsive to your needs?
Most employers are less impressed by which school you attended than by how well you perform there and what experience you gained. Finding the “best school” isn’t about getting into the “top school.” Instead, look for schools are well-aligned with your interests and that support your growth as a well-rounded person in your field.
Most teens make assumptions about what their parents want. But as a therapist and a parent, I can tell you, you might be wrong. Parents don’t always want what you think they want.
In fact, many parents only push their kids toward specialized schools or careers because they think it’s what their child wants. On the other hand, teens sometimes only seek those schools because they think it’s what their parents want. The whole family aims for the wrong goal, simply due to lack of communication.
Try having a conversation with your parents. You might find out that all they really want is your happiness.
If you’re struggling with test scores, you can certainly take prep courses or retake the exams, but you might not need to. Many schools “superscore,” meaning they take the highest scores from multiple sessions of the same test. Other schools offer score choice, which allows you to decide which test scores you submit and which ones you don’t.
Ask your potential college picks how they look at test scores. If testing isn’t working well for you, consider applying to schools that have a broader view of student achievement and that isn’t so focused on testing.
School activities should expose you to new things, teach you leadership or teamwork, and show you how to balance responsibilities. It should also be a time to grow and have fun. Rather than trying to choose the “right” activities — those you think admissions officers are looking for — instead consider whether they offer opportunity for real growth. Then, when it’s time to write college essays, you can give genuine examples of what you learned, not just tired clichés about school spirit or personal challenges.
It’s unfortunate that our culture pushes teens so hard that they burn out on life before it even begins. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a step back and remember: this is the time when you learn who you are — not a time to choose a box you’ll never leave.