This is a reflection on an article published in The Atlantic, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” about the suicide clusters at Palo Alto High Schools.
If your high school aged students are lucky enough to attend one of our area’s more affluent high schools, you’re familiar with the pressures placed on these students to excel. Within these schools, the phrase “failure is not an option” has long been replaced by an attitude of “average is not an option.” What has also become clear in recent years is that it is not so much the unrelenting pressure to succeed that has such a deleterious effect on our teenagers, but their perception that they lack options if they don’t measure up. Failure to attain the highest grades and accomplishments equates to total failure. Where does this message come from? Yes, of course, from parents eager to see their children take advantage of every opportunity. We are all familiar with highly successful adults who were driven to be the best at all costs. Individuals such as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys or Tiger Woods. Both paid a high price for trading in their childhoods for success. What is new today is the strong influence of peers. The pressure of peer conformity is a primary driving force in the teenage years, and the message coming from peers is black and white. You are either the best or you are next to nobody.
Two forms of over-protective parenting styles, one that often follows that other, produce almost the same outcome. Helicopter parenting (which we see mainly in parents of younger children) and attainment-demanding parenting (which manifests mainly in parents of adolescents) are both part of a continuum that inhibit children from learning what they should expect out of life and what their options are. It’s easy to dislike the tiger-mom culture, but are we not still sending the same message when we lavish praise for accomplishments and display muted emotional response at best for merely above average results? Children get the message quickly: earning a parent’s love means accomplishing. There is no need for scolding. Withholding acceptance for unwanted outcomes is as damaging. “Do what I want or I won’t love you” is the message being sent in many high achieving households. This form of love, however, removes the element of choice from the teen and communicates, “if you make a bad choice you are less than loveable.” In many households it is made abundantly clear just how hard the parents have worked to provide for their children, and they expect no less in return.
The answer is encouragement not praise.
Teens are caught in a tight space between their older peers who outwardly seem to be coping with the stress of attainment and their parents’ demands. This expressway to success has limited off ramps. The years of adolescence exist as a time of experimentation with different identities. Teens today feel shut off from that experimentation. If you have to succeed at whatever you try, where is the safety? When you don’t feel you have choices, how do you know how to take a chance and how do you learn the consequences of your actions? Give encouragement to your teens for their effort, not praise for following the rules or winning. Encouragement for trying and trying their best empowers a teen with the freedom to attempt something out of the ordinary.
As teens begin to compete with each other, driven teens see that stress-filled lifestyle as the norm. Adolescents are prone to black and white thinking, and teens without viable options are even more prone to over-dramatic thoughts and actions. All too often suicide becomes an option when all other choices seem unavailable.
The signs are not always there for a teen at risk for suicide. They don’t believe the stress they are feeling is out of the ordinary as their friends may all be expected to perform at the same level. Hence teens will not use language that truly conveys the stress they feel, primarily because they have always lived with the stress of high expectations. Is it not appropriate to examine our good intentions as parents, to stop and assess every now and then if our motivations are in our children’s best interest? It is our responsibility as adults to care and nurture our children and to recognize in ourselves our unrealistic expectations.