High-Achieving Kids Are Considered 'At Risk' For Mental Health Disorders

by Wendy Wisner
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I have been lucky in that academic success comes fairly easily for my kids. At the same time, we live in a very “high achieving” town, where kids feel pressure from just about everywhere to get good grades, join as many extracurriculars as possible, and leave high school with a perfect college resume and entry into a top-notch university.

Yet despite the fact that I always emphasize to my boys that trying and learning is much more important than getting perfect grades, they still feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to succeed.

Just recently, one of my sons scored a B+ on a school project, and came home in tears. I tried to tell him that it was totally fine, that he had put his heart and soul into the project, and that’s all that mattered. But he didn’t believe me.

I was eventually able to calm him down. I told him about times that I didn’t get the grade I had hoped for, and I told him that despite what he’s heard, grades and where you go to college don’t really mean as much as people say they do.

Plenty of people achieve success without getting into top colleges, or even going to college at all, I said. It’s all about figuring out what you are good at, honing your skills in the best way possible, and believing in yourself. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

But as I was saying all this, in my mind I was thinking: How on earth did we get to this place? How does a good, smart kid who does his best every day still have to face this kind of pressure? And I know it’s not just him. Kids of all abilities experience this. It’s a freaking epidemic.

According to The Washington Post, a new study by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine confirms exactly this. They recently added kids who go to “high achieving schools” to their list of “at risk” youths because of the levels of mental health issues these kids are experiencing. Other “at risk” youths include kids in poverty, foster care, and kids whose parents are incarcerated.

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Now, it stands to reason that kids who go to “high achieving” schools usually come from more affluent backgrounds, so to lump them together with kids who come from far less privileged backgrounds might seem wrong. Yet no matter where a kid comes from, they can experience mental health struggles. Sometimes these struggle can be quite profound and debilitating.

As The Post points out, a report last year from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also concluded that the “excessive pressure to excel” experienced by so many kids is a risk factor for mental health issues.

“It may sound counterintuitive, even perverse, to put relatively affluent kids in the same category as our country’s most vulnerable youths,” writes The Post. “While the stressors are markedly different, researchers are finding that both are ‘at risk’ for elevated levels of chronic stress that can affect health and well-being.”

Suniya Luthar, professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied this issue extensively, concurs as well. Her studies conclude that kids who go to “high achieving” schools (schools that espouse high test scores and high acceptance rates to top colleges) experience a disproportionate amount of emotional strife, including higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and delinquent behaviors.

“When parents ask me where all of this pressure is coming from, I ask them: Where is it not?” Luthar told The Post.

So where is this all coming from, and what can parents do to preserve their kids’ mental health?

Experts like Luthar conclude that the pressure is coming from teachers, peers, coaches, and parents. And although schools have a responsibility not to turn into “pressure cookers” and emphasize the mental and emotionally wellness of their students above all, we parents have a lot more power here than we realize.

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The Post cites a 2017 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence which found that kids whose parents valued character traits as much as achievements fared much better than kids whose parents who placed academic success on a pedestal.

“Adolescents who believed that both of their parents valued character traits as much as or more than achievement exhibited better outcomes at school, greater mental health and less rule-breaking behavior than peers who believed their parents were primarily achievement-minded, the researchers found,” writes The Post. “Those who fared the worst reported their mothers placed a higher value on achievement than character, and were also critical.”


So I suppose that I’m not the worst parent in the world. I guess telling my kids over and over again (until they roll their eyes hard at me) that who they are and the kindness they offer others is more important than grades, really is the right thing to do.

Still, I know it isn’t going to be an easy road for them… and neither of them is even in high school yet or facing college admission time. But I’m crossing my fingers and toes that emphasizing good citizenship over grades—and showering them with TLC and positive vibes—will pay off in the end. It’s got help at least a little, right?