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Reflecting on Increased Anxiety Among Teens

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

There were four reported teenage deaths attributed to suicide last year in the greater Washington, DC area. Healthy and safe teens is one of the major concerns that keeps me up at night. Throughout my nearly twenty years as a day school head, my perception is that there has been an exponential increase in the stress levels of students. Some recent reporting in the Washington Post confirms that teenagers in general are experiencing greater anxiety.

I want to highlight some current research which suggests that despite the many social capital advantages upper middle class youth have, they are, paradoxically, more at risk than other youth cohorts lower on the socio-economic continuum. Researchers at Columbia University have found increasing levels of stress, substance-abuse, risky behavior and anxiety among affluent families. Even ten years ago, Marano documented that college students from this population continued to exhibit stress and anxiety on campus that had begun while the youth were in their home communities. The researchers from Columbia University identified a number of factors that contribute to the increased stress they recorded that, unsurprisingly, I also hear from parents and colleagues alike. In particular, they mention, the inordinate emphasis on striving for high achievement throughout the school experience. The researchers note that there is "the sense of pressure, criticism, and overly high expectations from adults ... that pressures to succeed come not just from parents but ... from outside the family."

For Jewish day schools and private-independent schools, there are some suggested approaches we can take to address this troubling situation. Among the recommendations are the following:

  • Create parent education for those in the early elementary years that shares the impact of over focus on achievement on teens since it is much more difficult to change patterns in middle and high school.
  • Work to create programs and cultures that highlight intrinsic rather than extrinsic values and rewards.
  • Support a shared sense of community values and concern for our youth.
  • Develop mindfulness, stress reduction and strong counseling programs.
  • Partner with families to be proactive in identifying and then quickly addressing issues as they arise.

This past week, one of our admissions directors and I visited a local private-independent school where we have seen increased interest in joining the CESJDS community for high school. When we meet with the head of school and middle school director, they commented that from the outside they viewed CESJDS as having a culture that balances achievement and well-being. I genuinely believe this to be true as well, and at the same time know that this issue needs further attention in all schools. Navigating this balance is not easy. With increased programmatic emphasis, enhanced partnership with parents and a view toward a healthy approach to both achievement and well-being, I believe schools can push back against the societal pressures our teens experience.

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