The Anxiety of Accomplishment

By Deann Zampelli   |   July 2, 2024

My 16-year-old son recently came home from school, freaking out that he might get a B in an AP class. Historically, this has not been his M.O., but at the beginning of his sophomore year it started to dawn on him that it was time to get to work. He was hearing and feeling the stress of those around him about their GPA, the classes they had to take and what colleges they wanted to go to and was convinced that this one B was sure to doom him to be a failure for all of eternity.

As parents, my husband and I take a different (and somewhat unorthodox) approach to all of this. We have always encouraged both of our children (who are now 14 and 16) to do their best, but it was more to fortify their self-esteem and create discipline than to insure their place in an Ivy League. But more than anything, it was to help them internalize what it feels like to do a good job at something, and of course, to reap the rewards, which could be external such as a promotion or a good grade, or internal such as feeling pride about giving something your all.

But at what point does this drive which many teens are exhibiting become self-destructive? The media has been having a field day with how our children today are not hearty and are – according to Abigail Shrier, investigative journalist and author of Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up – turning into “emotional hypochondriacs.” Meaning, if something isn’t going right in their life, they are “depressed.” If they are worried about a test, they have an “anxiety disorder.”

So, on one hand, we (as a society, or as parents, social media, etc.) are sending the message to our kids that they must get into a good university, that the competition is brutal, 4.3 is not high enough, etc., but simultaneously we are coddling them to a point where any emotion that isn’t overtly positive is automatically processed as negative.

According to Dr. Amy Alzina, Superintendent/Principal of Cold Spring Elementary School District, “In today’s fast-paced world, it’s essential that we instill grit and determination in our children. Teaching them that they can overcome challenges and do hard things builds resilience and a sense of accomplishment. However, parents must be cautious about quickly labeling their child’s struggle as anxiety. It’s crucial to allow children to navigate through difficulties and experience the triumph of perseverance, fostering a deeper sense of purpose and self-worth.”

It seems counterintuitive, but what we are being told is that by pandering to our children’s emotions, we are not preparing them for the natural stress that is part of life. The problem is, we are doing this while pushing them to get better grades, take more AP classes, be leaders, do more volunteer hours, make Varsity – and the list goes on. 

I started wondering how early these signs of stress are appearing in our kids, so I spoke with Natasha Quintero, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) here in Santa Barbara, “In my clinical practice I have seen it manifest as early as 4th grade, the correlation I have made is that at this grade level children transition from number values to letter grades and testing. For many of my clients, this is when parents begin to discuss and place value on their children’s performance in school in addition to their overall functioning as little humans.”

As early as 4th grade? When I was in 4th grade my biggest stressor was worrying if I lost my 4-color Bic Retractable Pen. 

As tuition skyrockets, I cannot help but wonder. What is the actual price of accomplishment? 

I understand if your kid is a prodigy, or knew from an early age that they wanted to be something that would require a high level of educational planning (such as going to medical school, law school, etc.), but otherwise, what is the end game?

Movies and TV shows have been mocking this for years, showing angst ridden parents crying that because their three-year-old didn’t get into the right preschool any chance of Harvard was out the window. But with UC schools costing an average of $15,000/year for in state students to $50,000/year for out of state, not to mention the various institutional scandals over the last few years, some parents are pausing to see if the cost/benefit analysis still makes sense. And with good reason. 

According to the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and the Burning Glass Institute, “52% of graduates with only a bachelor’s degree end up underemployed a year after getting their diploma.”Meaning, they work in jobs that don’t require a college degree, or they really are unemployed. So, all this planning, energy, stress, and often accumulated debt… just to end up with a 48% chance of getting a job in your field of study?

I feel like somewhere along the way we forgot what universities were intended for. They were created to satisfy intellectual curiosity, to expand one’s mind and to foster creativity. It was thought that those fortunate enough to have this experience would make better leaders through their open-mindedness and broader expanse of knowledge. But today, what is the purpose? What is the goal?

The answer, like the question itself, is going to be personal to each parent and to each student. But perhaps we should take a page from the scholars of old and allow the higher learning to be about broadening our children’s intellectual horizons rather than what the initials are on the banner over their dorm room bed.  


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