Colleen Frainey, 16, of Tualatin, Ore., cut back on advanced placement classes in her junior year because the stress was making her physically ill.
Colleen Frainey, 16, of Tualatin, Ore., cut back on advanced placement classes in her junior year because the stress was making her physically ill.

When high school junior Nora Huynh got her report card, she was devastated to see that she didn’t get a perfect 4.0.

Nora “had a total meltdown, cried for hours,” her mother, Jennie Huynh of Alameda, Calif., says. “I couldn’t believe her reaction.”

Nora is doing college-level work, her mother says, but many of her friends are taking enough advanced classes to boost their grade-point averages above 4.0. “It breaks my heart to see her upset when she’s doing so awesome and going above and beyond.”

And the pressure is taking a physical toll, too. At age 16, Nora is tired, is increasingly irritated with her siblings and often suffers headaches, her mother says.Parents are right to be worried about stress and their children’s health, says Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist in Maryland and public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association.”A little stress is a good thing,” Alvord says. “It can motivate students to be organized. But too much stress can backfire.”

Almost 40 percent of parents say their high-schooler is experiencing a lot of stress from school, according to a new NPR poll conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. In most cases, that stress is from academics, not social issues or bullying, the poll found.

Homework was a leading cause of stress, with 24 percent of parents saying it’s an issue.

Teenagers say they’re suffering, too. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of all teens — 45 percent — said they were stressed by school pressures.

Chronic stress can cause a sense of panic and paralysis, Alvord says. The child feels stuck, which only adds to the feeling of stress.

Parents can help put the child’s distress in perspective, particularly when they get into what Alvord calls catastrophic “what if” thinking: “What if I get a bad grade, then what if that means I fail the course, then I’ll never get into college.”

Then move beyond talking and do something about it.

That’s what 16-year-old Colleen Frainey of Tualatin, Ore., did. As a sophomore last year, she was taking all advanced courses. The pressure was making her sick. “I didn’t feel good, and when I didn’t feel good I felt like I couldn’t do my work, which would stress me out more,” she says.

Mom Abigail Frainey says, “It was more than we could handle as a family.”

With encouragement from her parents, Colleen dropped one of her advanced courses. The family’s decision generated disbelief from other parents. “Why would I let her take the easy way out?” Abigail Frainey heard.

But she says dialing down on academics was absolutely the right decision for her child. Colleen no longer suffers headaches or stomachaches. She’s still in honors courses, but the workload this year is manageable.

Even better, Colleen now has time to do things she never would have considered last year, like going out to dinner with the family on a weeknight, or going to the barn to ride her horse, Bishop.

Psychologist Alvord says a balanced life should be the goal for all families. If a child is having trouble getting things done, parents can help plan the week, deciding what’s important and what’s optional. “Just basic time management— that will help reduce the stress.”

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  • Rachael Mwangi

    I was the pushy parent but after seeing my 8 year old son suffer with emotional stress because of homework, after training as a secondary school teacher, after researching the issue; I’m completely converted to the idea that children should not have homework until they are 14 and doing exams. I know this doesn’t support the article. I don’t know the answer for those doing exams but I sympathise with the students and I believe they are stressed. Maybe schools should teach students how to work smarter not harder? Maybe parents need to be re-educated that more work doesn’t always equate to better results?

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  • Karyn

    I’m a high school teacher. My school suggests that students take no more than 2 AP classes per year. Parents and their children tend to ignore this guideline and sign up for 4. Then they complain about the stress. I aso see how many students work these days, checking their phones constantly. It’s much more stressful to attempt to multi-task that way.

    But the greatest pressure comes from the fear of not getting into college. Your student may not get into a top brand-name school — so what? A well-rounded childhood and a good college experience at any school will help them turn into successful people, even in a recession. Constant stress and competition and lack of sleep: not a good way for children to develop.

  • sam

    At scool I am really stressed . I worry alot about my grades, maybe more than I should, and I am usually staying up kind of late doing hw and projects.I get a lot of work , 1-3 projects a week, hw every single night for every class, books to read, big exams, not to mention so many other things to worry about,my own life outside of school which mainly consist of family.But stress is killing me, like literally somedays in can reach my limit and then totally fall apart, I will get headaches , cry ,and get angry at myself for not being able to work something out or doing something wrong, I feel completely overwhelmed, and yet all the advice I get is it’s ok you are smart or don’t worry it happens to everyone. But I am pretty sure they have no idea what kind of crappy advice that’s for relieving stress.

  • While many teachers and counselors will advise students to take fewer AP classes, students most likely will not follow that advice. With their peers and siblings taking three or more AP classes at a time, students will feel that they are falling behind and they will feel pressured to take even more AP classes. Also, in families with multiple children, younger siblings will feel pressured to be like their older siblings. Especially when older siblings enter an Ivy League college, the younger children will feel the pressure to achieve the same result from both parents and teachers. With these expectations, pressures, and piles of work being loaded onto students, it is no wonder that high school teens experience crippling stress. The best way to combat this problem is to have parents or counselors listen to their kids when they “complain” about school or work. Instead of berating them and accusing them of whining, parents and counselors should listen to what their kids are saying and give them advice on how to deal with school-induced stress. This way, kids won’t have to bottle up all their emotions, and they can learn valuable information that might come in handy in the workplace.

  • Nina

    I’m a high school student in Malaysia. When I’m in my last year of Middle School which was last year (I was 15), I had to take an examination to determine my stream. Let’s say I want to be a doctor, so I’ll have to pass all 9 exams. Plus we have 2 oral tests, 1 never ending essay (I wrote 5 pages in 3 hours), 1 do on your own research (basically meet ppl & get chased by workers) and 5 writing exams. In order to get an A you’ll have to get at least 85%.

    After all the hard work, I finished doing all that and aced it. I’m now in Pure Science stream so I think I’ll have a better chance to choose whatever my career is in the future. But being in this stream is so stressful.I have 1 month of exams & 3 papers per subject.Plus I need to join sports & other activities. If I fail my O levels next year, I’ll probably end up jobless & family less.

  • Mary

    Children (as young as kindergarten) have a 7-8 hr school day with little or no time for recess and a rushed lunch, then on to 2-3 more hours under adult direction at after school care or extra curricular activities. Why do they need to come home and be forced to do more school work, often worksheets? Where do family time and household responsibilities fit in? Choice time to do what they want for a little while (how do we expect them to be able to make good choices if we never give them the chance?), and downtime to chill and to process everything else? I read Denise Pope’s book and Challenge Success found no evidence after years of studies that there is any benefit to homework help for k-5 and interestingly it can even be determental to kids. Also they found no evidence of any benefits from taking AP classes. So many of the things happening in our schools are not based on any research and should be questioned, especially when students are showing alarming rates of self-harm and anxiety. It is time for parents, teachers, students and policy makers need to work together because a school and a community should not be judged on test scores and APs. That focus puts so much on the backs of students at the expense of developing well-balanced, healthy lives.

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