Anxious Teens and College Kids? – Don’t Put All The Blame on Parents



When our son was five or six years old we signed him up, as we did with his older sister, for a recreational league soccer team. Soccer is the Big Saturday Thing to do around here and while he was more of a Lego kid than a ball sports kid, we thought he should at least give soccer a try.

After all my husband was (is) quite the athlete, a nine-letter-man in high school. He hoped his stronger genes would outweigh my total lack of eye-hand coordination.

Hope springs eternal in parenting expectations.

On the first day of soccer practice our son wandered out onto the field and studied the trees and the landscape on the sidelines while the other kids ran around chasing the ball.

At next Saturday’s game, our son’s primary interest was again in the natural world around him. He didn’t seem to notice where the ball was – or indeed that there was a ball on the field.

Before the next Saturday rolled around, I asked him if he was enjoying learning the game of soccer. He admitted that he was not.

Is there anything about soccer that you like? anything at all?”

He replied –  “Yes, I like the orange sections at half-time.”

And that was the end of our son’s brief soccer career. (and the early confirmation of his life-long interest in biology, chemistry and cooking.)

This little life lesson from two decades ago taught me as nothing else has that our kids are not bendable, pre-cooked pretzels who we can shape according to our parental expectations.

So when I read the recent out-pouring of articles on overly-involved parents pushing their teens and college students into directions that their parents think are best for them, no matter what their kids think, I have to ask.

Has parenting changed that much since our son moved off the soccer field?

The cover of a recent New York Times book review featured no less than three books placing blame on parental shoulders:

  • “How to Raise an Adult – Break Free of the Over-Parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success”
  • “The Prime of Life – A History of Modern Adulthood”
  • “Why Grow Up? – Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age”

Don’t get me wrong, I am the first to agree that “over-parenting” (short-hand for extreme parental interference/guidance a/k/a helicoptering) –  that done by a (I believe, very) small number of parents with “elite only” college admission as a laser-like focus end goal, can and does cause psychological harm to their teens.

But I doubt that parents bear as much blame for college student emotional distress as these authors and the media would have us believe.

“Expectational Anxiety” Has Many Sources.

Teens and young adults breathe in an air of “expectational anxiety” created by multiple sources.

This aura of great expectations can burden all kids; even those with the most independence-encouraging of parents feel its’ weight.

Kids as young as middle school age breathe in the “college is critical” message  – whispered by their eager-beaver classmates, from their high school teachers and counselors who remind them that college is just around the corner so grades really, really matter, they see ads for “get the highest score here” test prep companies, they hear the stories about how hard it is to get into the “right” college and how important it is to go to the best one you can – that college choice will make or break you for the rest of your life!! – from older siblings and friends.

Add in kid savvy about the economy, their awareness that the highest paying jobs are the most coveted, that tuition skyrockets unreasonably each year, and their status at the recipient end of the anxiety-producing mountains of  marketing and promotional materials that colleges and universities distribute with alarming frequency.

Top this all off with the explicit ridiculously high expectations set by college admission offices, the frequent lists and rankings of “top” colleges and purportedly “helpful” college advising websites that frequently use the word “Ivy” in their brand names.

Yes, teens and college students feel the weight of anxiety-producing expectations on their own shoulders, no matter what their parents may say or do – or not say or do.

Therefore a request: Mr. or Ms. Media, can you stop putting the blame so much on parents as a large, undifferentiated group?  Sure, a few parents qualify as micro-managers, helicoptering and over-controlling; these parents must be out there since you write about them so much – – but most parents of teens and college students are not like that – instead they try as hard as they can NOT to pressure their kids, to support them on their way to independent adulthood, to let them make informed choices of their own.

So would you just back off and aim your pointed pen at the many other culprits (see list above) that release this expectational anxiety into the air our kids and college students breathe. Parents do not deserve the blame being heaped on them.












Filed under College, College, Communications, Education, Parenting, Raising Kids, Social Media, Young Adult Mental Health

6 responses to “Anxious Teens and College Kids? – Don’t Put All The Blame on Parents

  1. Well said! It is a cycle. If the parents don’t push other parents or the school teachers or the media gets the message to the kids.


  2. Hi Nancy! This one hit home for me. Our city girl daughter is about to go into her senior year of high school and is interested in photography, sociology/psychology for college. I’m hoping she can combine these interests, but she may have taken another road already… as this summer, she worked as a real cowgirl on a working ranch in South Dakota! She has always been a natural on a horse and when a small ranch manager saw her talent (she was on a Habitat for Humanity project), he asked her if she wanted to go on a cattle drive on horseback, then help round up the calves, vaccinate them, tag them, and brand them. My germophobe daughter loved every minute and has been asked back next year–this time, for a paycheck. Will my city daughter become a cowboy? The manager also taught her some rodeo skills, which she LOVED. I have to realize that her interests are HER interests…and realize that whatever her passion turns out to be, it is HER life, not mine. 🙂


  3. I so agree…our daughter was a great student, and we were often the ones putting on the brakes sometimes when the school was pushing too hard! Her friends were nearly all stressed out about getting into the “best” schools which added to the pressure. I honestly don’t think we could be blamed for her anxiety. It was in the air in the DC suburbs where we lived.


  4. Love this Nancy! It’s out if control . You hit the nail on the head!!


  5. Sue L

    Certainly there is pressure from the high schools and peer groups, not just parents. Our daughter (our 2nd child) was in the top 10 (of about 400) in her public high school class. She had five schools on her list to apply to that she had an actual, viable interest in attending. One day near the time she submitted her Common App, she said, “My guidance counselor suggested I also apply to .” I asked her if she had an interest in attending that school and if so, maybe we should visit. She said “No” but the counselor thought it was a good idea. I told her that we weren’t going to pay the application fee for that school. If she or her counselor was willing to pay the application fee for her, that was fine and I didn’t care if she applied. Needless to say, she did not apply there! In hindsight, I’m sure the school had no interest in whether she attended, but having students accepted at gives them some kind of fodder for marketing or PR or standing in some state ranking or whatever.


    • Sue L

      Sorry my text was eaten because I used angle brackets! It is supposed to say “she should apply to IvyLeagueSchool” and “having students accepted at IvyLeagueSchool…”


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