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The Flip Side

Generational Differences Define Sources of Teen Stress

Some coming-of-age challenges are so classic that they seem to have been hard-wired into our brain circuits, endured by adolescents for millennia. Other issues are unique to each era—leaving previous generations befuddled about the state of "kids today." One of the most common points of confusion I hear is when older generations wonder what could be the source of stress for today's teens. I can assure you that the pressures are real, as fundamental shifts in recent decades have changed the pathway to college in substantial ways.

Teachers now are required to pack more into the school day than ever before. At the same time, we've seen an increased emphasis on standardized testing. Thus assessment scores have become key factors in determining what courses students may take in high school, which then influences which colleges may consider them in the future. Students feel constant pressure as they try to maximize their opportunities amidst the increasingly competitive applicant pool for college.

In addition to academics, we expect students to distinguish themselves with extra-curricular activities. Standing out from the crowd as an athlete, artist, musician, and community leader also requires a higher standard of performance than in the past. Previously, most such activities were anchored around the school itself, following an ebb and flow that synchronized with a larger school calendar. Today, however, many families seek a higher intensity of training by also pursuing activities outside the school arena. While this increases opportunities for students to develop personal passions, it also adds a hectic quality to daily life.

Alongside these trends, teens have fewer opportunities to hold jobs while in high school than in the past. Since 2000 the numbers of teens working, even during the summer months, has declined to its lowest rate since World War II. Many jobs that were traditionally done by teens are currently being filled by older workers. In families where there is no economic imperative for teens to earn wages, this is not a burden because children are already juggling a high quantity of homework and other activities. Nonetheless, this trend represents a significant difference between the experience of many teens and their parents. And it further ups the ante for how much children are expected to achieve in the remaining arenas.

Children internalize these pressures—and sometimes rebel against them through risky behaviors. Today's teenagers are no less intelligent or industrious than those of previous generations, and it is important for us to acknowledge that they face a set of challenges unique to their time.

Jeremy McGeorge specializes in serving families whose children need therapeutic services as part of their educational plan. He can be reached at