A Cry for Parental Health

October 30, 2014 — 2 Comments

I met a young lady who’s going through what her therapist calls a “quarter-life crisis.” Yep, you read that right. Not a mid-life crisis, but a quarter-life crisis. She’s twenty-five years old and seeing a counselor for depression and disillusionment. I write about her because she’s the fifth young adult I’ve met in the last six months who’s been diagnosed with this crisis.

So why am I seeing an increase? As I meet with young adults and ask them, they all talk about the heavy pressure they feel to perform—in class, on the field, on stage, you name it. As I press them for the source of this pressure, it almost always comes back to their parents. Keep reading. It gets even more enlightening.

Over the last fifty years, we parents have evolved into the biggest headache for teachers, coaches, employers and counselors. I believe the primary reason our kids have not “grown up” to be healthy adults is, quite frankly, because we parents have not done so ourselves. We have somehow transferred our own struggles into the lives of our kids. Think about the competition we create, for example. Whether it’s ballet, piano, little league baseball, or Pop Warner football—we parents are really into ourselves. We hide behind our kids, but we are living out our unlived life through our children. When did this start happening?

Dr. Louis Profeta, M.D., asks the same question. As an emergency room physician, he has seen it all and wonders:

How do we balance being the supportive parent who’ll spend three hours a day driving all over…to allow our child to pursue his or her dream without becoming the supportive parent who drives all over…to push our child to pursue OUR dream? When does this pursuit of stardom become something just shy of a gambling habit? From my experience in the ER, I’ve identified the latter:


1. When I inform you as a parent that your child has just ruptured their ACL ligament or Achilles tendon, and the next question out of your mouth is, “How long until he or she will be able to play?” you have a serious problem.

2. If your child is knocked unconscious during a football game and can’t remember your name…but you feel it’s a “vital” piece of medical information to let me know he’s a starting linebacker and that his team will probably lose because he was taken out of the game, you need to see a counselor.

3. If I tell you that mononucleosis has caused the spleen to swell and that participation in a contact sport could cause a life threatening rupture…and then you ask me, “If we just get some extra padding around the spleen, would it be OK to play?” someone needs to hit you upside the head with a two by four.

4. If your child comes in with a blood alcohol level of .250 after wrecking your Lexus and you ask if I can hurry and get them out of the ER before the police arrive so as not to run the risk of her getting kicked off the swim team, you need to be put in jail.

I bet you think I’m kidding about the above interactions. I wish I were, but I’m not. These are a fraction of the things I’ve heard when it comes to children and sports. Every ER doctor in America sees this. How did we get here?”

The Natural Outcome

It’s the same in the classroom. By the time our children reach high school, 95% of them say they’ve cheated to get through school. In college, 75% admit to cheating to get through their university studies. Why? Parents won’t settle for anything less than stellar, and students are full of angst to meet these expectations.

It’s hardly a surprise that young people nationwide suffer from alarming rates of anxiety, sleep loss, and depression. In the most recent “Stress in America” survey by the American Psychological Association, more than one in four teens reported feeling “extreme levels” of stress during the school year. Studies of childhood stress have shown that unchecked anxiety in children is linked not only with adult mental health troubles, but also with disruptions of brain development, higher rates of disease, and even altered epigenetics.

In my book Generation iY, I share the nationwide College of Health survey, where 94% of students say the best word to describe their life is “overwhelmed,” 44% say they’re so overwhelmed it is difficult to function, and 10% have thought about suicide last year. What is so overwhelming about sports, class, and piano? They’ve been going on for decades, right? I can tell you the difference: today’s parents. We are not being intellectually honest about this issue.

Our Stress Becomes Their Stress

We can say we do these things because our kids are serious about competing, but I think they are usually reflections of us, the parents. It’s our baggage that causes us to feel they must perform so intensely. Kids want to please us and can tell—winning is extremely important. I’m all for identifying their gifts and helping them excel, but if we become obsessed with their performance, we’re unhealthy.

And the worst part is, we actually transfer our unhealthy state. They catch it like a virus; our emotions become their emotions. They grow up stressed and later become emotionally paralyzed, unable to move out of the house, take on a self-regulated life, or care for a spouse or kids themselves. If they try, they end up in a therapist’s office. This is happening by the millions.

Why Do We Do This?

Let me offer some common reasons we parents pressure our kids:

  1. They are a reflection of us, and as a result, our identities can become too closely tied to their performance. If our kid isn’t great, it must mean we have failed as parents.
  1. We work hard to remain hip and relevant, not wanting to be seen as a has-been. It’s as if we get a second chance at “youth” through our children.
  1. We’ve never worked through our own issues and become healthy, well-adjusted adults who can model what life should look like at forty-years-old.

So allow me to say the obvious: The best way you can improve as a parent is to grow emotionally healthy as a person yourself. Relax about your child’s scores and pay attention to your own. They will surely reflect the life you live.

Our newest book is out:

12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid – It outlines practical and effective leadership skills for both parents and educators on how to avoid common pitfalls including:

-making happiness a goal instead of a by-product
-not letting students fail or suffer consequences
-praising their beauty and intelligence

Take the FREE Quiz Here

This time of year always brings surprises. I’m not speaking of the trees changing color or the crisp weather sneaking up on us in October; I’m talking about great teams getting upset. In both professional and college sports, we see upsets on a regular basis. Defined simply, an upset occurs when a more talented team loses to a less talented team in a competition. Whether it’s NCAA football or Major League baseball’s postseason, upsets happen routinely. Highly gifted and successful teams will continue to get beaten every year until a vital lesson is learned.

Allow me to explain.

Success can tweak your sense of identity. Endorphins are released, and you feel good about the gains you’ve made. It provides a high, and we cling to it. It’s why some competitive types will try anything — even cheating — to be one up on someone else. We like to look in the mirror and see a “winner.”

There’s a downside, however. Once you’re comfortable in this identity, it’s difficult to see yourself in any other way. Success provides a false sense of self. Successful peopleare often guilty of letting their guard down, believing they really are the best at what they do. And it’s true — at least for that moment. But this belief is blinding. It causes a fog to expand through our mind and emotions, making it difficult to see how fleeting success really is. It offers a false sense of self, or at least an identity built on temporal foundations. It can take the edge off of folks who once worked relentlessly to achieve this identity.

A classic case study

Consider the department store Sears. They are back in the spotlight, but for a bad reason. They just reported their ninth straight quarterly loss. Investors are avoiding Sears’ stock because the retailer can’t seem to stop losing money. They’re down 40 percent in the last three years, and unfortunately, it’s been this way for even longer. Why don’t they do something, you ask?

They’re stuck in a past identity. I remember growing up when Sears was the leader. They were a Walmart in their heyday. Their catalogue was an innovative way to come right to your doorstep and make shopping easier. In the beginning, the time was right for mail order merchandise. Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided mail order business by permitting the classification of publications as aids in the distribution of knowledge. This entitled these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 made distribution of the catalog economical. Richard Sears called it the “Book of Bargains.”

Today, however, catalogues in the mail are not a cutting edge idea. I’m sure Sears knows this, but it’s difficult to think differently when you’ve succeeded profoundly in the past. Today, Sears needs a new identity. So how do you build off of past successes without allowing it to affect you negatively?

Playing like an underdog

photo credit: chrisowenrichards via photopin cc

photo credit: chrisowenrichards via photopin cc

The teams I know that push past the intoxication of success or winning enter every day like an “underdog.” Like they still have something to prove or win. They have adjustments or improvements to make; they see themselves as “David,” not “Goliath.” They are confident, but their identity doesn’t make them comfortable. The following are three concepts that enable teams to do this:

1. Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset
Stanford professor Dr. Carol Dweck reminds us that people possess one of two mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is one that assumes an identity that’s permanent. I am either smart, or I’m not. I’m either beautiful, or I’m not. I’m successful, or I’m not. The problem is, we tend to believe if we are smart, we shouldn’t have to try so hard. If we have “won,” it is harder to have incentive to work relentlessly. It’s our identity. Dr. Dweck suggests we build a growth mindset instead. This perspective assumes we are always growing and improving. The brain is like a muscle. It can grow. If we’re not good at math, for instance, we should say, “I am not good at math… yet.” Growth mindsets prevent success from blinding our vision, allowing us to seeing the future clearly.

2. Methods vs. Mission
Interestingly, Sears is not the only stock that’s down right now. Believe it or not, Twitter is as well. They’ve gone up and down, but right now, they’re losing money on a net basis. Investors are okay with it, however, because of the trajectory they expect from the company. Unlike Sears, they’re still in “underdog” mode, fighting their way through the fiercely competitive market space of social media. If you were to compare Sears and Twitter, one major difference might be: Sears appears to have confused “methods” with “mission.” It’s easy for people to fall in love with the way they do things, and when that happens, they can become immovable. When leaders clarify their mission (which is unchanging), it enables them to be open to changing the methods in order to reach it.

3. Rivers vs. Floods
This is one of my favorite Habitudes® (Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes). Rivers and floods are both bodies of water. The difference? Floods are water going in every direction, while rivers are water flowing in one direction. The organizations and teams that play like underdogs stay focused like a river. Knowing there is room for growth, they remain on point with great clarity on what needs to be done to make progress. Underdog teams are able to “upset” a more talented team because of their focus. They’re more of a river than their opponent. There’s no sideways energy. What they lack in talent is made up for in the way they harness every ounce of talent they do have.

My advice to you? Always play like an underdog.

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You probably remember the experiment that was conducted among university students in 1978. The experiment was constructed by Darley and Batson to study altruistic behavior, and the way they did this was by testing the possible facts behind the story of the Good Samaritan.

The variables to be tested were the relative haste of the participant and how occupied their minds were with other matters. In the study, the students were given some religious instruction on the story of the Good Samaritan. They were then told to travel from one building to the next in order to teach others about this story. However, between the two buildings was a man lying injured, appearing to be in desperate need of assistance. As students passed him, the man moaned and coughed twice.

The Scale of Empathy and Urgency

photo credit: *k59 via photopin cc

photo credit: *k59 via photopin cc

The big variable in this experiment was the amount of urgency impressed upon the subjects—some were told not to rush , while others were informed that speed was of the essence. Darley and Batson set up a scale of helping:

0 = failed to notice victim was in need

1 = perceived the need but did not offer aid

2 = did not stop but helped indirectly (told an aide on their arrival)

3 = stopped and asked if victim needed help

4 = after stopping, insisted on taking victim inside and then left him

5 = refused to leave victim, or insisted on taking him somewhere

The results of the experiment were interesting due to the haste of the subjects. When the subject was in no hurry, nearly two thirds of people stopped to lend assistance. When the subject was in a rush, this dropped to one in ten. Wow… only ten percent stopped even with the reminder of the Good Samaritan.

There are many examples of crime victims being ignored and not helped—all you have to do is open a newspaper or watch the news on television. In crowded spaces, apathy climbs even higher among potential heroes. My concern is how this plays out in the students we lead. They represent future CEO’s, faculty, administrators, nurses and doctors, military officers, stock traders, you name it. As students, we are already seeing signs of low empathy in these kids. But why?

The truth is, they are busy. Very busy… with so many good things we’ve given them to do.

Crowded Days and Busy Schools

In an ironic twist, some researchers suggest that over-packed schedules could be to blame for a growing “empathy gap” among students. One study found that students entering college after year 2000 had empathy levels 40% lower than students who came before them. Our “busy” school culture may be setting our children up to be less caring and compassionate about others as well. No wonder bullying is increasing; we don’t have margins in the day to stop, reflect and care about the needs or feelings of others. Life is pretty much about “looking out for number one” and getting things done.

photo credit: demandaj via photopin cc

photo credit: demandaj via photopin cc

Research also suggests that all this stress doesn’t necessarily pay off in great grades, excellent time-management skills, or notable leadership ability. A recent study from researchers at the University of Colorado found that children who spent more time engaged in less structured activities were far better than their peers at setting and accomplishing goals. Conversely, recent academic research at the College of William and Mary shows that kids whose daily schedules are over-packed are significantly less likely to score well on tests of creative thinking.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics correctly urged schools to implement later start times, which better align with teens’ natural sleep cycles. But as the AAP pointed out, the pressures of homework, extracurricular activities and other obligations are also reasons our kids aren’t getting enough sleep at night.

How Should We Respond on Behalf of Students?

I realize all of us would likely admit to living by an over-crowded schedule. Our students continue to be stressed out and often slip into survival mode. In fact, based on the Scale of Urgency and Empathy above, how would you score yourself when an unexpected need surfaces on a busy day? How would your students score?

If that number is low, then maybe some changes are in order. Below are some potential solutions you can use to help your students de-stress and care more.

Growing Empathy in Students:

  1. Help them drop activities if the day is too crowded. Focus on executing what’s most important, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
  1. Talk about noticing their surroundings. Sometimes we’re in such a hurry, we don’t even notice the poor guy in need of help. Look up from phone.
  1. Remember to model empathy. People are our mission. Solving problems and serving people are priorities for leaders. Keep the main thing the main thing.
  1. Plan for interruptions. You know they’re going to happen… so help students put margins in the calendar to make space for when they do. It lowers frustration.
  1. Teach them to take a short break every hour. It can help clear the mind and clarify the to-do list, as well as prevent stress and maintain healthy emotions.
  1. Help them catch up on their sleep. It’s the top factor in performance and empathy. When tired, we feel overwhelmed and stop caring deeply for others.


Remember the results of the student experiment. Overall, 40% offered some help to the victim. In low hurry situations, 63% helped; in medium hurry situations, 45% helped; and in high hurry situations, 10% helped. There was no correlation between religious affiliations—it was all about busyness, hurriedness, and stress. Daniel Goleman reminds us: “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”


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10_Jean_Photo_Saturated_10Recently I had the honor and privilege to talk with Dr. Jean Twenge on the Growing Leaders podcast. She is is a widely published professor of psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and the co-author ofThe Narcissism Epidemic. Her research has been featured or quoted in TimeUSA Today,New York TimesThe Washington Post, and other major media. She has appeared on TodayGood Morning AmericaDateline, and National Public Radio.


Click Here to Listen

Here are a few notes from our discussion on the state of today’s students:

Talk about what you do, in addition to your teaching Psychology at San Diego State University. You’ve been a part of some time lag studies of students that have been going on for years now. Tell us about that.

Since graduate school, I’ve been very interested in gender roles, and had noticed that women’s gender roles had been different than they were a generation or two before. So there have been a few types of studies that I’ve been a part of. One has us looking at the average scores of children or college students on different psychological scales, and with that, we’ve been able to trace some psychological traits all the way back to the 1930s. Another has us looking at studies of high school students and freshman entering into college that go back to the 50s and 60s. They give a pretty long view of generational change.

What are some of the big picture observations and conclusions about students that have lead to you writing books like Generation Me?

We call the book Generation Me because if you really look at generational changes, they’re rooted in the changes in our culture. And when you look at how our culture has changed, particularly since the 1970s, the one thing that keeps coming up over and over again is individualism. There’s been more focus on the self, and less focus on social rules and other people. That’s where the book title came from. So the first studies we did were looking at self-esteem and positive self-views, and then a few years into it, we began to find more extreme forms of individualism, such as narcissism, that had increased over the generations. So while there were positive changes, such as the increase in self-esteem, it appears that sometimes, those positive views and self-esteem are not rooted in reality, and that’s where I believe a lot of the problems in this generation exist.

You just finished a study showing that teens today are displaying more psychosomatic symptoms of depression, like trouble sleeping and remembering. Would you touch on this?

This came from a high school survey for 12th graders going back to 1976, and from that time until now, more and more teens are saying I have trouble sleeping, concentrating, and remembering. These can often be psychosomatic symptoms of depression. But what’s interesting is if you asked them directly, “Are you depressed?” there’s no change in that number since the 80s. This could be because antidepressants came on the market in the early 90s, so maybe the people with the most severe issues are getting the help they need. But we have more teens than ever saying they have these low-level symptoms of depression, and that’s very worrisome.

Are your concerns for the mental health of students growing, and if so, why?

There are both good and bad signs in this area. It is extremely encouraging that the teen suicide rate is down, but just talking with people, they talk about how stressed they are. And sure enough, today’s college students say they feel more overstressed than ever. Stress is a word they use a lot.

94% of college students say the number one word they use to describe their life is overwhelmed. Is there more stress than when our generation was growing up, or coping mechanisms different?

Well for one thing, as we get older, I think we forget just how stressful it is to be young. So we need to take a step back and see that perspective. Uncertainty can be really stressful, and it could be that this generation doesn’t have the resources to cope with some of the smaller bumps in life.

You’ve also reported that trust is at an all-time low among young adults in America. What does this mean for those of us who lead them?

Between the 1970s and the present, people are much less likely to say they trust other people. This is very worrisome. Political scientists talk about trust being the foundation of “social capital,” and when social capital decreases, our economy can break down. So we all need to work together, and we need this foundation of trust to do so.

For the educators, parents, and youth workers who are listening, what are some ways that we can lead students into more healthy lifestyles?

The first thing is to move away from this culture movement of boosting self-esteem, empty praise, and giving a trophy for showing up. High self-esteem is not linked to success in life. Perseverance, self-control, hard work, and having realistic view of your own ability, coupled with self-confidence, leads to success.

Any other thoughts or practical insights on affirming in a realistic way?

It’s all about balancing what this generation wants with what they need. For example, they want videos or visuals in lectures and discussions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It leads to learning, and they like it. Be friendly and encourage them to ask questions. But sometimes, the mindset that works the best is imagining I am their manager five years from now. This helps them understand that there are some standards that they have to follow in life.


Check out Growing Leaders. If you’re new to the podcast or blog, visit our website to learn more about the resources Growing Leaders offers to equip those who lead the next generation.

What topic would you like for us to address on the next episode of the Growing Leaders Podcast? Leave a comment.


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Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes


I just had a conversation with a twenty-eight-year-old about getting out to vote next month in the mid-term elections. He didn’t plan to make the effort, as he didn’t feel it made any difference. When I reminded him that he was the one kicking everyone’s butt to vote a decade ago, he mumbled, “That was then. This is now.” Not only is he not encouraging peers to vote… he’s not making the effort himself.

When social scientists first introduced us to this population of kids called the “Millennial Generation” in 1999, they were optimistic, civic-minded, and socially active. Today, you can easily find a bit of cynicism in them. One university dean put it this way: “A few years back, these students planned to change the world. Now, it appears they’ve changed their minds.”

What a difference a decade makes, right?

Trust is Dropping Among Students

Jean Twenge, lead author of a study that was published last month in the online edition of the journal Psychological Science, says the current atmosphere — fed by the Great Recession, mass shootings, and everything from church sex abuse scandals and racial strife to the endless parade of publicly shamed politicians, athletes and celebrities — may help explain why this young generation’s trust levels hit an all-time low in 2012 (the most recent data available).

photo credit: Satterwhite.B via photopin cc

photo credit: Satterwhite.B via photopin cc

In the mid-1970s, when baby boomers were coming of age, about a third of high school seniors agreed that “most people can be trusted.”

That dropped to 18% in the early 1990s for Gen Xers — and then, in 2012, to just 16% of Millennials.

The researchers also found that Millennials’ approval of major institutions — from Congress and corporations to the news media and educational and religious institutions — dropped more sharply than other generations in the decade that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“Young people today feel disconnected and alienated,” says Twenge, a psychologist and professor at San Diego State University, who wrote a book on Millennials called Generation Me. She finds these outcomes “especially distressing” for a generation that had been expected to be more trusting of government.

For instance, in 2000-2002, 49% of 12th graders who were surveyed said Congress was doing a “good” or “very good” job, compared with just 22% who said the same in 2010-2012. 30% of young boomers were approving in the mid-1970s, and 33% of Gen Xers were approving in early 1990s. (The researchers benchmark these figures every three years to assure they‘re comparing consistent trends. The margin of error is plus or minus 1 percentage point.)

What’s more, in 2000-2002, 54% of 12th graders approved of the job large corporations were doing. That fell to 33% by 2010-12. 40% of boomers approved in the mid-1970s, and 48% of Gen Xers approved in the early 1990s. During that decade, Millennials also had notable drops in approval of colleges and universities, the news media, public schools and religious institutions. Ugh. What have we done?

So How Can We Help Them Learn to Trust?

Call me crazy, but I don’t think society can operate successfully without people learning and earning trust. Marriages don’t work, friendships don’t work, business deals don’t work, bi-partisan politics doesn’t work, and international treaties don’t work. Trust is a must. So how can we begin to cultivate trust in students?

  1. Start with your own circle. Build trust among your team members by doing what you say, saying what you mean, and following through on promises.
  2. Under-promise and over-deliver. I know it sounds cliché, but commit to less than what you can actually accomplish and surprise them in the end.
  3. Start small. Trust is built by taking baby steps on issues where the stakes are low. Begin developing trust on your team by demonstrating it in little ways.
  4. Show trust before you ask for it in return. Extend yourself to others first and demonstrate you trust them with a task or responsibility.
  5. Be honest. If others sense you talk straight even when it’s hard to hear, they learn to take you at your word. Transparency actually builds trust.
  6. Eventually, take on a big responsibility. Do something that requires multiple parties to jump in and participate and where trust is essential to succeed.

Join me tomorrow as I interview Dr. Jean Twenge on our Growing Leaders podcast this fall. We will talk about this research and what we can do to cultivate trust in students.