“What would be your fee if you worked only with my child?”“Excuse me?” “If you didn’t work with anyone else in his school. I mean, at least with anyone else in his grade.”
Happily, I didn’t have to answer that question, as our conversation shifted to other (more sane!) topics, and, by the time we spoke again the following week, the issue had been forgotten and never was spoken of again. (For the record, the aforementioned parent was a truly lovely mom who only acted crazy.)
SAT and ACT Test Anxiety Makes Parents and Teens Go Nuts
Parents in DC can seem nuts. They can make us nuts. We can be nuts—especially when it comes to high-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT. And, as with any multiple-choice exam, the best answer may be “All of the Above” response. DC can certainly be a stressful place to raise kids, and many parents believe that if some other child gets into a certain college from this area, their child will not. In reality, life is rarely so competitive and many more options abound.
Fear Robs the Mind of Reasoning Power
For those of you in the throes of high school and/or the college admissions process or with that swirl in sight, allow me to share some advice. Before I do, a few words about me. To date, I’ve spent something north of 35,000 hours with kids just like yours and wrote a book about anxiety and standardized tests. Why? I recognized long ago that kids who are academic, hard-working, smart and well prepared can and do still underperform. Why? I think Edmund Burke said it nicely when he noted “no passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” With that in mind, I will share a few of my thoughts.
Parental Stress Adds to Teen Stress
Don’t panic now! (You can always panic later.) Your stress adds to your son or daughter’s stress. One of the most helpful actions parents can take for their kids is to take care of their own anxiety. It is a very rare teen who benefits from parents who are more stressed and appear more out of control than they are. By maintaining your own sanity, you are better able to absorb some of your son or daughter’s anxiety. Moreover, you will give better advice when you are less stressed and speak with a more relaxed tone, which will make your kids more apt to hear your wisdom as advice rather than as meddling.
Recognizing Great Schools Abound Eases Stress
Plan B: Start as early as possible to observe and think about a variety of paths to success. Sure, Yale undergrad and Harvard Law make for a marvelous education and abundant opportunities, but so do other avenues. When we take note of the abundance of opportunities that can lead to success, we not only give kids a more complete understanding of the world (only 0.4% of American grads come from Ivy League schools. Despite all the jokes, only 0.36% are attorneys) but also lower their anxiety. As Director of the Centre for Human Stress, Dr. Sonia Lupien, observes, simply having a Plan B lowers stress. Aim for Plan A, but remember that there are 25 other letters in the alphabet. The anxiety of scarcity is nicely salved by a sense of abundance.
Be a Consultant Not a Manager
Despite reading stories of parents stressing about whether they (the parents!) can handle their kids’ fourth-grade, (or seventh or tenth) grade work, try hard to keep in mind that your kids’ school work is their work. Not yours. You are not a middle manager with your bonus on the line for how your kids do. When you slip, and behave as though you are, your (and their) stress will rise. You are mom or dad, with arguably the most nuanced and intimate understanding of and connection to your kids. You must tread lightly. While as employees we can go home at the end of the day and gripe about bosses, our kids, well, they need us to be mom and dad first. We need to make home a safe base first and oversee the drive for success as a distant second, third, or eleventh priority. If you can take a position as a consultant, whose role it is to offer only suggestions and feedback when asked for, you can share your wisdom. But even then, do not expect it to be cheerily met with “Thanks, Mom! I really appreciate your insightful critiques of my writing! Whatever would I do without you!” That would be confusing human teens with a different species. If being a consultant to your teen is tough, a trusted teacher, tutor, or mentor may be better able to do the job.
A Sense of Control Motivates and Calms Teens
Lastly, at the core of most every model of motivation and stress management is the importance of a sense of control. Your kids will experience less stress and be more internally motivated when they feel a sense of control of their own lives. We, in turn, will feel less stress if we do not try to control things that we cannot in fact control, such as everyone else in your kid’s class.