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Help Your Kids Manage School Pressure

Lily Coulter, a 17-year-old high school student from Charleston, SC, isn’t sure what finally made her decide last March.

She was at volleyball practice when she suddenly burst into uncontrollable sobs. It was quite strange for Coulter, a top academic, athlete and now senior class president.

“It all came quickly, but it was built from 2 weeks of prior anxiety,” she says.

“I was stressed with my schoolwork and I felt like the exercise was taking my time to get things done,” says Lily.

That evening at home, Lily’s mother, Krysten, heard that something wasn’t right when her daughter tried to talk it out. “I remember only listening because what she said was irrational and she just needed a chance to air,” her mother says.

After that, Lily tucked herself into her bedroom alone for a while. She sat down at her beloved piano and was absorbed in her music for a few hours. After a while she was able to calm herself.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to get through it on my own both times I’ve had panic attacks,” she says.

Still, Krysten Coulter was really worried about the daughter that night. The pressure to perform in school had simply become too great. She feared it was starting to take its toll on Lily’s sanity. She wonders where it will end.

Next year, Lily plans to move out of the house for her freshman year of college. Lily’s mother is already nervous about that. “She’s been putting such pressure on herself since kindergarten. I’m worried how she’ll make it if we’re not there.”

The pressure is real

The scenario is all too common, says psychologist Madeline Levine, PhD, author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Fast-changing World. Kids like Lily feel the weight of academic pressure more than ever, Levine says.

“Twenty-five years ago, if you asked a child about their biggest source of stress, they said they were getting divorced or they were arguing with their sibling.”


“Now it’s always the stress of school,” Levine says.

And the pandemic has not helped. According to some studies, the rate of depression and anxiety has doubled in school-aged children during the pandemic. The cause of the increase isn’t clear, but children often internalize expectations in the culture around them, Levine says.

That could be from their friends or from social media or from their parents. “Messages come from everywhere, but the most notable messages come from your parents,” Levine says.

Tools to Reduce Academic Pressure

Here are some things parents can do to help their kids keep school in a healthy perspective, Levine says:

  • Avoid the sole focus on numbers. “If you only focus on numbers, you end up with an 11-year-old who thinks they’re only as good as their last performance,” she says.
  • Ask questions and be curious – and not just about school performance. For example: What subjects do they like? What do they dislike? What clubs or teams or activities are they involved in? Do they have a healthy social group? Are they lonely? “You can never listen to your child too much,” Levine says.
  • Take unstructured time into account. Kids and teens should have at least some time every day to ‘mess around’. It doesn’t always have to be schoolwork or planned extracurricular activities. It’s even better if this downtime can occur outside in nature.
  • Eat as much as possible with your children. It’s a good opportunity to listen to problems and get ahead of them so they can be dealt with more easily. It is also important for your child to know that the family is protective against stress. The family is there, no matter how things go at school.
  • Avoid talking too much about material wealth in front of your children. Instead of talking about a neighbor’s fancy new car or swimming pool, focus on what people are doing to help each other and their communities. Try to teach kids to value the social worker, not just the Silicon Valley billionaire genius, Levine says.


The stress of academic pressure can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Pay attention to major shifts in mood or behavior. While it’s normal for kids to be in a bad mood every now and then, major shifts can be a sign of more serious problems.

Some teens make it clear. They make threats, start fights or disrupt school and social events. But these are the exceptions, Levine says. More often, school pressure leads to a young person becoming depressed, withdrawn and anxious.

This can be harder to spot. You may notice excessive self-criticism, trouble sleeping, sudden changes in body weight, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, or talking about self-harm (including suicide).

In these cases, it may be time for professional help. A doctor can recommend a suitable psychiatrist or psychiatrist in your area.

Looking forward

Lily Coulter knows firsthand how difficult it can be to strike a balance between academics, music, sports, friends, family and mental health. So she took some time to think about summer and decided to change something.

To ease some of the pressure she felt last spring, she decided to pass on the volleyball team for her senior year. She says she’s already feeling better about it and that she’s excited for her senior year of high school.



Lily Coulter, high school senior.

Krysten Coulter, Lily’s mother.

Madeline Levine, PhD, psychologist and author.

JAMA Network: “Child Depression and Anxiety Doubled During the Pandemic.”

Nemours Kids’ Health “Depression in Children: What Parents Need to Know.”

© 2022 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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