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Stress Problems With Homework In Teens

Colleen Frainey, 16, of Tualatin, Ore., cut back on advanced placement classes in her junior year because the stress was making her physically ill. Toni Greaves for NPR hide caption

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Toni Greaves for NPR

Colleen Frainey, 16, of Tualatin, Ore., cut back on advanced placement classes in her junior year because the stress was making her physically ill.

Toni Greaves for NPR

When high school junior Nora Huynh got her report card, she was devastated to see that she didn't get a perfect 4.0.

Nora "had a total meltdown, cried for hours," her mother, Jennie Huynh of Alameda, Calif., says. "I couldn't believe her reaction."

Nora is doing college-level work, her mother says, but many of her friends are taking enough advanced classes to boost their grade-point averages above 4.0. "It breaks my heart to see her upset when she's doing so awesome and going above and beyond."

And the pressure is taking a physical toll, too. At age 16, Nora is tired, is increasingly irritated with her siblings and often suffers headaches, her mother says.

Parents are right to be worried about stress and their children's health, says Mary Alvord, a clinical psychologist in Maryland and public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association.

"A little stress is a good thing," Alvord says. "It can motivate students to be organized. But too much stress can backfire."

Almost 40 percent of parents say their high-schooler is experiencing a lot of stress from school, according to a new NPR poll conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. In most cases, that stress is from academics, not social issues or bullying, the poll found. (See the full results here.)

Homework was a leading cause of stress, with 24 percent of parents saying it's an issue.

Teenagers say they're suffering, too. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of all teens — 45 percent — said they were stressed by school pressures.

Chronic stress can cause a sense of panic and paralysis, Alvord says. The child feels stuck, which only adds to the feeling of stress.

Parents can help put the child's distress in perspective, particularly when they get into what Alvord calls catastrophic "what if" thinking: "What if I get a bad grade, then what if that means I fail the course, then I'll never get into college."

Then move beyond talking and do something about it.

Colleen pets her horse, Bishop. They had been missing out on rides together because of homework. Toni Greaves for NPR hide caption

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Toni Greaves for NPR

Colleen pets her horse, Bishop. They had been missing out on rides together because of homework.

Toni Greaves for NPR

That's what 16-year-old Colleen Frainey of Tualatin, Ore., did. As a sophomore last year, she was taking all advanced courses. The pressure was making her sick. "I didn't feel good, and when I didn't feel good I felt like I couldn't do my work, which would stress me out more," she says.

Mom Abigail Frainey says, "It was more than we could handle as a family."

With encouragement from her parents, Colleen dropped one of her advanced courses. The family's decision generated disbelief from other parents. "Why would I let her take the easy way out?" Abigail Frainey heard.

But she says dialing down on academics was absolutely the right decision for her child. Colleen no longer suffers headaches or stomachaches. She's still in honors courses, but the workload this year is manageable.

Even better, Colleen now has time to do things she never would have considered last year, like going out to dinner with the family on a weeknight, or going to the barn to ride her horse, Bishop.

Psychologist Alvord says a balanced life should be the goal for all families. If a child is having trouble getting things done, parents can help plan the week, deciding what's important and what's optional. "Just basic time management — that will help reduce the stress."

Teens Talk Stress

When NPR asked on Facebook if stress is an issue for teenagers, they spoke loud and clear:

  • "Academic stress has been a part of my life ever since I can remember," wrote Bretta McCall, 16, of Seattle. "This year I spend about 12 hours a day on schoolwork. I'm home right now because I was feeling so sick from stress I couldn't be at school. So as you can tell, it's a big part of my life!"
  • "At the time of writing this, my weekend assignments include two papers, a PowerPoint to go with a 10-minute presentation, studying for a test and two quizzes, and an entire chapter (approximately 40 pages) of notes in a college textbook," wrote Connor West of New Jersey.
  • "It's a problem that's basically brushed off by most people," wrote Kelly Farrell in Delaware. "There's this mentality of, 'You're doing well, so why are you complaining?' " She says she started experiencing symptoms of stress in middle school, and was diagnosed with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder in high school.
  • "Parents are the worst about all of this," writes Colin Hughes of Illinois. "All I hear is, 'Work harder, you're a smart kid, I know you have it in you, and if you want to go to college you need to work harder.' It's a pain."

When it comes to school stress, Hannah O'Brien has seen some extremes.

The 17-year-old junior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, has witnessed students crying in class after getting low test scores, she says, while others have gone without sleep a few nights in a row to keep up with homework.

"I personally have seen so many of my closest friends absolutely break -- emotionally, physically, mentally -- under stress, and I knew a lot of it was coming from school work," she says.

School stress is serious business. A 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report suggests that for children and teens, too much work and too little play could backfire down the road. "Colleges are seeing a generation of students who appear to be manifesting increased signs of depression, anxiety, perfectionism and stress," the report says.

Young Kids Feel School Stress, Too

A great deal of the pressure and anxiety about school stems from the college admissions race, O'Brien says.

"Students are being really pushed to make great academic gains, with No Child Left Behind," says Jim Bierma, a middle-school counselor in St. Paul, Minnesota. "A lot of students are stressed out about college already - in junior high."

But younger kids feel pressured, too. Even among her elementary students in Harrisburg, Arkansas, school counselor Joy Holt sees academic stress. Young kids are terrified of failing the standardized tests now emphasized heavily during the school year, she says.

"Even the little ones, they know how important [testing] is, and they don't want to fail," Holt says. "They cry. They get sick. Students have actually thrown up on their test booklets."

Of course, not all students find the classroom such a crucible. But in today's landscape of high-stakes testing and frenzied college admissions, experts worry that school stress takes a toll on too many.

Here's what parents can do to help ease the burden.

1. Watch for signs of school-related stress.

With teens, parents should watch for stress-related behaviors, like purposely cutting themselves, or expressions of despair or hopelessness, however casual the comments may sound. "Those are off-hand remarks that you need to take seriously," Pope says.

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