What Stressed Out Kids Need from Their Parents…Who are Stressing Them Out

For months on end my daughter complained of stress. Yes, there had been a few especially busy weeks but by the time spring of her senior year hit, I didn’t get it. This should have been the downhill swing; a time when major “Senioritis” kicks in; not anxiety.

Not until I sat next to her, across the desk from her “counselor” of sorts, did I get it – finally hearing what my daughter had really been saying all along. I think she had said it before and it just didn’t compute, but what I heard then (loud and clear) was not, “I’m stressed out,” but “Mom, YOU are stressing me out!”

I will admit I had been a bit of a nag. With all the scholarship applications on top of her normal coursework and responsibilities, I didn’t want anything to fall through the cracks. The way I saw it I was helping her. And honestly that was my intent. But until an outside voice asked me exactly why I thought it so important for my daughter to apply for one last scholarship and take the ACT again, I had never considered the premium I had placed on the relatively small, potential college tuition savings at the expense of my daughter’s mental health.

What really got me is when I learned of her interpretation of why I was constantly on her. My expectations and demands not only drove my daughter to a stressed out state, but also led her to believe I didn’t think she could succeed without my help. And with college looming, this terrified her.

Wow. This is what I had unknowingly communicated to her through my nagging.

Believe it or not, I even pride myself on not being a helicopter mom! I don’t think I am a mom who hovers over every aspect of my children’s lives, nor do I jump to rescue them from every single adversity. And yet, just the same, I saw how “helping” my daughter had actually hindered her by leading her to feel inadequate and ill-equipped on her own. All those times I thought my to-do lists and reminders would prompt her into action, I understand now why she instead escaped deeper into Netflix and further away from getting things done.

I know my daughter is not the only teen who has felt this way. In fact, it has been widely reported that teenagers today are more stressed out than ever before. Their stress is on par even with the level of stress adults experience (which is hard to comprehend when we know “adulting” includes the stress of jobs, relationships, finances, health, home maintenance, lack of time and on and on).

Like my daughter, teens name parents as one of, if not the biggest, contributor to their stress. In 2015 I conducted an anonymous teen survey online, and the results confirm this to be true. But what I also discovered from analyzing the data was that the majority of teenagers live under the weight of enormous pressure to be perfect at everything. They don’t feel like they can talk to their parents about their struggles and stress (which makes sense if we are such a large culprit), nor do they feel like they can talk to their friends, who they constantly compare themselves to. It is no surprise stress and depression among high school and college students is at an all-time high.

What this tells me (and what I learned from my personal experience) is, as parents, it’s time we examine our hearts to see what is ruling us that we have put such a high premium on success? How are we buying into the lies of our performance-driven culture and passing those poor values on to our kids.

I think parents need to ask ourselves why it is so important to us that our kids be at the “top” of everything? To receive the greatest recognition? To balance so many different activities? To be on the best travel sports teams? To never miss out on a social event? To be valedictorian?

The problem is that we have tied performance to identity. Who we are, who our kids are, is linked to how they perform. And not just how they perform in one area, but every area. In today’s culture, being less than best in whatever we do is not good enough. So when our teens look around at their peers and see others performing better, they feel less than, worthless, and immense pressure to measure up. As if carrying that burden is not enough, parents fuel the fire with our own expectations.

How truly telling of our idols that over and again we willingly sacrifice family time, down time, and church in order to “help” our kids achieve and do the things they base their identity on (sports, academics, arts, etc.). We add unnecessary stress, when what our teens need is rest. Physical rest, yes. But also, rest in Jesus – to know who He is for them and who they are in Him.

When our children know their secure identity in Jesus, whether they ace the test, score the winning point, win the student body election or get asked to Homecoming – or maybe they fail the test, drop out of their club sport, lose the election, or don’t get asked to the dance – these things won’t define them. More than anything else, our kids need our help to see who they are in Christ because of His performance. But until we also see that our worth is not tied to our performance, accomplishments, popularity, or appearance (nor to that of our kids who we so often vicariously live through) we will continue to be a serious source of anxiety!

So I call us to rest on Jesus’ accomplishment – to know our kids are enough, just as they are, and so are we.


Kristen Hatton holds a master’s in counseling and works primarily with teen girls, parents and families. She is the author of Parenting AheadThe Gospel-Centered Life in Exodus for StudentsFace Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World, and Get Your Story Straight. Kristen and her pastor husband reside in Dallas, Texas and are the parents of three young adults and a son-in-law. Learn more by visiting her website at www.kristenhatton.com.

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