Help your kids cope with school pressure

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Lily Coulter, a 17-year-old high school senior from Charleston, SC, isn’t sure what finally got her into this last March.

She was at volleyball practice when she suddenly broke into uncontrollable sobs. It was quite out of character for Coulter, an academic achiever, an athlete, and now a senior class president.

“It all happened quickly, but it was built out of two weeks of prior anxiety,” she says.

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

At home that evening, Lily’s mother Krysten could hear things weren’t right as her daughter tried to voice it. “I remember just listening because what she was saying was irrational and she just needed a chance to vent,” says her mother.

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

“I’m fortunate that both times I’ve had panic attacks I’ve been able to deal with them on my own,” she says.

Still, Krysten Coulter was genuinely worried about her daughter that night. The pressure to perform at school was simply too great. She worried that it was starting to affect Lily’s mental health. She wonders where it will end.

Next year, Lily plans to move away from home for her freshman year of college. Lily’s mother is already nervous about this. “She’s been putting so much pressure on herself since kindergarten. I’m worried how she’ll be able to cope when 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 Rapidly Changing World. Kids like Lily are feeling the weight of academic pressure more than ever, Levine says.

“If you asked a child 25 years ago what their biggest source of stress was, they would answer that there was a divorce or that they were fighting with their siblings.”


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

And the pandemic hasn’t helped. Rates of depression and anxiety among school-age children have doubled during the pandemic, according to some studies. The source of the increase isn’t clear, but children often internalize expectations in the culture around them, Levine says.

It could be from their friends, or from social media, or from their parents. “News comes from everywhere, but the most noticeable news comes from your parents,” says Levine.

Tools to reduce academic pressure

Here are some things parents can do to help their children keep school on a healthy footing, says Levine:

  • Avoid focusing solely on grades. “If you just focus on grades, you end up with an 11-year-old who thinks he’s only as good as his last performance,” she says.
  • Ask questions and be curious – and not just about academic performance. For example: What subjects do you like? What do not you like? What clubs or teams or activities are they involved in? Do they have a healthy social group? Are you lonely? “You can never listen to your kid too much,” says Levine.
  • Allow for unstructured time. Children and young people need to have at least some time every day just to “joke around”. It doesn’t always have to be schoolwork or planned extracurricular activities. It’s even better if that downtime can take place outdoors in nature.
  • Whenever possible, have dinner with your children. It’s a good opportunity to listen to problems and stay one step ahead of them to make them easier to deal with. It’s also important for your child to know that family unity protects against stress. The family is there, no matter how the school is going.
  • 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 community. Try to teach the kids to appreciate the social worker, not just the Silicon Valley billionaire genius, says Levine.


The stress of academic pressure can show itself in different ways. Be alert to major mood or behavior changes. While it’s normal for children to be in a bad mood from time to time, big changes can be a sign of more serious problems.

Some teenagers make it obvious. They make threats, start fights, or disrupt school and social events. But those are the exceptions, says Levine. More often, school pressures cause a young person to become depressed, withdrawn, and anxious.

This can be harder to spot. They 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 psychologist or psychiatrist in your area.

looking ahead

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

To relieve some of the pressure she felt last spring, she decided to give up the volleyball team for her senior year. She says it already makes her feel better and looking forward to her senior year of high school.



Lily Coulter, high school senior.

Krysten Coulter, Lily’s mother.

Madeline Levine, PhD, psychologist and author.

JAMA network: “Pediatric depression and anxiety have doubled during the pandemic.”

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

© 2022 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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Help your kids cope with school pressure
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