My Inside vs. Your Outside

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A client’s mom recently asked me what I see as the biggest challenge for teens.  I thought about all  of the work I have done with so many different teens and answered based on what is most commonly discussed in my sessions.  As teens walk through the hallways of their high schools they encounter hundreds of peers at each class passing  and scrutinize the clothes, hair and bodies of their classmates.  These teens see what appears to be  ‘put together’ kids who look happy, confident and surrounded by friends and compare this image to their own inner struggles of anxiety, depression and low self-worth.

I remind my clients time and time again that they are comparing what they feel on the inside to what they see on others’ outsides.  A teen who is feeling insecure and shy sees a bubbly group of kids walk by and assumes that the bubbly girls are happy and ‘perfect’.  What the insecure teen doesn’t know  is that  Ms. Bubbly’s parents may be getting divorced, she may be failing in school or she may have an eating disorder.  Another piece of this puzzle is that as low as the insecure teen may feel, Ms. Bubbly might look at her and think that she has it all together and is stress free.

One never knows what is going on inside of another person  or what happens behind the closed doors of what appears to be the perfect home. Too often we assume based on what we perceive to be someone’s happiness, and so many times we have assumed wrong.

I have clients tell me that they work really hard to look “happy” at school so that people won’t know that they are suffering.  I ask if they share their sadness or problems with their friends and most of the time they say that they don’t; they don’t want people to know, they don’t want to burden their friends or it is just easier to not discuss their pain.  I’m grateful that these kids are able to open up to me (or rather break the silence after gentle therapeutic coercion; they rarely want to talk to me either).  I do wish they had others with whom they felt safe about disclosing their personal challenges.

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I have yet to meet the ‘perfect’ person.  I share this with my clients regularly and the notion that everyone has challenges and bad days.  It is true that some suffer more than others, but there is no one that is issue- free.  Often I use the word “human” when trying to impress upon my clients that no one is perfect.  We are all human; we hurt, we laugh, we grieve and we celebrate.

I must say, we grown-ups often fall into the same patterns of comparing our insides with others’ outsides. That one has a nice car, great kids or perfect vacations; not so true.  Just like with the teens, we adults are not always aware of the struggles that our peers endure. If you or your teen falls into the “compare and despair” habit, try to remember that things aren’t always as they appear.


Temper the stress of exam time

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Ah the stress of April and May – SOL’s, AP’s, SAT’s …..the alphabet continues. Exams, projects and more.

Today I was greeted by  a good-morning text from that college kid who was up all night studying for exams. Last week,  a client  shared that at the end of her Spring Break, she was so anxious about the numerous AP exams ahead of her that she was unable to enjoy her last weekend of vacation.  My sophomore in high school is spending the end of April reviewing for all of the upcoming assessments that occur in May. (My confusion lies in the fact that  Fairfax County schools  have been extended until June 25, and yet, this high schooler claims that they are done learning new material in the third week in April.  Once the exams are done the  Finding Nemo  continuous feed begins in many of the classrooms while the kids sleep at their desks…don’t get me started)

So, how do we help the kids with the stress and the reviews and the push for high grades and high scores?

If I have learned anything, I have learned about the diminishing returns of sitting on one’s butt and staring at a page in a book.  Sadly, I didn’t really learn it  until graduate school, thus have wasted many an hour in the library getting nothing done.

I encourage students to spend a finite amount of time (1 1/2 -2 hours depending on the student) focusing  hard and then take a break.  Get up, take a walk, have a snack for a brief period of time (20-30 minutes) and then return to the studying a bit fresh and renewed.    So many of us have spent six hours at a desk but only gotten half as much work done.

Sleep.  It’s a good thing.  How can we operate at our best either studying or performing at an exam if our body is in overdrive from not sleeping?

Food.  That helps too. Especially  a breakfast before an exam.  I remember being told for best results to eat eggs for breakfast the morning of the SAT’s;  the green smoothie phase had yet to be enacted in the early eighties. Blend away my friends, our current SAT takers need their kale.

Other things that have been helpful are group studying. Not the kind where your basement is filled with teens and closed backpacks while the XBOX is on.  But,  two or three kids seriously quizzing one another and talking about the material can really help kids learn the content, retain the information and stay focused.  I might encourage some popcorn or pizza to add to the focus.

And, please, remind your kids that it is all okay.  All that matters is that they do their best.  The students that are super high stressed need reassurance that it is just a test.  It is an assessment of what they know at the time that they sit for the exam.  The tests are not self-esteem measures, although too often some kids see them as so.   A child who may struggle academically may view a hard test or a low grade as another failure on their part; this should be avoided at all cost.

Academics and grades are one part of who we are.  I hope that we all remember to remind our kids that they are special and unique people despite their GPA’s;  this can be easily forgotten amidst the stress of the moment.


What may really be going on with your high school senior

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He got in to ________.    She was deferred from ___________.    He was rejected from ________.   Two more applications to submit.    Anyone know how to fill out the FAFSA?

This is what I have been hearing from seniors in high school and their parents for the past couple of weeks.  The SATs/ACTs/ABCs, the essays, the waiting and that email (in my day it was a thin or thick letter) that elicits exaltation or deep sadness within one click of the mouse.  And, these are just the ones that applied early or rolling admission – this will continue over  the next few months until the big push in April when all colleges will have admitted their incoming freshman class.

I have worked with many seniors in high school.  It is such a pivotal time. In some ways it is a ticket out, a ticket to freedom and a move towards independence.  In many ways it is a very scary time.  As much as the  seniors are flexing their muscles to be on their own, there is something to be said for home cooking, clean clothes and mom and dad lurking around to ensure that life tasks have been checked off, paid for and handled.

Early in my career I worked in high schools and observed the precarious nature of that status of “senior”.  The seniors were the leaders of the school, captains of the teams  and enjoyed privileges of the upper-most upperclassmen (definitely the best parking spots and lunch tables). And yet, in my office they presented as anxious and vulnerable. Would they get in to a college? Would they be able to handle the work load, the transition and the independence?

It is normal to feel apprehensive.  I continually reassure my senior clients that they are not alone in these fears.  They have been under so much pressure since junior year jumping  through all of the “get into college” hoops that they have barely had a moment to ponder what it all means.

Enter second semester senior year, also known as “senioritis” or “senior slump”.   The applications have been submitted; some have heard from schools and some are still waiting.  Grades matter, but not as much as  before.  There is time again to pause, reflect and realize “HOLY COW – I AM GOING TO GRADUATE”.

Seniors may experience this as a sudden shock, a slow building of anxiety or depression or  via other symptoms like withdrawal from friends or a drop in grades.   Some of my clients have suddenly brought home D’s and F’s after a high school career of A’s and B’s.  I talk to them frankly about self-sabatoge; if they have anxiety about graduation and leaving home, a handful of F’s could easily upend that plan without having to admit “I’m nervous about the next step”. It can be easier to crash and burn through that last English credit than have to face the reality that this graduation thing is actually going to happen.

We adults often forget how emotional and challenging this time can be.  Teachers, parents and other adults act as  cheerleaders raving about graduation and the exciting changes that are coming. But the awareness of these trepidatious months can be really helpful;  attend to your seniors, acknowledge that this is a big time of transition and it is okay to feel uneasy or anxious.  They may just appreciate it enough to stick around for dinner one night this week.


College Daze

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I went to college. I had roommates and exams and parties. I stayed up late and slept even later. I hibernated in the library for what felt like days and existed in a world of 18-22 year olds.   We ate at weird times and were usually awake while the rest of the world was sleeping.

Fast forward thirty years (yes, my 30th high school reunion is this weekend).

I just returned from my first  Parents Weekend at my son’s university.  The students are young and fit and beautiful and young.  There were parents EVERYWHERE.   The car line in front of the dorm was like pre-school pickup; parents shuttling their kids to dinner, brunch and shopping trips to Target. My son remarked how different the campus looked this weekend with all of us baby-boomer parents schlepping behind our eighteen year olds.

A mere eight weeks ago these “rising freshmen” were anxious, new and still a little clingy as we dragged them through Bed Bath and Beyond,  and every other big-box store to stock their dorm rooms for the year.  They seem to have acclimated themselves to this new way of life; the dorm room smelled like sweaty sneakers, the back pack looked broken in and there were nods, hello’s and a few hugs to classmates as my son showed us campus from his viewpoint.

I learned about the “swiping” of the card which gets one  in to the food halls, the gym and many other campus venues.  I was instructed about when and where they were permitted to eat what and about these periods called “late night” dining; that would be the “9:30pm I haven’t had dinner because I got up at 12:00pm meal” that the campus  provides for these college students and their unique  daily  routines.

My son pointed out the classrooms, the faculty offices and the big and beautiful new student center adjacent to the gorgeous campus  pool.  I saw his particular nook at the on-campus Starbucks where he gets most of his work done (“I like the white noise, it’s not too quiet like the library, but not loud and distracting”) and the Student Government Office where he and his peers will convene weekly  as  members of the newly elected student government (may they have better luck than their Federal counterparts).

So many thoughts as a parent were swirling through my head, first and foremost being, when can I go to sleep since  I have been up since 5:30am and you rolled out of bed when we landed at the airport? But seriously, how their lives have changed so much in just two months.  Which experiences will be the impetus to their future adult lives? Who from this campus  will be their lifelong friends, partners or spouses?

It was also interesting to note how the freshman are learning to negotiate their way through life challenges.  One girl had an ear infection and had to spend three hours waiting at the health clinic because she hadn’t made an appointment only to realize she had no cash on her to purchase her prescription. A few classmates switched majors and thus have  an entirely new schedule from the one that they had constructed over the summer with mom and dad by their side.  There have been  fights, injuries and student probationary periods prompted by overindulging in underage drinking and I read a flyer on the dorm wall about “alerts” that a professor will send home if there is an academic concern.

The freshman are learning that the “Welcome to Adulthood” banner includes the joy of the greatest.party.evah. and the realization that “it is time to do some work” all wrapped up in the same college experience .   I am grateful that these students have the opportunity to wear the banner in a somewhat protected environment.   There are faculty, staff, resident advisors and upperclassmen all available to share both the joys and the great lessons of the freshman year.

May all the Freshman of 2013-2014 find joy, learning, great adventures and safety this year (and don’t forget to call your parents, okay, a text will suffice!)

Addendum:  Between completing this post and making final edits, I got a text from my son “I think I’m going to go to the health center to get my sinuses checked out”. Since he had been having symptoms all weekend, I praised his idea and reminded him to make an appointment to avoid a three hour wait!


Summer Assignments

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was fully aware that summer was petering out and we were about to be slammed into back-to-school chaos.  The sky is darkening, the winds are blowing and I see the storm school buses on the horizon.  Yes, lunches are packed, back packs are ready and MY SON IS STILL DOING HIS SUMMER ASSIGNMENTS.

He is a rising 10th grader who was assigned a math packet, a 550 page book to read and:

The Summer Assignment for AP World History & Geography has three parts:

Part I Read the following selections from World Civilizations:

The Global Experience (6th Edition) and summarize. Part I: The Rise of Agriculture and Agricultural Civilizations (pages 2-7) Part II: The Classical Period, 1000 BCE – 500 CE (pages 34-39) Part III: The Postclassical Era (pages 130-135) Part IV: The World Shrinks, 1450-1750 (pages 354-359) Part V: Industrialization and Western Global Hegemony, 1750-1914 (pages 520-525) Part VI: The 20th Century in World History (pages 650-657)

Part II Read Chapters 31, 32, 33 & 34 of World Civilizations: The Global Experience (6th edition), and using the HEADINGS AND SUBHEADINGS in each chapter, take notes/outline. PLEASE INCLUDE NOTES ON THE THINKING HISTORICALLY FOR EACH CHAPTER AS WELL.

Part III Define the following terms and include a sentence about their historical significance. DO NOT INCLUDE THE TERMS IN THE NOTES.

Then 51 terms are listed, I will spare you the details.

AP or Basic Studies, why do they have to do what looks like half of a semester’s worth of work during the summer?  I could rant on and on about all of these kids’ summer trips, camps, work schedules which don’t necessarily allow the time for cumbersome workloads, but that isn’t even the point.

What about SUMMER BREAK?

These kids work hard all year long.  They have  the added pressure to keep up with their studies throughout Winter and Spring Breaks.  I see many teenage clients on a regular basis due to anxiety and stress that they experience during the busy school year. I don’t understand why they can’t just get a rest during the summer.

Another rant I have which piggybacks on the Summer Assignment rant is that in May when SOL’s (Standard of Learning  Exams in the State of Virginia) are finished, the students spend many a class watching Finding Nemo and Shrek.  I wish I were kidding; last spring my oldest son complained that he had to watch the same movie in two different classes on the same day.  I wonder why the self-taught chapters that they are grinding through now can’t somehow be taught in lieu of Disney movie week during the academic day in high school.

I feel badly about writing this negativity (and posting it) as we jump into the new school year.  Facebook is covered with posts about new learning opportunities, excited kindergarteners and fresh beginnings.  But, these summer assignments are a reality that are troublesome; how can these high schoolers feel any sense of excitement or positive energy about starting a new school year after spending the past several weeks with their heads in the books?

The scene at my dining room table

The scene at my dining room table


Signs of the school year coming to an end

end of school

-my kids come home from school having watched movies every day

-the thought of buying deli for school lunches literally turns my stomach

-dirty, gross and tattered notebooks

-my kids come home from school having watched movies every day

-stress over how to manage the next three months via lack of structure etc. for certain offspring

-tons of last minute projects and/or NO homework whatsoever

-459 billion concerts, recitals, banquets and ceremonies

-my kids come home from school having watched movies every day

-daylight in the evenings

-teacher friends planning big fat vacations

-fear of my caseload dropping

-my kids come home from school having watched movies every day

Please add to the list, enjoy the last few days and make sure to ask your kids about the movies they’ve been watching all week.