Navigating the Pressure

Over the past few years, I have been working on a few projects that have really opened my eyes to several things about teenagers and how they experience the world. As a long-time youth pastor, volunteer high school coach, and father of two teens, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what was going on and the impact it all had on our kids. I mostly understood their world, could speak their language, and had a sense of how they were being impacted by it all. Lately, I have realized that a particular part of their experience as teens has seemingly intensified and begun to have a deeper, darker impact than I knew. 

Teens today are growing up feeling pressure that is enormous. I know a certain amount of pressure has always been present in teen culture, but teens today feel like they have to perform everywhere they go, and their sense of worth is often tied to their achievements. One young adult I talked to about this said, “Everything that is an output from a young person is tied to some sort of approval.” Did you catch that? Kids today are being made to feel that they have to perform to gain approval. They have to produce in order to be loved. 

There are few places in life where they feel like they don’t have to perform. Life is simply one constant competition. They know that they are being evaluated in almost every conversation and every interaction. So many teens and young adults identify the pressure to perform as one of the heaviest burdens they carry. I was recently talking to a mom of an 11th grader who was on the brink of tears, talking about how this pressure was tearing her son apart.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. You might ask, “What’s wrong with pushing my teenager to perform? They are going to have to learn how to perform sooner or later. You have to perform to survive in the world!” On most levels, I agree. As a former athlete, long-time high school football coach, and an all-around competitive guy, I am all about some performance. As a dad, I certainly want to encourage my kids to perform to the best of their abilities and reach for the stars. For most of us, there is real tension in this area of life. 

The question is, “At what cost?” I know a lot of stories of teens who were pushed and pushed to perform in sports and walked away from it all early in high school because they were tired of the pressure. I have known college students who were pressured to perform academically while in high school so they could get into the right school, only to hate that school once they arrived. If you simply listen to young adults, you can hear them asking whether all the sacrifice, damaged relationships, and lost time were worth it. I think we need to start asking ourselves, “What does success look like for our kids as they grow up?” If we play into the idea that success equals performance, then we are contributing to our kids packing some huge emotional bags in their lives that will go far beyond what they accomplish in life. One young adult I talked to about this idea said, “We equate performance with being a good person.” Our teenagers measure where they stack up morally based on how they perform.

I believe there is a way we can help our teenagers reach their potential while keeping them from crumbling under this pressure to perform. I want for my teen to do their best, not feel the pressure to be the best at everything they do. There’s a big difference between the two. In a world where very few teenagers are going to be the best, what does that mean for the rest of the crowd? Most teens are struggling with this pressure to perform in several areas of life. They struggle with the pressure to perform at school, on the field or court, with their peers, and in their family. 

As parents, we have the opportunity to either increase or reduce the pressure at home. I suggest reducing the pressure. I recommend turning down the heat. Allow your home to be a place of refuge and rest for your kids, not another pressure-cooker of performance. Figure out how you can appropriately push your kids so they can accomplish their goals while maintaining a sense of mental and emotional health. Notice, I said their goals, not yours. This may be one of the hardest things for us as parents to do. Many teens today are experiencing real anxiety and depression, and I’m convinced that much of what they are feeling is a direct result of a world where they simply have to perform to survive. What if they had people (you) and a place (their home) where they could rest and relax and just be who God has created them to be? Would they be able to take a breath, recharge, and be better equipped to step into the world? I think they would.