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Why are suburban super-students burning out in college?

Therapists say anxiety is high.

A college campus.

A college campus. Photo Credit: iStock

Megan Bartlett saw plenty of it during her six years as a counselor for students at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa: High-achieving kids melting down in higher numbers each year, unable to cope with the stresses of college once their marathon through high school had come to an end. Her fellow therapist Rachel Chandler sees a version of the same thing with kids she counsels who are 14 and older.

Both women are witnesses to an epidemic of anxiety among kids, something that’s been making headlines for a year or so. Sensing the problem is centered in suburban homes, they are angling to grab these kids in high school, to teach them the lifelong survival skills they’re failing to develop on their own.

They’re pushing “life after high school” resilience workshops. It’s an idea that hasn’t gotten traction, because either word hasn’t spread or parents do not understand the unintended damage being done to kids being groomed to be perfect.

I know this much: The workshops at Main Line Counseling and Wellness Center will never be filled unless parents lift their heads from their kids’ SAT and batting-averages to realize something is very wrong beneath the shiny surface.

Today’s parents are doing their kids no favors by so tightly wrapping them in a pain-free zone that the teenagers fail to ever navigate the unpredictable ups and downs of the real world. An entrepreneurial workforce needs people with grit more than it needs people with perfect SATs. Kids deserve to become healthy adults.

It’s a baffling paradox of our age that kids raised during one of the most peaceful times in American history are entering adulthood unable to handle a tough blow or even a basic encounter with a roommate. On paper, they look high-functioning because they hit high marks on tests and activities. But they end up so overwhelmed in college that institutions across the country are seeing higher numbers than ever of students who cannot handle even basic distress once they have left the coop.

“A student will be engaging in self-injury, such as cutting or burning themselves - just hasn’t learned how to tolerate feelings, how to tolerate distress, how to communicate feelings to other people,” Bartlett told me about her time, ending just a few years ago, as a counselor at Arcadia. “It was, unfortunately, very common.”

Students struggle to communicate with roommates. They storm off in anger and cut friends out of their lives because of small issues. The ones who voluntarily sought counseling, she said, were from a broad cross-section of backgrounds.

“It was enough of a wide swath that the dean of students called for the development of a resilience task force, on which I participated,” Bartlett said.

What a boomerang. So many parents are militant about keeping their kids in the rat race for college that even overworked moms and dads enroll them in multiple structured activities starting at age 6. They then shield them from summer jobs as teens so that they can pad their pre-college resume with camps and internships for college-entrance brownie points.

I wish I had a dollar for every time a parent told me you can’t keep an iPad out of your kid’s hands for fear of damaging them. Their reasoning: All the other kids have them. Never mind that commonsense suggests that these devices are destroying souls swipe by swipe. Same goes for sports leagues.

“I think we’re creating a culture of perfectionism,” Bartlett theorizes. “You have to do your best all the time, and you have to try multiple activities rather than you self-selecting what sport you wanted to participate in. It’s, ’You’re going to X, Y, and Z, to try to get into college.”

At Arcadia, Bartlett saw students who had gone into a panic over the mere prospect of imperfection or failure. They struggled with the fundamentals of communication, a generation baptized into text messaging and perfectly crafted Instagram posts.

It’s bonkers and backward, and why both counselors are trying to get traction this year on the new idea of resilience workshops for kids while they’re still in high school.

“A lot of teenagers and college students I work with, they have a really difficult time with tolerating awkwardness,” Chandler said.

Chandler noted how, as a journalist, I have to cold-call people all the time, constantly putting myself into uncomfortable situations. Teens and young adults avoid this sort of thing.

“Even a very low-grade version of that, there’s no distress tolerance around it,” Chandler said. “My theory behind that is that if there’s a conflict, I can just text you about it or send you a message in some way. We don’t have to directly be in a moment together and work through something.”

Bartlett came up with the idea for a workshop series after leaving Arcadia for private practice. She tried to get it off the ground in the spring - I heard about it at a local YMCA information table. But not enough people signed up. She and Chandler intend to try again this fall.

You’ve got to wonder, though, how much blame rests with parents. Even the ones whose kids end up in therapy because of high school breakdowns are eager to stop sessions as soon as possible.

“Families will prioritize some of the other - travel soccer or math club or whatever - over therapy,” Chandler said. “I wonder if that’s part of the story; (parents) not being able to recognize it as such. It takes the same practice and attention the same way that baseball does or competing in physics.”

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