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High Stress High School: The Balance Between Preparing Students for College and Ensuring They are Happy

Dr. Suzan Song discusses managing stress for high school students and how to balance preparing for college with staying happy.
High Stress High School: The Balance Between Preparing Students for College and Ensuring They are Happy
Suzan Song, MD, MPH, PhD
Suzan Song, MD, MPH, PhD was trained at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford, and is double board-certified in adult and child/adolescent psychiatry. She has also trained in systemic family therapy and parent-infant therapy from the University of California San Francisco/Child Trauma Institute. Currently she is Division Director of Child/Adolescent and Family Psychiatry at GW.

Learn more about Suzan Song, MD, MPH, PhD

Dr. Michael Smith (Host): High school today is a high stress place. Preparing for college has become a stressful and expensive endeavor for students and their parents. Families really could use some strategies for destressing college prep. Welcome to the GW Medical Faculty Associates podcast. I'm Dr. Mike Smith, and today’s topic high stress high school: preparing college bound students for success and happiness. My guest is Dr. Susan Song. Dr. Song is associate professor of psychiatry and director of the division of child, adolescent, and family psychiatry. Dr. Song, welcome to the show.

Suzan Song, MD, MPH, PhD (Guest): Thank you for having me.

Host: You know, Dr. Song, I remember back to high school, right? I remember preparing for college. I don’t remember it being that stressful. I know that there was some stress involved. But I have a sister who has a couple kids who are going through this right now and it just seems like something’s changed. It definitely does seem like a much more stressful process than I remember. What’s going on? What’s changed in your opinion?

Dr. Song: Yeah, you're actually right. It has become more stressful. In part I think it’s because college is extremely difficult to get into. Even if you have the grades and the extra curriculars, there’s still this thought that college is extremely competitive for the average person. So, there’s added stress on people. Even if you have all the resources in the world, it still becomes quite competitive. I found that in the past, it was the parents who were adding more of the pressure on the kids to kind of get into the good school to then get a good job. Right now, it’s actually the peers themselves that are putting more pressure on each other. More so than the parents sometimes.

Host: That’s interesting. Do you think, you know, wanting maybe to get full rides, get scholarships, avoid the student loan situation—which is becoming really tough nowadays—do you think that’s playing into the some of the stress for the kids?

Dr. Song: I do. I mean college has become more and more expensive. It’s very hard to really make a financial case because we’ve been seeing that sometimes… You know a college degree is not as valuable as it was in generations passed. You see this now, depending on the geographical area where you live, but you see this now where people are saying these jobs can drop out of high school and you can become a multibillionaire. So, there’s this understanding that yes, while getting into a really good college can help me, it’s mainly if it’s one of these really elite schools or if I’m getting a really stellar prestigious school. That will help me in my school. Otherwise, the pressure is now on me to figure out what my passion is or to find something that I really love and to really excel at that. So right now, people are just trying to excel at something. That’s extremely stressful. Everyone wants to be different or unique in some way.

Host: Yeah, yeah. What about prep test? Like the SAT, the ACT. When I was in high school, I don’t remember what was considered a good SAT score, as an example, but I do know it was a pretty large range right? A good score fell into a pretty wide range there. I think that’s changed, right? I think what’s considered a good score on some of these tests has narrowed a lot. Is that putting some pressure on the kids?

Dr. Song: Definitely. It’s becoming more and more competitive to get into these more elite schools, or even to colleges in general. So yes. The scores are weighted a little bit higher than they were in the past.

Host: Yeah. So, I kind of introduced this whole topic, and I think this is true Dr. Song, family’s need some strategies here. They need some advice, they need some help. This really could be an exciting time, right, for the student and the family. Ending high school, beginning college. We don’t want it to be so stressful. We want it to actually be a happy time for them. So, I really do think they could use some help, and I think you're the perfect person for this. So, do you have a few strategies that you could share with my listeners? If so, let’s start with your first one.

Dr. Song: Sure. The first thing I would say is for families to spend time together. This is important, especially in the teenage years. Now everyone thinks about when kids are infants and toddlers, it’s very important to have a parent physically present all the time. They think that well in adolescents, kids are becoming more independent and they don’t need their parents as much. Actually, studies have shown that the more time that people spend, parents especially, spend with their teenagers, the less risk they are of having really adverse risky behaviors. So, it’s good to spend time with your teenager. You kind of schedule time. Maybe one hour, two hours per week where it’s just scheduled time with the parents and the teen.

Even if that teen, because they are teenagers and they're not wanting to be with their parents very much. But if you help them, show them that you're interested, and it’s not to ask them about the college application. It’s not to ask about the school. It’s not even to pry into their other social life with all the relationship issues that might be coming up or any problems with friends or peer group pressures. It’s really just a time to listen, and to learn how to listen to the teenager. And to see what is going on in that teen’s world right now. What is important to him or her? You can attend the games—

Host: Yeah, I like that.

Dr. Song: You can go to any concerts that they like, any plays that they're involved in. Just to take the lead from the teenager.

Host: Yeah. That’s good. I do remember, Dr. Song, growing up, and my siblings we look back on how important this was. We had to sit down and have dinner together. That was a time for us just to share what was going on. I know we reflect back on that. A lot of good things came out of that time together as a family. Do you think that’s important? Do you see that families don’t do that as much, say just sit down and have dinner together?

Dr. Song: Yeah, it’s really important. And actually, studies have shown that families that do have dinners— I think it’s one dinner per week—actually have closer familial bonds, of course, but also less emotional problems in the teenager. But, I think, especially around the DC metro area in some areas that have a lot of pressure to go to one of these high achieving colleges, there just isn’t the time to sit down to have everybody at dinner. Either because one or both parents are working long hours, or the teenager just has so much that they have to do with their extracurricular activities and in their school work that it becomes really hard to carve out that time for everyone in the family. But if they can do that, and I would say once or twice a week, that’s really important.

Just having ritual. I think when you mentioned kind of the family dinners, the ritual can be a Sunday pancake brunch that you do together. Something where it’s very… The antidote to anxiety for a lot of people is structure. If you have a routine and you know that okay here’s this one routine, it just helps feel more secure and grounded when we’re really stressed out. We know okay there’s this one time where we’re all going to be together and we’re just gonna try to have fun and have our brunch together.

Host: Right. I like that. No, I remember that for myself and my family. Like you said, it didn’t have to be dinner time, but that structured time, really now that we look back as adults, meant more than we could have ever imagined as teenagers. So that’s strategy number one, spend time with the teenager. What’s another strategy?

Dr. Song: The second thing I would say is to be a role model. This is very hard. As parents, we all know that our teenagers look up to us. Sometimes, of course, they pick up on things that we’re doing and not necessarily that we’re saying. So, we might tell them don’t overwork yourself, try not to be too stressed out, try to make time for your self for self-care. And yet, if we aren’t doing that, it really doesn’t matter what we say because the teens are really looking at what we do. So, we have to be conscious that our kids are looking to the parents as a model for healthy behavior. So, try as best as possible to think about how do you relieve your stress? How do you manage under stress? Find healthy ways. Actually, if you want to kind of talk to your teenager about what’s stressful in your life and how you're managing with it.

Host: Yeah. I think you're so onto something there because I hear it all the time as well. A parent might say something like don’t try to do too much at once, and yet the parent is juggling 14 things right at that moment. Right? It just doesn’t look right, it doesn’t sound right, and there’s obviously a disconnect there with the teenager. So be that role model as best we can. I like what you said there at the end about maybe talking to your teen about sometimes I do take on too much. Here’s what I've been trying to do to handle that and improve on that. Almost having a conversation about you and what strategies you're following, and then the teen can follow that. I think that’s a really, really good suggestion. So be that role model. Do you have one more strategy for us to destress this time for kids?

Dr. Song: Yeah. I think one thing that I see a lot of parents doing is they try to solve their teenager’s problems. And of course, we want to do that. This is really where the shift in parenting has to happen away from the elementary school/middle school years where the parenting is much, much more hands on. When we start to enter early/middle adolescents, we need to shift our parenting to really just be more like a coach. So, we’re not stepping in to answer their problems. They're saying, “I don’t know which colleges to apply to or I don’t really even know how to go about this whole college application,” it’s not for the parent to step in and do everything and make spreadsheets for them. It’s to sit with them and kind of ask them what their ideas might be, and then to help them implement their own solutions. So, it’s working together to brainstorm solutions and let them come up with their ideas and try them. They might do things very differently than you do, but honestly in a few years, they're going to be in college. For many people, that means away from the home. So right now, is the time to start building these skills of how to solve our problem.

Host: Yeah. I think is probably a tough one for parents, right? There’s that normal nurturing desire just to take care of things and to solve, but I think you're right. I think stepping back a little bit and being just a part of that conversation, asking them questions as they solve these problems. I think this is probably one of the better strategies you’ve give us, but it’s probably one of the toughest ones for parents. So, spend time with the teenager. Be that role model as best you can. You don’t have to solve all their problems. You can just be with them as a coach, as you said, on their journey. Let’s summarize and end with this, Dr. Song. What would you like parents to know about this time in their teenager’s life? What would you like the parents to understand about preparing for college?

Dr. Song: To highlight the life importance that many teenagers place on college and getting into a good school. I think for parents, because we've been there done that— whether or not we went to college—we have more years of living. We can reflect and we can say it will be fine or things will work out anyways. That’s what wisdom is. But for a teenager, they don’t have that life experience to fall back on. For them, they feel like this is really a life or death situation. If I don’t get into this college, or if I don’t get into a college, then I will become homeless and nobody will like me, and I will have nothing in my life because they don’t really have any other life experience to prove otherwise.

So, we’re asking them to build this resiliency or to use their resiliency and they haven’t had a lot of experience yet for many kids. So just to provide a little bit of compassion for the teenager and what they're going through right now. It’s not only the stress of the college and school life, but they have a huge social life that is up and that they're trying to figure out as well that’s equally as important. So, there’s a lot of stress going on. It’s true stress in a teenager’s life. So, try to infuse a little bit of compassion for that teenager.

Host: Dr. Song, I want to thank you for the work that you are doing, and also thank you for coming on the show today. You're listening to GW Medical Faculty Associates podcast. For more information, you can go to That’s I’m Dr. Mike Smith. Thanks for listening.