Parenting Successful Teens—How to avoid the parenting pitfalls of the millennial generation

May 2014 View more


Lauren, a junior in high school, had several AP classes, was on honor roll, participated in three sports including the varsity swim team, was on the student council, and had a part time job as a barista. According to her mother, a typical day started at 5:30 a.m. for swim training and didn’t end until 2 a.m. when she finally finished her homework and went to bed.

By the time Lauren graduated the following year, she had been hospitalized once for two bouts of shingles infections, had battled mono, and was being treated for an ulcer, all three conditions her physicians attributed to poor self-care and excessive stress. Their prescription for treatment? Address the stress.

The Millennials

Lauren is a poster child for many in her generation, the millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000. They are confident, team-oriented, and driven to achieve. But Lauren is also an example of what can go wrong.

According to recent studies from the American Psychological Association and the Pew Research Center, millennials are one of the most stressed-out generations, as evidenced by an alarming increase in reported student depression, anxiety, mental disorders, and suicide, with the latter ranking as the second highest cause of death in college age students.

“We’re seeing increased levels of anxiety and seeing increased depression and emotional fragility,” says Dr. Kelly Johnson, clinical psychologist, neurologist and school psychologist whose practice serves the Naperville area. “And the part that disturbs me the most is seeing increased feelings of emptiness and isolation in kids at a time that could be so fortifying in their lives.”

A Prescription for Success

iStock_000038218850MediumThankfully, what many experts identify as the most common causes of stress for millennials can be addressed in ways that not only improve their quality of life, but also that of their families.

Changing how teens spend their time is probably one of the most important ways parents can make a positive impact on their children’s lives, but also one of the hardest to challenge in a work-ethic culture that often links success with busyness.

“In psychology we know that the biggest predictors of success aren’t the things many people think about at this stage,” says Dr. Johnson, adding that the cultural push for kids to achieve ever-earlier proficiency in academics and sports, is a large contributor to a frenetic pace of life. “The most important things are levels of perseverance and hope. So that means making sure kids have time to play, refuel and finding a way to come together as a family for intergenerational connections.”

Whether it’s creating family time over a regular pizza night, movie nights, games or something even more creative, it is critical, experts say, to have a regular routine with kids even, and especially, with those in junior and senior high.

Quality vs. Quantity

For those who fear that eliminating some activities might be harmful to the college resume, there is some surprising news.

“Parents think that a quantity of achievement is the most important thing,” says Kimberly Sluis, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at North Central College. “But I would argue that there’s a balance between having deep, quality, meaningful engagement with one thing, as opposed to just tallying up a long list of achievements. It is a different approach that might reduce stress, and actually get better results in the end.”

Sluis knows that first hand. She explains that her husband, who works with high achieving students, constantly reads college essays that list large numbers of things that students have done or participated in, but with little to no depth or good story to reveal how those experiences add up to personal transformation. “What we know, especially at elite colleges, is that when they evaluate who they want in their student body, there’s got to be depth and reflection in that,” Sluis cautions.

Technology GenerationiStock_000025763671Medium

Even after slimming down the activity list, there is one factor that still looms large in almost every waking and sleeping moment of the teenage life: Technology.

Millennials, more than any generation, have integrated technology almost seamlessly into their daily lives, but its round-the-clock use and their heavy reliance on it to communicate, instead of face-to-face with peers and adults, has significantly impacted social skill development and their ability to read social cues dealing with emotion. The result can lead to added stress.

Dr. William Skoubis, clinical psychologist and school psychologist at Downer’s Grove South High School, has also seen an increase over the years of anxiety in teens, a sense of pervasive worry, impaired social skills, and an inability to tolerate much frustration, which he attributes, in part, to the skyrocketing overuse of technology. He regularly advises parents to help their students prioritize and limit game time and social media in an effort to make room for developmentally and emotionally more healthy face-to-face interaction.

Dr. Skoubis also underscores the importance of parents learning to model a balanced lifestyle. “They watch how you manage devises, how long you are on the computer, and being too devoted to job or career, and not spending time with the family or taking care of yourself. As parents, we can set an example of self care,” says Dr. Skoubis. “A lot of therapies are going in the direction of ‘mindfulness.’ That is being completely present and in the moment when you aren’t checking your phone when it makes a sound. For kids, it’s spending some time relaxing and decompressing. Some teens have opened up to the idea of yoga, meditation, and spas.”

Dealing with Disappointment and Difficulty

Another challenge today’s teens and young adults encounter is an inability to adequately cope with disappointment and difficulty. Having grown up in a highly safety-minded culture that sheltered them from as many unpleasant experiences as possible, and built self-esteem through the message that everyone is a winner, many millennials have not developed a realistic sense of self or a resilience to withstand life’s regular challenges.

iStock_000018896324MediumIf there’s one message, honest to goodness, it’s the resilience factor,” Dr. Johnson says with emphasis. “It’s only from falling and standing back up that kids learn how to tap into that source of power within them when things get difficult. We need to let kids meet the challenges and then coach them how to deal with those challenges. That is such a key skill to life. That’s such a gift you can give them. Insulating them from pain creates fragility.”

Sluis agrees, adding that coaching is a much-needed and often lacking parenting skill in the high school years that prepare students for transition to college or adulthood. “It’s about moving into a phase of parenting where you aren’t the player but the coach. It’s about letting them practice and not expecting perfection,” she explains. “Make them call and make their own dentist appointment—things that are really simple to somebody who is an adult—to start developing that responsibility in a 17-year-old so they’re ready.”

Like every generation, parents want what is best for their children. “The really beautiful thing is, as much as there is so much stress going on, many people are finally taking a breath and saying, ‘Is it worth it?’ People are assessing what’s in front of them and discerning, based on their values, where they want to put their time to fortify their family and deciding what are the most important things to live a happy and healthy life.”