Parent-teen pressure points

For most of her life, Mikela Gordon says she felt like a lab rat, stressed to make herself into a miniature version of her mom and dad.

“I had my own goals, but I felt this pressure to be like them,” said Gordon, a senior at St. Pius X Catholic School.

Whether it’s a freshman with high school jitters, a sophomore battling the blues or a senior nervous about the SATs, adolescence is adding up to a double dose of stress — for teens and parents.

Gordon’s stress, experts say, is part and parcel of the demands placed on teens in the race to score acceptance letters to top colleges at a time when those institutions are becoming increasingly choosy about whom they let in.

Gordon discovered what Chandler DeWitt found out the hard way.

“Good grades are important, going to a good college matters, material success is nice, but nothing means anything if we don’t know who we are at our core,” said DeWitt, 19, the author of “Inside Out: Real Stories about the Inner Choices That Shape Our Lives.”

DeWitt said with teachers and parents pushing kids to meet the bar and students pushing themselves, “it’s no wonder so few people are really happy.”

DeWitt and her mother, Stacey DeWitt, hope the book will spur a dialogue on this issue and cause both teens and parents to bring balance back into their lives.

Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, calls kids like Gordon “hothouse” children, whose parents spend a lot of time making sure they build their resumes.

“They are overcooked and burned out and, as a result, you find a lot of anxiety and depression and narcissism,” he said. “It’s kind of a mixed blessing, like a lot of things.”

When Gordon read DeWitt’s book, it was like reading a script of her own life, she said.

“It was an echo of what I’d gone through,” said the 17-year-old from Stone Mountain. “I said, ‘Mom you have to read this.’”

In addition to having played basketball like DeWitt for the same amount of years, Gordon said, she was very focused on school, staying up late at night to complete homework and other projects.

When the teens decided to end their basketball careers, their parents’ reactions were the same.

“They said no, don’t do that,” Gordon recalled.

The only difference, Gordon said, was she felt pressured to please both parents but in different ways. Her mother wanted her to play basketball like she had, and her father, a musician, wanted her to play the piano.

“They tried to incorporate each of themselves into me,” she said.

When she finally gave up trying to please them, Gordon, a two-time middle school most valuable player, quit basketball in 2008.

“I was simply trying to succeed because everybody else expected me to and I didn’t want to let anyone down,” she said. “But I was done sacrificing my own happiness.”

What she really wanted to do, Gordon discovered, was pursue acting, and that’s what she did.

Now a journalism major at High Point University in North Carolina, DeWitt said it took her eight years to finally gather the courage to tell her parents she wanted to give up basketball and try other things.

She joined a volunteer organization at her school and found helping others and doing service work was her passion.

“I also started to play guitar and joined the chorus, which turned out to be a real joy,” she said.

DeWitt now realizes the pressure from parents and teachers came from a good place. But, she said, “we’ve kind of strayed away from what really matters.”

Stacey DeWitt, founder and CEO of Connect with Kids Education Network, a multimedia education company that produces curricula on social and emotional issues for school systems, called what’s happening to families “the law of unintended consequences.”

Because parents love their children and want them to do better than they did, she said, the focus is on what that will take rather than who they are.

“I speak nationwide, and it’s fascinating how many parents walk up to me and say, ‘That’s my story,’” Stacey DeWitt said.

The result, Dewitt said, is children today are more depressed because we have shifted from a priority of building internal values in children.

“Family was always where children got their strength, and we’ve shifted from focusing on that to extrinsic values, good grades, trophies, materialism, rewards, applause and praise,” she said. “The problem is you can’t control whether you are rich and famous, but you can find your internal passion.

“Everybody’s well-intended, but we don’t think about where this action is taking us,” she said. “It’s time to say stop and swing the pendulum back.”

Campbell said he suspects students’ stress levels are up because they are more focused on branding and promoting themselves.

“People are more focused on fame and notoriety,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a great recipe for a happier place, but I think that’s what’s going on.”

Campbell said it’s challenging, but parents can find a happy medium by shifting the focus away from perfection both for themselves and their children.

“A lot of people really struggle to be perfect,” he said. “Nobody is perfect. You do the best you can.”