Saturday, April 21, 2007

Pressure Cooker

In 7th grade, I was taller than the center on the boys’ basketball team. My teacher, Mr. Klamala, called me an Amazon. When I asked what the word meant, he told me to look it up in the dictionary. “Large woman,” was the definition I read at home. What followed was two months of self-starvation. I wasn’t overweight to begin with, and for a time, I grew very thin. Fortunately, I enjoyed food too much to continue to not eat.

Like any kid, I wanted to fit in. Like most classes, mine had a clique of girls. That year, a new girl, Chris, moved to town. We were instant friends, but before long, she stopped calling. She’d been swept away by the “popular” girls.

When I talk with kids about the pressures they face, I still remember my feelings of isolation and loneliness during adolescence. But I was lucky. I had a mother and dad who frequently encouraged me and pointed out my strengths.

We hear a lot about the pressures facing kids. Most adults agree that growing up seems tougher than it used to be. It’s all relative. Back then, I couldn’t imagine it being much harder.

In the New York Times today, Sara Rimer writes about the current pressures facing girls. She spent a few months in a high school in Newton, Massachusetts, an affluent community. She describes girls feeling as though they are living in a pressure cooker. They are desperate to land placement in a “name college” which helps sets them up for lucrative professions. At the same time, they’re prompted to, “be yourself,” and “have fun.”

Angie, age 17, lives in the Bronx, New York, with her sister. Her parents died from AIDS when she was in preschool. “It sounds cliché,” she said, “but there’s so much pressure, trying to fit in while staying who you are, and not losing that, and not becoming like everyone else.”

Angie says she felt such angst that she started to cut herself. With professional help, Angie is handling her stress in healthy ways now. She talks with her best friend. She writes. She exercises and listens to music. She takes part in a support group.

Esther and Aliza, high school seniors from Newton, told Sara Rimer they find temporary escape by watching DVDs and eating ice cream.

Parents often, consciously or not, push their kids to achieve. Some feel that their kid’s academic or social success reflects on them. Others see the drive for success get out of hand and have intervened. My friend Beth told her daughter Kate who was obsessed with getting A’s that she forbade her to bring home a report card with anything higher than a B. (Kate, by the way, eased up on herself and still got into the college of her choice.)

Parents can help by being available and supportive. When kids can talk, it opens the pressure valve. “Every kid wants to be heard out,” Angie says. “We all need someone to listen to us and be interested in what we have to say. It makes us feel good about ourselves when someone really listens.”

What is really listening? Eye contact. Not checking your e-mail when your kids wants your attention. Sometimes though kids will open up in the car where they can gaze out the window and their parents are watching the road. In that case, attention can be communicated verbally with a simple “uh-huh, go on,” or a question that shows you’re listening: “Then what happened?”

My mother used to go for walks around the neighborhood with me, and chat. “Life will be easier when you get older,” my mother promised. That’s not entirely the case, but I got better at handling it.

I’m certain that talking with my mother and my dad about what I was feeling made a big difference. I always knew that I could go home, close the door, and feel safe. Kids need to know they have a place where they feel loved, heard, and accepted.

The teens are the formative years. Kids who don’t learn to balance intense academic and social pressure with fun and relaxation will likely carry the habits of the harried into their adult life. They risk it affecting their health, their relationships, and ultimately, their happiness.

The Power of Girls: Inside and Out

Related columns for young people


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