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Teens don't slack when it comes to stress

'Every Sunday it's the same. Most of the weekend, I have a good time. I'm relaxed. I can have fun. Then, late Sunday afternoon, as soon as the sun starts setting, I get this sinking feeling. It's like a dark cloud. I start getting anxious. It stays like that all through the evening, and it's there when I get up Monday morning. It's like I dread the coming of school each week. And during the school year it happens every Sunday. Always."

Stereotypes to the contrary, not all teens are slackers. Many care about how they do in school, and they worry about it - a lot. This is not just about unfinished work due the next day that has been put off until the last minute. This is a deeper anxiety - one that gets particularly severe as the school year enters its final stretch.

That's because by the time children reach adolescence, they get the message: How you do in school determines how you are going to do in life. The money you're going to make. The quality of your job. How high you go on the ladder of life.

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"There's this constant pressure. It's always there, never totally out of my head. You don't know what it's like."

Teens will say to you, "I'm going to be a bum. That's what I want to do. No, I really mean it. I'm not just saying it."

On the surface, it may sound like they're just trying to keep parents off their backs. But they are also talking to themselves, trying to kid themselves into pushing away the pressure that they very much feel.

With some kids it can turn into a true obsession. They come to feel that everything they do counts toward their future, from every grade they earn to every extracurricular activity they can squeeze into an already full schedule.

Sure, some parents put excessive pressure on their children. But often it's not the parents driving this stress.

"I don't know where he gets it. We don't put pressure on him. We always say that we want him to do his best. But so long as we feel he is putting in good effort, then we're satisfied."

"That's what they say, but it's not their future that's on the line."

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So what are parents to do to help their children cope?

For one, it is sometimes useful to tell them, "I want you to do well in school, but you are more than school and you will do fine." Just to give them perspective.

Kids are not wrong to perceive that school performance does matter. The pressure is real and it is constant. With school there is always work to be done. And it never goes away - there's always more the next day.

This presents a challenge for parents. The fact is, it is necessary for your child to feel the stress. The reality of school work is that it's not fun. Often very much not fun. And how do people make themselves do something that they very much do not want to do? They make themselves feel they just have to do it. The pressure, the resultant anxiety - that's what makes people work. The pressure is necessary.

So when it comes to school, should you back off or nag? It's not a completely resolvable dilemma. With most teens, you have to do both.

When they get too crazed - you will know because they'll radiate hysteria - reassure them.

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"Oh my God, oh my God, I've totally blown my life. I got a 74 in my biology test."

"No, you're going to do fine. You're a good student, you will do fine."

"No, I won't. You don't know anything. I have no future."

"No, you are going to do fine."

They may not always seem to respond to your words, but your voice of reason can be very calming.

But sometimes - maybe even the next day - nagging may be necessary. Again, you will know because there will be an exam or project deadline coming up that they seem to be doing nothing about.

"I thought your history project was due tomorrow. When are you planning to work on it?"

"Get off my back. Stop yelling at me. I'd do better if you didn't always yell at me, which only makes me mad and nervous and depressed. It's Sunday. Look, I'm getting the impending gloom symptom. I can't feel my left arm. I'm having trouble breathing. Oooh. I think I'd better lie down ..."

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

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