Driven to succeed, part 3: Whose problem is it, anyway?

Parents, community can help youth discover their own path to success, experts say

Part 1: Getting off the treadmill

Part 2: Do high schools squash the joy of learning?

Editorial: The achievement treadmill

It's no secret that Palo Altans are concerned about negative stress and its impact on the mental health of high school youth. Local teen suicides in recent years have propelled this issue to the surface of public consciousness and generated numerous committees, forums, programs, coalitions and initiatives to address it.

What has been less noticed and discussed, however, are the burgeoning mental health problems that manifest for many youth in college. Miranda Chatfield (Gunn High '08) and Trevor Bisset (Palo Alto High '05) -- profiled in Part I of this series -- are but two examples of the high price paid for running too hard on the high school treadmill. Both teens suffered emotional problems serious enough to require counseling and a year off from college.

"We need to own this problem as a community," Leif Erickson, director of the nonprofit Youth Community Service (YCS), told the Weekly.

While many stressed-out students hold it together in high school, the emotional toll can surface in college, which carries its own set of stresses and lack of home-front scaffolding. The emotional challenges in college can range from a feeling of being lost to serious depression and everything in-between, according to youth experts.

"I put all this pressure on myself to get to this point (Pomona College), and I thought I could relax and have all the answers. ... But then I had the whole world in front of me, and it was much bigger than the college selection process. ... If the wheels are going to come off, it will be in college. If you're going to crash and burn, it's going to be in college. That's absolutely what happened to me," Bisset said.

Stanford University School of Education Professor and psychologist William Damon believes that a sense of purpose -- intrinsic, sustaining and noble -- provides built-in protective factors against depression and anxiety disorders. But his research shows that the vast majority of students entering college have not yet developed a clear sense of purposeful pursuit.

"And that's why all of these colleges, all of them, can't keep up with the counseling services that are being demanded. Kids are flocking to the counseling services at all of these colleges because a lot of the kids frankly aren't prepared. They're not going there for the right reasons," Damon said. "They've accomplished a goal, but the goal isn't the kind of goal that is very sustaining. And then what?"

Damon believes it's important for young people to enter college with one or more purposes they are pursuing.

"The purpose can be further defined, be made more concrete or can even be changed while in college," he said. But without an understanding of what they want to accomplish in college and why, they are at risk.

According to Damon, some kids will make the transition to college fine, even without a sense of purpose upon entering, because "they'll get into an exciting class or find some inspirational mentor." This will connect them to important underlying reasons to be in college, and from there a sense of purpose will develop.

"In our research, we're finding significant movement, especially in the early 20s," he told the Weekly.

But too many college students do not find that foothold and begin to burn out, grow anxious, feel lost and empty, get depressed, and suffer other mental health disorders, according to youth experts and multiple accounts in Psychology Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications.

Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising and Palo Alto parent Julie Lythcott-Haims has given a lot of thought to this issue,

"Those of us who work with young people today sense that something is different, and perhaps drastically different ... as compared to as recently as 10 years ago. Depending on our vantage point, we have different senses of the cause and the outcome. Based on what I've read and observed, I'm intrigued by the notion that many of today's high-achieving students seem to accomplish that high achievement at the cost of something even more important, which is their sense of self or their sense of purpose. We have to ask ourselves, if that is possibly true, 'Why? What are we doing or what are we not doing that one can grow to what was once the age of adulthood without actually having formed a sense of self that enables one to step out into adulthood and function on one's own joyfully, able to cope?'"

Psychologist Madeline Levine writes in "The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids": "There is a growing awareness that, in spite of tremendous external accomplishment, many kids are both dreadfully unhappy and impaired in their ability to function autonomously ... . Heavily dependent on their 'public' success for a sense of self, many of these youngsters have little in the way of authentic purpose in their lives, leaving a void where conscience, generosity and connection should be."

A January New York Times article, "Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen," reported on troubling results from an annual survey begun 25 years ago, "the latest evidence of what (campus counselors) see every day in their offices -- students who are depressed, under stress and using psychiatric medication, prescribed even before they came to college."

According to Damon, recent studies show that many college-age youth display serious signs of depression. Colleges are also concerned about a rise in suicide risks in recent years.

Chatfield reported that she "saw high levels of drinking, high levels of stress and anxiety" while at Cornell. In addition, a number of her Palo Alto friends and acquaintances had a difficult time adjusting to college; many transferred, dropped out entirely or stopped out for a year like she did. Bisset also described how "so many kids in college fall into depression, fall into drug abuse, various forms of escapism."

According to Denise Pope, a lecturer with the Stanford School of Education and co-founder with Levine of the organization Challenge Success, college students used to seek counseling mainly for relationship issues; now academic issues have taken the lead, and the complaints are often more serious in nature.

"There are levels of depression and anxiety never seen before," she said. "The systems were not set up for this."

All colleges are experiencing this rise in mental health challenges, not just elite institutions or affluent populations, Pope said.

Lythcott-Haims confirms that the Stanford admissions office, like others nationwide, is grappling with the challenges presented by these mental health trends, which affect appetites for learning along with other important aspects of campus life.

"This year I participated in a conversation about how to ask (an admissions application) question that would in fact elicit whether that student has that sense of purpose. ... It will be interesting to see if the tweak of our questions yields on that," she said. The new question was: "What matters to you, and why?"

In fall 2006, trends at Stanford and throughout the country led Stanford Provost John Etchemendy to convene Stanford's Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Task Force.

"Increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior," Etchemendy said in his charge to the task force.

The Task Force report, issued in 2008, said there was "abundant evidence" that today's students, at Stanford and elsewhere, suffer from more emotional problems and mental illnesses than earlier generations.

The report indicated surprise to find that emotional distress on campus wasn't limited to students who were struggling academically. Students with stellar academic records also were susceptible.

"We have students, who, no matter what else is going on in their lives, know how to get those grades, and know how to do very well academically, and so it masks that they may be struggling emotionally," said Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, a member of the Task Force. "They may have no friends. They may not have a sense of belonging. They may feel that no one in the community cares about them. It's important for us to take away the blinders that keep us from seeing their distress."

The report concluded: "A shift in cultural norms and expectations is needed. The University is committed to fostering students' development through learning, personal growth and success, and yet the definition of success cannot be limited to academic achievement alone. The Task Force believes that it is necessary to critically examine expectations surrounding academic achievement and to assess their impact on students' mental health and well-being. Qualifying students for 'personal success and direct usefulness in life' as outlined by the Founding Grant means that a student's academic achievement may not be the most significant measure of qualification and preparation."

Broadening definitions of success beyond academic achievement, along with greater support systems, as recommended by the Stanford Task Force, would help many college students achieve greater well-being. However, Damon believes the process needs to begin earlier, especially as a counterbalance to the pressure to achieve more superficial goals.

"If, during the early years of strenuous effort and high achievement, they had found purposes that went deeper than the grades and awards, they would have hit the ground running when they entered college. They would have been eager to gain more knowledge and skills in order to help them better accomplish their chosen purposes," he writes in his book, "The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life."


When it comes to fostering that earlier sense of purpose, parents have a large supporting role to play, according to Damon. Yet, modern parenting styles may in fact work against the normal, healthy formation of identity and purpose.

Many of the students interviewed for this article spoke of parental influence in creating pressures to succeed along a path defined by elite colleges and material affluence, in part because that is what worked for them. This mirrors what psychologists and other youth experts have observed.

"We can be myopic when we insist that high grades, well-known schools, or particular professions are the royal road to happiness. A life well lived takes many forms. ... (W)hen we insist that our children be gratified by the same things that have gratified us, then we limit the roads they can travel on, roads that may be closer to their own hearts," Levine writes. The tendency to focus on and overly value external measures of accomplishment "is directly related to high rates of depression and substance abuse," she says, and also to "a general sense that living can be unbearably difficult."

Bisset sees parental achievements as creating strong pressures on youth.

"Unlike the East Coast, a lot of parents here made themselves. ... There's a lot of grit, a lot of ingenuity. There's a lot of American Dream stories with immigrants. ... My dad is one of them," he said.

According to Bisset, this milieu leads kids to measure their self-worth by their ability to integrate within an affluent, entrepreneurial society.

Gunn math teacher Daisy Renazco says that parents, friends, TV and newspapers often give the impression that the only path to success is via a top school and top job.

"The Stanford connections in Palo Alto are strong," she said. The kids also witness Google and Facebook dominating the local landscape, both high-powered companies hiring grads from top schools.

"The kids see that and feel pressure," she said.

George Kadifa, Paly '09 and current UC Berkeley junior, noted the bias against risk that develops from material wealth: "In Palo Alto we have it good. Our parents are affluent. People are trying to preserve this -- they want the same thing for their children. The result is that they have created a society adverse to risk. They are trying to replicate success along a rigid path. They are scared to have their kids fail -- but look at Steve Jobs and other entrepreneurs who failed along the way. It's ironic that a city built on taking risks is not prepared to let the kids fail. And that's a problem."

"Palo Alto has a lot of cautious parents who don't let their kids fall down. They lose their resiliency if you don't let them make mistakes," said Sereena Ojakian, Paly '07 and current senior at Southern Oregon University. "The whole point of being 8-18 is you run around doing stupid stuff, and you learn from it."

Parents sometimes try to have it both ways, telling their kids, "Don't stress out about school," but also "Hurry up, you need to go to tutoring, college-prep classes, community service to get those hours, whatever it takes to look good on the college application," several local parents said. For a kid, it's hard to know what to make of that.

And some parents outright push.

"I felt like there were a lot of young adults who were afraid of their parents, of their disapproval," Chatfield said. "(One parent) just wanted her daughter to take more and more classes, even if (she) was at her breaking point. Her mom was saying, 'You have to take all these APs; I don't care how much you sleep. I just want you to get your work done, and I'll do anything so you can do this.'"

Stanford's Lythcott-Haims believes parent behavior is at the core of youths' difficulty with developing self, autonomy and purpose. She described many students she sees as "failure-deprived" and attributes this to overprotective parenting styles that are "very present in the details of a child's life."

"We protect them from all that we fear is out there. I can only imagine that that's got to have something to do with a fragile self developing. ... It used to be that helicopter parents and the over-involved parents were the outliers. ... But every year there were more and more and now it's just normal," she said.

Lythcott-Haims and other college deans describe many college students today as "teacups" (beautiful, but quite delicate) or "hothouse flowers" (exquisite under the right conditions but cannot survive in the elements).

"I think some time ago ... parents started to be more involved with ensuring outcomes for their children," she said. "Parents began to change, and for good reasons, trying to be more helpful, useful, leverage their own expertise, connections, life experience to help place their children in better outcomes. But a line was crossed and parents started to do things for kids that kids should do for themselves," she said.

Lythcott-Haims refers to many youth who have lived a "checklisted childhood," with that checklist set by adults. When they come to Stanford, she tells freshmen, "There is no checklist ... We don't have that for you any longer."

"I want that to feel liberating and exhilarating, but in fact I think for many it is frightening because they are so good at mastering the checklist of increasingly difficult expectations. But give them a blank page, and they're often lacking in the wherewithal to design, create, imagine," she said.

It's often hard for parents of high school students to know when to back off.

"It feels like we're in an arms race. We parents are trying to keep up with the parents around us," Lythcott-Haims said. "We don't want to provide any fewer opportunities for our kids, so more activities, harder classes seem to be the path to success. And those seem to be the kids who get into the colleges we'd all be proud to send our kids to. But I think as parents we have to ask, 'At what cost?' We do all of this, and we deposit them at the doors of the dream college, but if they are not capable of taking those steps without us, what have we done? We've actually set them up for these extreme let-downs."

Lythcott-Haims sees some of this dynamic play out when parents hover and linger after bringing their freshmen to college.

"The implicit message is 'I don't think you can do this without me. ... You're that fragile, or you're that incapable, or you're that unfamiliar with the workings of life ... to do for yourself, to put your hands in the dirt and do it," she said.

Palo Alto Board of Education President Melissa Baten-Caswell also is concerned about the tight connection many parents have with their children, and how that impacts student stress.

"Parents are more involved in kids' lives these days. Many kids are not allowed to grow up until later. By the time they enter college, many haven't had a chance to practice. They are so ill-equipped to be on their own," she said.

"We have to help parents see that holding our kids too close is not allowing them to become healthy, successful adults," she said.

Damon writes: "Young people do not wish to be shielded from hard realities. They wish to learn how to accomplish their dreams in the face of such realities."


Damon's work on the importance of purpose in youth development has generated numerous positive strategies for fostering a culture of purpose within families, schools and communities. Others interviewed by the Weekly have recommendations on this as well.

Starting with families, Damon's research has identified several critical things that parents can do to foster a sense of purpose in their children:

• Listen closely for the spark, then fan the flame. Take advantage of regular opportunities to open a dialog

• Be open-minded and supportive of the sparks of interest expressed

• Convey your own sense of purpose and the meaning you derive from your work

• Impart wisdom about the practicalities of life

• Introduce children to potential mentors

• Encourage an entrepreneurial attitude (you can do it!)

• Nurture a positive outlook

• Instill in children a feeling of agency, linked to responsibility (whatever you do in this world matters).

Damon also recommends regular household chores to teach children that they are needed, that others are counting on them, that what they do matters to the whole. Yet many youth are routinely excused from doing regular tasks within the family, due to busy schedules, high stress levels and parental notions that perhaps the child's time is better spent studying or doing extracurricular activities. This misses a key opportunity to foster a sense of purpose, Damon says.

Levine agrees: "Worrying that kids won't be able to maintain their grades if they are expected to straighten their room, set the table, take out the garbage, and do whatever else is appropriate for their age and needed by the family ... is a sign of misplaced priorities. ... (A)cademic competence is only one part of what children need to learn in order to be productive, emotionally healthy, good people."

It's not just up to parents, however.

"Even for children with optimal parenting, the broader society plays a decisive role," Damon writes.

Adult mentors outside the family can be critical to broadening a child's horizons and supporting them in the process of exploration and reflection, according to many youth experts.

"Kids need three healthy adults at least -- besides their parents -- mentoring them through the teen years," said Cait Black, Menlo Park Trinity Episcopal Church youth director.

When it comes to schools fostering purpose, Damon advocates addressing the "why" question with students about all that they do.

"Every part of the curriculum should be taught with the 'Why?' question squarely in the foreground," he writes. Why do people read literature or go to a Shakespeare play? Why do mathematicians labor over proofs that students must learn?

For those who worry about taking time away from subject matter to explore these questions, Damon believes finding the path to purpose, even if it appears to take time away from more immediate measurable progress on standardized tests, leads to the more worthwhile result in the long run -- a love of learning for learning's sake.

Teachers and other professionals interviewed by the Weekly agreed with Damon, although recognizing, as did Damon, the tremendous pressures teachers feel to keep up with material required by the state and subject to standardized testing.

Many suggested that schools could use existing classes to teach students about balance, self-care and stress reduction. Living Skills class -- a one-semester requirement for graduation -- topped the list.

At Gunn, a program new this fall seeks to change the campus culture in ways that encourage greater self-knowledge and resilience. Called "Sources of Strength," it trains and empowers students within a peer-to-peer structure, along with selected "caring adults," to identify and cultivate internal and external sources of strength.

In all that schools do, Pope emphasizes the importance of "deep engagement in learning." She advocates rigorous, project-based, collaborative approaches combined with good pedagogy to accomplish this.

"The feeling of being engaged enables you to get connected to a sense of purpose," she said. "It all flows towards positive outcomes from there."

Many interviewed by the Weekly advocated broadening notions of success in families and in schools, in addition to taking the spotlight off the college resume. Several suggested dropping the phrase, "You need to do this if you want to get into a good college."

"We need to make it a community responsibility to open kids' eyes to more diverse possibilities," Baten Caswell said.

Levine writes: "There are schools besides the Ivies, fulfilling work besides the professions, and worthwhile activities that are never practiced at private clubs. While there is nothing wrong with being a tennis-playing Harvard cardiologist ... there is a world of options that we need to let our children know are just as interesting, just as valid, and just as valuable."

Stanford also is working to change its campus culture. One new program is the Resilience Project, which operates via website videos depicting the struggles, failures and rejections of members of the Stanford community and the lessons, opportunities and coping skills that emerged from those experiences.

"We are trying to be intentional about talking about resilience, and the value of failure, flailing, disappointments, disillusionment. All these things happen in the normal course, and there's nothing wrong with you if those things happen. You just pick yourself up and figure it out, and oftentimes you learn great lessons as a result," Lythcott-Haims said.

Stanford is also exploring a new program called "Stanford 101," which would include an examination of "why am I here and how do I make the most of it," and other topics related to purpose, as part of giving students more opportunity for structured reflection, according to Lythcott-Haims.

Community efforts are also important.

"The closest thing to a prerequisite for a culture of purpose is a sense of community," Damon writes.

Project Safety Net is one such effort to build a sense of community and purpose around the well-being of Palo Alto youth. Launched in 2009 in response to student suicides, Project Safety Net is a broad-based coalition of community partners, including the school district, focused on suicide prevention and promotion of youth resilience and health. A key component of Project Safety Net's efforts has been the "Developmental Assets" framework, which seeks to measure and support the strengths and skills youth need to thrive. Last year more than 4,000 Palo Alto students were surveyed on the 40 "developmental assets" as well as indicators that they are thriving or at-risk. The schools and other agencies are using this survey data to provide a framework for efforts to improve youth social-emotional health and connectedness.

Community leaders who work with youth share Damon's passion for purpose and incorporate it into their program with great intentionality. Youth Community Service (YCS) is one example, offering youth service-learning opportunities that stress self-efficacy, positive emotional and behavioral health, along with reflection time and exploration of the "why" questions, according to YCS director Erickson.

Scouting and YMCA programs also are tailored to helping youth develop a strong sense of self and purpose, according to several Palo Alto parents and students.

Organized religion emphasizes the importance of finding purpose through their youth programs.

"We build community so that kids have a sense of connection to each other. ... The more you are connected to others, the more you feel your place in the world matters. That gives you a sense of purpose, a sense of common purpose," said Palo Alto First Congregational Senior Pastor Dave Howell.

Howell seeks to offer kids a safe space to figure out who they are and what gifts they bring to the world apart from school and other achievements. Programs for teens range from service projects to musical-theater productions to cultural-exchange trips to camp-counseling opportunities; they emphasize service, reflection, the inherent worth of each individual, the importance of continued growth, and how everyone can contribute in their own valuable way to the community.

George Kadifa grew up valuing the strong sense of community at First Congregational, a place "where everyone cares about you, pays attention to you, and it's completely safe to fail." He learned his main job was to find his calling, which he said was "very liberating because it offered an alternative to the pressures to make money and pursue status."

Creating other opportunities to contribute to community is important. Volunteering for local nonprofit organizations is promoted through school requirements and transcript recognition incentives. Some take heart in the fact that youth are spending more time in community service than ever before, but others question the motives and the real lessons learned. For many students, community service has become just another exercise in resume building.

"I tell kids: 'Yes, this might meet your community-service hours requirement, this might be something you put on an application somewhere, but if that's the only reason you're doing it, then you lose the joy of it,'" Howell said.

Pope urges adults "to love the child before you, not the child you hope to see."

Bisset illustrated the type of emotional safety found in this approach in his vision for the future.

"I think there should be an environment where a kid is comfortable saying 'I'm scared,' 'I'm not confident,' 'I don't know if going to Stanford is the best thing for me,'" he said. "I think the ability to just say that, 'I'm not perfect, and I'm just scared about not being perfect,' would probably go a long way to reducing the suicides that we see and the stress and the feeling of loneliness and helplessness."

Chatfield said she and many other young people have not felt that sense of safety to explore their fears and vulnerabilities.

"I didn't go to counseling for a long time. ... I resisted because that's failure; that's giving in to something ... that's admitting defeat," Chatfield said. Many youth fail to take advantage of the many resources offered for this reason, she noted.

As Lythcott-Haims suggests, adults need to help set the stage for youth to see that failing and flailing are nothing to be afraid of, will not be frowned upon or stigmatized, and in fact, are important to growth. Many other youth experts agree.

Damon concludes "The Path to Purpose" with advice to all adults on fostering purpose in youth: "We can offer them possibilities that fire their imaginations, guidance that encourages their highest aspirations, support that helps them realize their aspirations, and a cultural climate that inspires rather than demoralizes them. There is no young person who cannot be uplifted by this kind of attention."


And sometimes students just need to take a break to sort it all out. During her year off from Cornell, Chatfield was able to "take time away from academics for once to figure out who I was. ... It sounds clichÈ ... but there's not a lot of room for personal growth at Gunn. "

During this time, Chatfield lived at home and worked at Peet's, where she enjoyed learning about small businesses and their role in community building, something that intrigues her as an Urban Regional Studies major. Chatfield also found time to run and cook, two hobbies previously sidelined by the academic priorities.

This fall Chatfield is back at Cornell with newfound purpose and perspective.

"I'm excited to be going back," she told the Weekly. One of the lessons she takes with her is that "to really accomplish anything meaningful, you should be doing it to please yourself."

She now values "a personal sense of identity and self and agency, that you can have a positive impact in the world."

Bisset also took a year off from college between his sophomore and junior years. He credits Pomona with facilitating his recovery through counseling and other hands-on resources, which prompted him to ask a lot of questions about what he should be doing and why.

"I learned that I'm great when I'm busy with something I care about," Bisset said. He tuned into his passions for the natural world and decided to pursue an environmental-analyst degree upon his return to Pomona.

Bisset now works as a water analyst for the Indio Water Authority and plans to get a water law degree at the University of Texas.

"You couldn't offer me a job at Goldman Sachs and take me away from this," he said.

Bisset spent his last two years at Pomona enjoying the process of accomplishing at a high level with a heavy academic load.

"I was just motivated by working for something concrete that mattered to me. It was transformative," he said.

Bisset said that "purpose did more for me than therapy, than medications, than anything ever possibly could have."

Related stories:

Finding purpose: a bigger job than before

How purpose begins

Profiles of purposeful youth

Teens, school staff unite against stress

The college arms race

Why college feels less stressful


To facilitate discussion all comments on the cover package "Driven to succeed" are being consolidated here: Town Square discussion: 'Driven to succeed'

What steps can Palo Alto adults take to help teens discover their purpose in life? Share your opinion on Town Square.

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