Driven to Succeed: What Lies Potentially Beneath Students' Stress Levels

Kara Powell | Dec 1, 2011

I am consistently struck, and surprised, by how stressed teenagers are. It’s a far different world for teenagers today than it was for many of us as we were growing up.

This article about teenagers featuring the important research of William Damon, from the School of Education at Stanford University, has reminded me of a few important dynamics involved in the pervasive stress we all, including our teenagers, feel.

1. It’s adults who set the tone.

As the article proclaims:

Increasingly, the experts who examine these troubling youth trends say it’s the adults, not the youth, who have lost their way. With the best of intentions, adults have undermined the normal, healthy process of youthful exploration, engagement, risk-taking and idealism through overprotective, over-involved parenting, teach-to-the test schools, and a hyper-competitive, commercialized college admissions process. The result is youth who feel pressured to adopt unfulfilling, short-horizon goals and meet ever-greater expectations along a narrowly defined path to success, without due regard to their own inclinations, health or well-being.

2. Students are looking for a sense of purpose.

Once again, to excerpt from the article:

William Damon, Stanford School of Education professor and psychologist, has spent years studying this set of issues and believes that it is a sense of purpose—intrinsic, sustaining and noble—that is missing in the majority of today’s youth, causing many of them to drift and founder. And it is this lack of purpose that should be attracting community attention, and not just its by-product, stress.

“People don’t worry about the right things,” Damon said. “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”

Working hard for something they didn’t choose themselves, and don’t believe in, is counterproductive to long-term health and fulfillment. It is simply not sustainable. A purposeful life, by contrast, can unleash tremendous energy, creativity, exhilaration and a deep satisfaction with efforts and accomplishments, according to Damon.

3. We adults can and should engage in more meaningful and helpful ways with teenagers.

If you add up the first two points and are wondering how we as adults can help teenagers experience a greater sense of purpose, Damon has some ideas:

For many youth, their path to purpose is not so obvious or found so early. It may require more time to search and sift. During this process, Damon believes strongly in the value of asking and reflecting on “why” questions. Why do young people go to school? Why has my teacher chosen her profession? Why are there rules against cheating? Why is this activity important in my life? Why is it good to be kind? What am I grateful for, and why? Why is it important to vote? Why am I doing community service? (And if it is to document hours for a college application: Is that a good reason? Is there a better reason?) Why do I want to go to college?

As our friend and Fuller colleague reminds us, the LAST thing teenagers need is an adult-imposed agenda related to engaging in the world around them. But I love how Damon suggests that we help teenagers understand the dreams and callings (which I would suggest are divinely planted) within them. That is our role - not to stress them out but to invite them to look beyond themselves and change the world around them in organic and exciting ways.

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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