Student Loan Debt in AmericaWhen I came of age in the mid-1970s, worry about college debt was nonexistent, because, of course, college costs were much, much lower. I was told when I was a kid that I would have to pay every penny of college costs by myself, but I didn’t really think much about how that would happen. I worked throughout high school and saved a fair amount. I continued to work part time during college and worked full time during breaks. I lived on ramen and tuna (it was also much cheaper then!) and figured it out. I did have to drop out for a year because I was broke, but otherwise made it through in five years with only a few hundred dollars in a loan at the end that I paid off in a short amount of time. (It was at 11.9% interest and from my parents, so I couldn’t shirk on that debt!) Through it all I don’t remember worrying more than a normal amount about tuition bills, and usually just right before the start of each semester.

Certainly, things are much different now in terms of college costs. But as a psychotherapist, I am also seeing a big difference in how this awareness of college expenses is affecting today’s children — and at very young ages.

I am now regularly seeing middle school-aged pre-teens with very high levels of stated anxiety about how they are going to pay for college. Yes, middle school.

They have chronic insomnia from worrying about studying enough and getting a good grade in algebra in 8th grade so they can get into the advanced algebra class in 9th grade so they can get into the AP trig classes in 11th and 12th grades so they can put all these good grades and advanced classes on their college applications and get into a good college and get a good scholarship. Whew! All because they worry about how expensive college will be. They are four or five years from even stepping foot onto a college campus as a student and they are actively, consciously worrying about this pyramid of plans.

This makes them put huge pressure on themselves to not even get one B on one minor quiz. I was an over-achiever in high school, but I certainly didn’t sweat a B and not for those reasons.

I see many high-achieving teens coming in with insomnia, worry, panic attacks on test days, headaches, stomachaches, over-focus on grades and fear of failure issues. Times sure have changed! When I was in high school it was “super un-cool” to get good grades or care about your college career.

Today peer pressure exists related to competition for grades, college application spots and scholarships starting even in junior high. Where we applied for college in the fall of our senior year, students now start junior year with the application process underway and college tours often completed. Students now know exactly what GPA and ACT score it will take to get into which university, and they know what all their classmates scores are and where they are applying. I had no such awareness when I was 16 and I’m not sure anyone even talked about these details.

Now, I certainly can’t fix the high cost of college tuition, but clearly this level of anxiety is not healthy for kids. The self-criticism they are experiencing internally with each B grade is setting them up for emotional difficulties that might be labeled as “anxiety” or “depression.” (False labels, but that’s another topic!)

Parents need to address this issue directly, it appears, to reassure their children that either money will be saved for them for college or that it will be addressed at the appropriate time. Teaching kids some mindfulness meditation and self-calming skills would also be in order. Parents need to make it very clear that they love and accept their children regardless of grades, college acceptance or career choice. Parents can certainly not over-focus on grades themselves by constantly checking the on-line grade reporting apps.

We need to get kids’ minds off worry and back into learning for learning’s sake. And back into being kids, not over-pressured junior adults.

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