Since the 2008 real estate meltdown, and the ensuing recession, one of the most asked questions has been whether or not the American dream is dead. Teenagers have grown up with the recession, living with the austere conditions that accompany it for nearly four years now. Instead of dreaming of the future that they want, many teens are forced to focus on the difficult situations they find themselves and their families in now. This domestic stress and pressure starts to affect teenagers ability to focus on their education and future.
According to a study published in Child Development, researchers found that the kids who had higher levels of stress at home at the start of high school had poorer academic performance by senior year. In a 2009 survey conducted by OurStressfullives.com, 30 percent of children reported being worried about their family’s financial situation, while only 18 percent of their parents thought their financial situations were causing their child’s stress.
Beth Bell, a licensed professional counselor for children, says that the new independence that comes with being in high school gives students their first real glimpse into adulthood. As they hurdle toward adulthood and the real world, they start to make crucial steps to their future career paths, and ultimately, their American dream. However, when many students think about their future, the path they have in mind for themselves can often be impacted by unforeseen stresses.
At first glance, the burdens that weigh on the shoulders of high school students – particularly financial burdens – aren’t obvious. One would never guess that the guy sitting in the next row over has to work more than 26 hours a week to support himself. There’s no sign that the girl who is involved in many extra curricular activities is stressed out about how her family is going to pay their rent next month. With the stress of financial problems at home, some students get caught in the middle and end up losing focus on their education.
“I’ll be thinking about the financial problems I’m having at home,” senior Brittany Kabacinski said. “It keeps me from focusing and then it becomes a distraction with what I’m doing in school.”
Many parents who are stuck in financial ruts believe that if they try to hide their monetary stress, their children will never notice. They don’t think that their teenager could be able to pick up on their worries.
“Parents think that if they hide things from kids, they’ll never notice that they’re stressed,” Bell said. “[The kids] usually see right through their parents, though. They usually see if something is wrong. Parents need to brin
g teenagers into the loop more. They need to give them more knowledge because the teenager might think that they’re doing something wrong. It makes them feel like their whole world is falling apart.”
Typically, money woes don’t appear to be something that contribute to a teenager’s stress level. At least, they don’t seem to be something that would bother many teens. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Bell, financial hardship at home is a large factor of adolescent stress.
“Money stress is a symptom of bigger stresses,” Bell said. “If there are money stresses and other things haven’t been taken care of then money becomes the big stress. A lot of these kids already have other stresses, and then you throw money into that and things really fall apart.”
Bell believes that money issues stress kids out so much because they view money as security, and they feel things more strongly.
“Most people in America look to money as security,” Bell said. “It buys you a house, a car to drive, and it’s your link to family time. When everything starts breaking down and the money isn’t there to bring the security back, it’s extremely stressful. Because teens feel things so much more strongly than adults do, the stress really sets in and they feel like there’s no point in trying to focus on school work.”
If a student is unable to balance their stress and their schoolwork, the pressure makes what were once mundane activities to become too much for them to handle. Bell believes that coping with the stress is the key to preventing this.
“Any bad habit can affect you for the rest of your life,” Bell said. “If someone has a bad habit of not dealing with stress, they need to learn how to. If [the stress] is something that they regularly deal with and they don’t do anything about it, then I could see them potentially becoming dropouts or turning to things that do make them feel good, like drugs. Family relationships can also totally break down, but if they can learn the skills to cope then they can turn everything around.”
Mary Kerr-Grant is the crisis guidance counselor at Francis Howell North. When there are students at FHN with economic issues, students who work or who are upset about the problems their family is having with money, they can find emotional support, ways to cope and resources that help them in Kerr-Grant. Kerr-Grant tries to guide students in any way possible to break them out of the cycle of economic situations.
Typically, students who go to talk to Kerr-Grant will not always directly say what they’re stressed about, or if they’re having economic problems that they’re worried about. She says that after they open up and start talking to her about things, she’s able to discover what’s really bothering the student.
“Sometimes they’ll come to me because they feel upset, anxious, or depressed, and then as we talk, I realize that some of the stress is financial causes,” Kerr-Grant said. “Usually a kid won’t come in and say ‘I don’t have any money’.”
When a student is having economic issues and problems, Kerr-Grant thinks that if the student has a trusted adult to talk to, some of their worries can be relieved, which is why she believes it’s good for a student to come in and just talk to her about their issues. Junior Brandon Clynes, works a part-time job and feels that when he talk to someone about his financial stress and worries, it helps him pull through.
“Talking to someone when I’m upset about money helps me get through the rough times,” Clynes said. “When I’m starting to fall behind, I just think about what we talked about, and it gives me a push to keep succeeding in school while still having to work.”
Kerr-Grant believes that a student should know of the resources available to them, so she tries inform all of the students who come to her of the programs that can help them. Some of these resources include counseling, which can even be given at school, agencies that can help the student’s family pay their bills, the free lunch program and the A+ program.
“The A-Plus program is an unbelievable opportunity to get two free years of college,” Kerr-Grant said. “It gives the student a chance to work and save up money to pay for the rest and then they’ll have small student loans, so I think A-Plus is awesome.”
While students are coming to deal with the added pressure of preparing for college and dealing with the increasing financial burden on their families, the American dream becomes more elusive, tempting some to stray off the path. They then run the risk of remaining stuck in this rut for longer than they had anticipated. Kerr-Grant thinks that a student’s chance of doing better and pulling out of rough economic situations can be better if a student focuses on finishing school.
“You want to do the best you can in school to be able to have more opportunities when you finish,” Kerr-Grant said. “The more choices you have and the better you do in school, the more opportunities you’ll have.”