Substance Use, Self-Harm, Anxiety, Poor Mental Health: Dangers of Teens Striving For Perfection and Achievement, With Stanford’s Denise Pope, Ph.D.

Hopestream for parenting kids through drug use and addiction
Hopestream for parenting kids through drug use and addiction
Substance Use, Self-Harm, Anxiety, Poor Mental Health: Dangers of Teens Striving For Perfection and Achievement, With Stanford's Denise Pope, Ph.D.

To say that high school and college students today are under massive pressure to "succeed" would be an understatement and no one knows more about why that's true than Denise Pope, Ph.D., senior lecturer for Stanford's Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the non-profit, Challenge Success.

After watching the documentary, "Breaking Points" which highlights some of the unhealthy ways young people are striving to achieve success, I knew I needed to dive into this subject.

Young people today are doing things like combining non-prescribed stimulants and opioids in order to get good (perfect) grades, stellar college placement exam scores, and acceptance to "the school" that will supposedly set them up for a life full of achievement and money. Oh, and at the same time they're volunteering, curating the impeccable Instagram feed and playing elite level sports.

At some point, something's gotta give, and often it's our kids' mental and physical health and wellbeing. In this hugely important episode, Denise and I talk about so many important things including:

  • what's pushed some kids to use drugs as a negative coping strategy because of the intense pressure for academic achievement
  • where is the very common 'fear of failure' coming from?
  • what clues should parents look for to understand if their child is experiencing this intense stress and pressure?
  • the first question we should ask our kids in order to understand their overall mental and physical health
  • how much sleep teens actually need each night to stay healthy
  • the dangerous roller coaster when students use stimulants and opioids to keep up with the pressure
  • the first response parents should have when they see grades start to slip
  • what kids truly feel about their parent's expectations
  • the hope Denise sees coming out of COVID
  • what research shows about the impact of where you go to college
  • tips for parents of kids who are struggling, or for kids who are ok, to keep them that way
  • protective factors for keeping kids safe and balanced


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Brenda  01:32
Welcome back. It is Thursday, again. Who else feels like it is Tuesday and then suddenly, it’s Thursday. I don’t know how that happens. But I know I feel that many weeks. But I am super glad it’s Thursday today because I have an episode for you, which I think is going to be a real eye opener for a lot of parents who are starting to notice the impact of stress and anxiety on your high school student or your early college student. 
Brenda  02:02
As you may know, I’m honored to volunteer with the Partnership to End addiction as a parent coach and as a support group facilitator. And the partnership has a ton of credible content on their website, it’s So much sometimes that you can get a little lost in there. But as I was rummaging around a few weeks back, I came across a documentary that I hadn’t seen, called breaking points. And it was only 30 minutes. So that was a no-brainer. I made some coffee, I sat down and I watched it. And wow, the film really highlights how much intense pressure high school kids are under today. And it dives deep into how many of them are medicating themselves to get the good grades. Take all the tests complete. All the college applications, have the perfect Instagram feed, have all of the extracurricular activities, all the things that they’re doing. And the kids who are trying to do all of this and be all of this are suffering from an intense fear of failure. Just the parts in the film about the widespread misuse of ADHD medication were pretty shocking. So of course, I said I have to get somebody from the film on home stream. And fortunately, Denise Pope who is one of the experts who contributed to the film agreed. 
Brenda  03:27
Denise is a PhD. She’s a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. And she is also the co-founder of Challenge Success, which is a research-based organization that develops practical curriculum conferences and programs for parents, schools and kids looking for a healthier, more authentic path to success in the 21st century. Denise is also the author of a couple of books; Doing School, How We’re Creating A Generation Of Stressed Out, Materialistic And Miss-educated Students. And she coauthored Overloaded And Underprepared; Strategies For Stronger Schools And Healthy, Successful Kids. I could keep going about Denise but you get the picture – if it has to do with helping families and schools help kids finding a healthier path to success, Denise knows about it. And because she is so incredibly busy, I only got a short bit of time with her for this conversation. So definitely be sure to watch the documentary because it’ll give you context for some of what we discuss. And there will be a link in the show notes for that so you can go to Brenda And if you’re listening in real-time, this episode will be at the top if not just scroll down to Episode 75 to find it, and you will find that documentary and a bunch of resources there. Okay, listening now to this really helpful conversation with Denise Pope. 
Brenda  05:06
Hello, Denise, thank you for joining me today on Hopestream. I’m thrilled to have you here. I watched your documentary, through that you did in partnership with the Partnership to End Addiction. I think it’s incredibly enlightening for parents. So thanks for making time and joining me today. 
Denise  05:24
Thanks so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here. 
Brenda  05:26
Why don’t you give us just a little bit of background on you kind of what you do, and then how you came to be doing what you’re doing today, where your area of expertise slides so people can kind of get that understanding?
Denise  05:40
Sure. So I’m a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. And I teach courses there for teachers and grad students, etc. And the other part of my life, I am a co-founder of an organization called challenge success. And it really started out as a lab at Stanford, and now it’s own nonprofit. But we do a challenge access as we work with parents and schools, to transform the student experience with learning, and to really make sure that there’s a focus on student well being, and engagement with learning, but they’re excited to learn that they are healthy physically and mentally. And so, you know, part of my expertise around drugs and addiction, and adolescence is what has pushed some kids to turn to the use of drugs as a negative coping strategy, because of academic achievement pressure, as one of the things that maybe has led to, to them to turn to this way of coping. So I think that’s, that’s my connection to the documentary.
Brenda  06:53
Yeah, because I thought it was really interesting. As I watched it, it was so clear that the pressure on these kids, whether that’s from the school system, the college system, the parents themselves, wherever that’s coming from, it is intense. I was really I mean, I have, it’s kind of I have kids in high school. But I don’t know that parents know how much pressure they’re under. 
Denise  07:18
It’s true. And, and it’s different from when many of us were in high school, some people will say, Well, I felt pressure, I felt stressed. But you know, that’s just part of school and you get through it. I think it’s really been exacerbated over the years, with more and more kids applying to colleges with GPA is going through the roof. I mean, someone said to me the other day, well, the only has a 4.0. That’s not good. That’s not good enough, right? What 4.0? Not good enough, right? But now they have weighted GPAs. And if you take the AP or honors classes, it goes even higher. So I feel like a lot of parents really might be using sort of the old playbook and not understanding what has changed around college admissions in high school. And I think it makes the parents more fearful along with the kids.
Brenda  08:08
I think you’re right, because I remember talking with some friends, when our kids, we had some kids that were seeing juniors and seniors, and we were talking about that, like, not only do they have to have the perfect grade point, but they kind of have to be magical, like they have to have traveled overseas and, you know, come up with some incredible water system to save millions of people at the age of 17. Like, it’s, it’s kind of crazy. What’s going on. And what I heard clearly through the documentary, and in my work is there’s this fear of failure that kids are feeling. And I’m just wondering if you can talk about that a little bit because I don’t know that parents think that they’re instilling that. And so I’m wondering if you could tell us like, Where do you think that’s coming from?
Denise  08:52
Right. And there really is this pervasive fear, both on the parts of kids and parents right now, particularly when it comes to academics. So you have parents who will very well meaningly say, how’d you do on the history test today? Which sounds like a question that a parent should ask right at the end of the day. And unfortunately, how many kids here that question is the most important thing in my life that matters to my parents right now are my grades. And so I need to in order to please Mom and Dad, I need to play this game, get the good grades, get the good test scores, get into XYZ college, etc. 
Denise  09:36
So, even though parents don’t think they’re putting pressure on kids, even just you know, have you finished your homework? How’d you do on the history test? What do you mean, you’re not taking, you know, honors math next year, these are all sending messages, that grades are the most important thing. And that grades define success. And I think, you know, the reason why my organization is called Challenge Success is that we’re challenging that there’s only one as you say, sort of magical way, right? One magical path to success. And it goes like this, you got to study hard, get good grades, get good test scores, get into a good college, get a good job. And when you talk to high school kids, they’ll add get a lot of money. So that’s the narrow path to success. And, and whether we like it or not even just wearing college sweatshirts around the house of our Ivy League schools, or whatever it is, we’re sending messages every day that reinforce that really narrow notion of success, when we all know that success is much more varied. There’s lots of different paths to success. And in the long run, you know, the grades you get in 10th grade history is not going to make or break your life.
Brenda  10:50
And what I saw also, what I see in my own teenagers is not only do they have to have all of that buttoned up, but they also then have to have the perfect Instagram feed with the perfect sports also, and the perfect volunteer record. And so it isn’t just the perfect academic achievements, it’s like we expect them to have this fully perfect life and well-rounded. And when we see something maybe slightly inappropriate on social media, we can kind of lose it a little bit, and maybe not realize how much they’re trying to kind of construct this life.
Denise  11:34
Right? I think and that is one of the major – a lot of people say, Well, what has changed you, you hit the nail on the head with this idea of curating your life, and making it very public on social media. And none of us were used to that at any level, right? Where at any given day, the college soccer recruiter to go online and see that you said something inappropriate. And that’s it, you know, you’re not, you’re not going to be recruited to that school. I mean, not think of the pressure just day to day to look perfect, be perfect, have the perfect body curate that feed, constantly being on display. So I think you’re right, that that adds an enormous amount of pressure, as does this sort of Uber push for extracurriculars. When we were growing up, many of us didn’t have clubs, sports, and school sports, and anyone who wanted to be in the orchestra could just be in the orchestra or be in the play. And now you have, you know, special music tutors to tutor you for your audition to get into the High School Musical. I mean, it’s really gone to some crazy levels. 
Brenda  12:39
Wow, that’s a lot. That’s just a lot. And I would imagine, there’s also some stress on the parents who can’t afford to do all of that for their kids, because their kids are competing. And if you don’t have the means to hire the tutor to, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, that can be really stressful on a parent as well. 
Denise  13:00
Absolutely. So the inequity that this system has really led to is very, very clear. Exactly, as you said. And it’s one of the reasons I mean, this is an interesting thing about the LSAT and that we’ve seen in COVID is that a lot of these colleges have really made it optional or not accepting scores at all have eliminated it is we’ve known for years that it correlates with money, it correlates with socioeconomic status of the family. And that’s because the wealthier families invest in tutoring, and LSAT prep, and all of these classes, and even the wording of the questions themselves have been found to be bias. So it’s not, you know, a lot of these kids are working on this assumption of, it’s a meritocracy, and you just work harder. And you’ll get to that goal of whatever your success goals are. And we know that it’s not a level playing field, not even close.
Brenda  13:57
It’s a lot for them. It’s a lot for parents, and I’m wondering if there were some things that you saw as you were doing this work. And as you do the work you do every day with challenge success, what are some of the signs that a parent might look for to start to recognize that their kid is really under an abnormal amount of stress? Because they seem to be really good at putting on the fake smile? You know, especially if like in the documentary, they’re using some medications to try and get through all this studying and the test, what are some things that parents might want to look for? Or questions that they could ask that don’t lean into the added pressure?
Denise  14:37
Right? That’s a great question. So we are after first and foremost, first and foremost, mental health and physical health, you are not going to be able to engage in the life that you want after high school if you’re not physically a mentally healthy and so as a parent, things to look for would be how much sleep is my child getting? It’s actually one of the first questions I ask when people say to me that they’re concerned about their adolescent, they’re worried they might be doing drugs, they’re worried they might be suffering from anxiety or depression. My first question is, how much sleep are they getting? And the answer I usually get from high school parents is, I have no idea because I go to bed long before my teenager. And what we know about sleep is as a teenager, you need to get between eight and 10 hours of sleep every night. And many, many, many kids are not even coming close. In our survey of 1000s of kids all across the country, the average is sometimes, you know, six and a half for high school kids. That’s not, not only is it really unhealthy in terms of mental health, depression, anxiety, more likely to turn towards stimulants to stay awake, to get the work done, etc, right.
Denise  15:56
 But then you have troubles actually getting to sleep when it is time for you to go to bed. And so they turn to take things to help them come down. Right, so that might be other drugs. So it can it sleep is very much correlated with mental health and lack of sleep or difficulty sleeping, it can be a sign for parents to look for. The other thing that we know is that devices in the bedroom, interrupt sleep. And so as hard as it is, as a parent, you really have to get those devices out of the bedroom at night, I have three kids, I know how hard it is, we had a common charging station in our kitchen. And you just have to get in the habit that it can’t be their alarm clock, it’s very important. So that’s one thing I would look for is sleep, I would also look for signs that they’re in over their head in school. I know they’re very good about masking, but we do as parents often see the grades come home. 
Denise  16:53
And if you start to see grades going down, the first response should not be panic, and oh my gosh, you need to work harder. The first response should be, hey, I’m noticing something, can we talk about this? What’s going on? I think a lot of kids are afraid to tell their parents that they’re in over their head, they want to please us, they don’t want to let us down. They know we have very high expectations for them. I’ll tell you something else that happened during COVID as we surveyed parents during the pandemic. And we can compare it to pre-pandemic levels, because we passed out the same survey. And we asked the parents, you know, how high are your expectations for your kids, parents have said, I expect my kids to do perfect work, I expect my kids to maintain good grades in the middle of a pandemic, they’re still having these very, very high expectations. And when we ask the students on our surveys, the students will say, I don’t feel like I can meet my parent’s expectations. And that is another sign that usually correlates with some kind of mental health issues or physical health issues. If you don’t feel you can meet the expectations that are put upon you by your parents. And again, it may not be that the parents say you have to get all A’s. But when they are asking about how you did on the history test, or have you completed your home or grow, what happened when you got the B minus on math, you’re sending messages about grades.
Brenda  18:16
I was gonna ask you about COVID because it was such a game-changer in so many ways. And I was just wondering, do you think that parents will maybe now start to say, gosh, you know what, the mental health is more important than grades? I know your survey might have said otherwise. But what are you kind of seeing in your day-to-day interacting with students and parents?
Denise  18:42
Well, one thing we know that gives me a lot of hope is that there is much more attention now being paid to student mental health, and how it correlates with academics. So, you know, every teacher who was teaching during COVID knew, too, that you had to check in with your students that they were feeling isolated that when we start working with schools at challenge access, we spend a whole lot of time on how to create a caring environment, how to make sure there’s one adult at the school that every kid knows that they can go to this one adult and reach out if they had a problem. So at the education level, at the school level, I’m feeling very positive that the focus on mental health is going to stay and stay through, you know, particularly this year as students start coming back into classrooms. I think for parents, there’s a mixed feeling. I think there’s a worry about mental health and isolation and I just want my kid to be happy and healthy. And at the same time, they’re really worried about gosh, they didn’t learn enough in 10th grade they were in remote learning or hybrid learning. And there are these fears about learning loss and fears about how that’s gonna play out with the colleges and whatnot. So they’re holding to Things that may seem difficult to hold at the same time, which is a love for their child and want for them to be mentally healthy and an understanding that this was a really tough year on kids. And on the other hand, they still have this fear of but what about the academics?
Brenda  20:15
Right, there’s still the reality of, okay, we still have to keep going.
Denise  20:20
Right. And in the long run, that is, so one of the biggest messages that we send the Challenge Success is about college admissions, where we basically have a white paper on our website, and it’s called “a fit over rankings” and it lays out all the research to show that you it is not where you go to college that matters. In the long run, it is what you do after high school that matters in the long run, right? So lots and lots of research to show that you can go to community college, which by the way, you don’t need to have any GPA for right you literally just pay the money and walk in, you don’t need to apply, you can end up finding something that you’re really interested in and transferring on to a four-year college, you might go to community college and learn a trade and end up getting a really good job post, the two-year community colleges. So it turns out that all of this academic pressure that parents are putting on kids and kids are putting themselves in the long run, it does not have to be that way. You can be very, very successful in many, many ways in the United States. And where you go to college does not make or break that success.
Brenda  21:29
Right? Yes, and I have, I have one that went the Community College route, because he got his high school diploma in treatment, because he veered off track there for a while. And then I have one who opted out after going to four-year private college prep High School, and is a barber and loves his life. And exactly, talk about success, right, and the kid’s printing money. I mean, he’s making more money than most.
Denise  22:00
people are always gonna need their haircuts. That is, that is a skill that will always come to you. It’s so true. And I love that you have these two role models in there. And there are many, many other stories that we could tell, right? So when a kid fails out of high school, which sounds very, very dramatic, there is absolutely a path to success for that child, when a kid gets a low grade on a test right is definitely not the end of the world. And yet many, many, many kids and parents do not hold those messages. And certainly, if they do believe them, they sometimes fail to communicate those to their children. 
Brenda  22:36
Kind of along those lines. What would be one or two tips for parents, either if they have a kiddo who’s in high school and struggling or one who is okay, and they want to keep them? Okay,
Denise  22:47
Well, so a couple of things. One is unconditional love, which sounds so obvious, but you know, we need to say it. And we need to make it really, really clear. I love you no matter what. I love you, if you totally make a mistake, I love you. If you messed up, I love you. If you fail out, my love is unconditional toward you, and I am here for you no matter what. So establishing that relationship with your child that they truly believe that your love is unconditional, I think is paramount. We talk about something at Challenge Success. It’s called PDF, playtime, downtime, family time. 
Denise  23:24
And it turns out if you look at protective factors for kids, they study kids who maybe made it through persistence through high school, they graduated, you know, sort of look at the positive protective factors that kept those kids safe. And it turns out, playtime, giving them time to be with friends time to spend with friends. It was certainly hard during COVID. But things that they do that they love to play the piano, go shoot basketball hoops, whatever it is, where it’s not being graded, it’s not part of a formal extracurricular activity. Turns out that’s a really important piece that keeps kids protected the D. 
Denise  24:09
So PDF is a way to remember it right? It’s not Portable Document Format. Yeah, I love that the P is playtime. The D is downtime, which includes sleep right eight to 10 hours every night, but also includes time to just have take a breath, maybe it’s meditate, maybe it’s learned yoga, any ways to really get somewhat we would call positive coping strategies and and then the F stands for family time. And it turns out that kids who either eat dinner or spend time as a family five times a week for 25 minutes duration are much less likely to fall through the cracks. Because you’re checking in with them. You are making them feel part of a system that shows that they’re loved and cared for. They have responsibilities, they have chores, they help with The family, those kinds of things, keep your child safe. So as a parent of a struggling teen, or as a parent of someone who maybe you want to keep on the right path, I would recommend unconditional love along with PDF every day playtime, downtime, family time.
Brenda  25:19
I love that because it’s memorable.
Denise  25:22
It’s, it just helps you I mean, I do it with my own kids, right? You know, have they had any downtime today? No wonder that they’re like fighting and screaming at each other and like falling asleep over their math homework, right? It just doesn’t work.
Brenda  25:34
The sleep thing is so huge. And I think I’m glad that you pointed out the fact that if they are using stimulants during the day to keep up with all of this, then they can start to turn to towards some of those depressants at night to sleep, which is just a cocktail for disaster. So I’m glad that you mentioned that.
Denise  25:53
Exactly. And they also, I think, are not quite aware of what a stimulant does to their body. I think a lot of kids think of it as caffeine and well I drink Coca Cola or I drink coffee. So this is just a little bit more caffeine, how bad can that be for me, when we know the real dangers of these stimulants, as you know, they can be gateway drugs to much more powerful narcotics. So I feel like some education around that. And if you have a kid with ADD or ADHD, to really educate them about the importance of this medicine is for you and for you only. And I think there’s that we know what my friends are kind of asking. So I just give them a pill here or there. It turns into, well, now they’re going to charge money for the pill. And now I’m making a living as a drug dealer. And then I need to order more of my own ATD or ADHD or I’m not taking my own it just turns into this vicious cycle.
Brenda  26:53
Yeah, that’s a slippery slope for them and to be pressured for your medication is not a good thing. And that’s all in the documentary. So I would really encourage parents to watch that documentary. What are some things that either that you’re working on, like projects or books, I know I’m gonna link to the Challenge Success website in the show notes because it is full of amazing resources. Anything else that you want to tell us about that? You’re excited about hopeful? working on?
Denise  27:23
Yeah. Oh, well, thank you. I’m glad. I mean, the website has a ton of resources. And we’re constantly adding to that resource bank, and you can search by topic, you can search by age of child. And then we are obviously continuing to work with schools, and we put on a lot of parent education events. So our workshops, we have some that I think some of your parents might be interested in and can think about bringing us into to their schools or their treatment centers, we have one called “the well-balanced student” that goes a little bit deeper into how to really get the playtime downtime, family time and what that might mean for different age kids and how to handle the pressures of college admissions. That’s another workshop. It’s called a healthy college admissions workshop. So we have other resources for parents as well that we’re happy to offer if it can be useful.
Brenda  28:15
Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much on there, I was just I was looking and thinking, Oh, my goodness, I have to link to all of these great resources, because there’s just a wealth and it’s so specific to this particular issue, which is awesome. So well, thank you for being with us for sharing this. I’m going to like I said, link to all of this in the show notes. So if you’re listening, you can go there and grab those. And thank you for joining us and keep us posted on anything new that you’re working on.
Denise  28:43
I will thanks so much for having me and for doing what you do. It’s really really helpful to all the parents out there.
Brenda  28:52
Thank you so much for listening. If you’d like to go to the show notes, you can always find those at Brenda Zane comm forward slash podcast. Each episode is listed there. All of the resources that we mentioned, as well as a place to leave comments if you would like to do that. You might also want to download a free ebook I wrote called hindsight. Three things I wish I knew and my son was addicted to drugs. It’s full of the information I wish I would have known when my son was struggling with his addiction. You can grab that at Brenda Thanks again for listening and I will meet you right back here next week.
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