If It Looks Like a Duck…

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“Duck Syndrome” is a term coined by Stanford University students. It describes the experience of high school students who are chosen to attend elite universities. Once there, they no longer stand out as the top students they did in high school. They are no longer the smartest. Or the best athlete. Or the most likely to run the world.

Experiencing this type of insecurity, lack of confidence, and fear—often for the first time—can bring on intense stress and anxiety. Wanting to save face and maintain their image, these students carefully construct a front of confidence and capability for the world to see. But below the surface, they are struggling, knowing that everything is not okay, but much too proud to ask for help. They feel inadequate and overwhelmed, putting themselves under extreme pressure to keep up appearances and maintain an “image of perfection.”

Thus, they are like ducks, appearing calm and serene above the surface while paddling frantically below, desperate to stay afloat. This can take a huge toll on students, impacting their self image, their confidence, their entire outlook on the future. They question everything they thought was true about themselves: Maybe I’m not that smart. Maybe I’m not a good athlete. Maybe I’m less than everyone expects of me. They feel the pressure to live up to an image that no longer fits. They may have been big fish in their small high school ponds, but as the ponds become larger in college, they don’t have the resilience to reestablish their place on an elite playing field.

Although many professionals say this syndrome begins in high school, I believe that it begins much earlier.  I have seen students as young as the elementary grades put tremendous pressure on themselves, appearing calm and collected on the outside, but literally falling apart inside. Often, they are distressed and near tears in my office when they receive a poor grade or struggle with a homework assignment.  And if they don’t make the goal for their soccer team or the home run in the playoffs, they are devastated and embarrassed.

Many of my students talk about their highly scheduled lives and feel compelled to “do it all.”  They need to go to every practice for every sports team and participate in every game, then stay up late to complete their homework and study for tests. They have family obligations and social obligations, and feel the need to go to every one if they want to be popular and accepted.  For some, it is just too much!  And, these are not yet high school students.

Kids feel pressure to project “perfect” in school, on social media, for their teachers, families and friends. They feel pressure to keep up with all the other kids who are also trying to project perfection. We know that there are many young students who are plagued by anxiety and depression, feeling overburdened and stressed in their daily lives.  All we have to do is open the newspaper or turn on the television to hear about another young person who could no longer handle the pressure. Perfection is an unattainable goal.

No one can do it all. Certainly, no one can do it all well. It is our responsibility to teach our children the importance of a balanced life.  To show them the value of down time. To be that safe place for our children so they can discuss their feelings without fear of judgement, criticism, and disappointment. We need to be sensitive and vigilant.

We must reframe the discussion, develop priorities, moderate expectations, and emphasize the value of effort, persistence, balance, and learning from mistakes. We have to protect our children, our teens, and our college age students before they become another statistic.  To learn more about signs of stress and depression in children and teens, go to American Psychological Association, WebMD, and PsychCentral.

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