December 12, 2022

By David Steingart, LCSW

Stressed person looking at a clock
As a therapist, I have noticed significant distress among youth and young adults, particularly college-aged clients. One way we can take a preventative approach to dealing with this emotional distress is to change the way we think of timelines. Specifically, we need to begin adjusting our expectations of young adults and what they should accomplish by a certain age.

As a society, we pressure youth to achieve certain milestones “on time.” Teenagers are expected to finish high school by a certain age, attend college directly after high school, graduate from college in four years and find a job (and hopefully a career) soon after. These are rigid timelines for a young person who is also dealing with many challenging changes — internally and in their environment.

We raise our children within a framework that expects them to “get ahead” of everyone else. And we seemed to have defined “getting ahead” narrowly: moving through school and landing on a “successful” career path. However, what evidence is there that someone who follows these timelines will have more success in the end than someone who does not?

The Problem with Placing So Much Emphasis on Timelines

During the high school years, many teenagers are not yet ready to move on to college. However, I have found that many school guidance counselors are not trained to prioritize emotional well-being; rather, they are trained to help the student get into the best college they can.

While students may have the intellectual capacity for higher level work, they may not be emotionally ready for college. Leaving for college involves taking on new responsibilities, social challenges and, in the case of universities, leaving home for the first time (and all the new responsibilities that come with it). If a young person is battling serious emotional distress that has not been prioritized or addressed, they are at higher risk to self-medicate through alcohol and substance use. Yet, we continue to prioritize intellectual development over emotional support.

I have seen young people turn to substance use for “help” — but this behavior only compounds the emotional distress, sometimes causing lifelong consequences. Often the underlying issues began years earlier but were ignored due to the hyper-focus on academic accomplishment.

When we push our children forward simply because this is what we are taught to do, we may be setting an unsustainable precedent — leading to emotional turmoil and reckless, counterproductive behavior. In the end, ignoring our children’s emotional needs and developments actually wastes the precious years we intend to protect

Let’s Re-examine the Traditional Path

As parents, educators and mental health professionals, we must stop enforcing the notion that a child will “fall behind” if they take time off from the “traditional path.” Deviating from the strict timeline we have created may, in fact, allow them to work on themselves and become truly ready to take the gigantic step toward college. I believe there should be an emphasis on identifying students who are not ready begin college — or even to approach a traditional high school setting, in some cases.

Simply put, I hope to reinforce this message: It is ok to go sideways in life! As adults we frequently go sideways — by changing jobs, getting remarried, moving to a new location, etc. — but we don’t allow for this kind of change and development during adolescence. This may be particularly helpful for those living with serious mental illness (SMI).

Currently, when a person develops symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (and the accompanying distress) in their 20s, they have not been given that extra time to heal and mature — as they are pushed forward and expected to keep up with others who are not having these problems.

It is important to realize that higher education is not necessarily “higher” than anything else one might pursue. In my counseling career, I work with many individuals who may not have been to college or graduated high school — but they meet many definitions of success. Some work successfully at a trade. They have families, they sometimes run businesses and they are often very good at whatever they choose to do.

We Can Make These Changes Early

We can begin deconstructing these expectations and prioritizing emotional development at the high school level. During the adolescent years, the signs of emotional distress are sometimes hidden at home. A young person may display themselves as quiet, spend an excessive amount of time alone, begin using drugs or alcohol excessively and engage in other risky behaviors.

Many parents are shocked to find out years later, after their son or daughter has been hospitalized, that their child was engaging in these activities while living in their home. Sometimes a “quiet” high school student who manages to produce good academic grades passes through the home without forming attachments to his or her parents. Parents often accept this facade of normalcy without questioning the secrecy that may be masking the beginnings of major emotional distress.

Ultimately, schools need to be hypervigilant when it comes to emotional distress. Counselors need to be properly trained to make serious assessments about students whom they see are using poor emotional coping skills. We hyper-focus on test scores, yet we don’t focus on emotional testing for every student! We wait until problems arise, i.e. bullying, using drugs in school, excessive tardiness, to take any action.

As a counselor, I have learned that the winding path is an underrated and valuable trajectory. And we have to make it an acceptable path. We have to stop pushing young kids because we want them to be somewhere without regard to what they are ready for. Without emotional maturity and emotional health, all the education and ambition will eventually fall apart if a person’s mental health deteriorates.

We have to start understanding that these issues are societal ones. They happen because we are too focused on getting ahead and not focused on the whole picture: A young person’s emotional life is more important than their academic life — much more important.


David Steingart is a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Tallahassee, Fla. He currently works with individuals, couples and groups at a group psychotherapy practice in Tallahassee. David is originally from the New York City area and received his MSW from Columbia University.

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