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Revenge of the Trophy Teen!

First it was the Trophy Wife. Now the Trophy Life includes the Trophy Kid, complete with Junior and Juniorette's perfect table manners, perfect report card, and perfect private schools. In the medicine cabinet are numerous prescriptions for Prozac, Xanax, and other make feel good medications.

Trying Too Hard

Jeanette Harvelle was worried. Becky got a "B this semester in math," she pants, "And I'm afraid she'll be suspended from the gifted program." Breaking into tears, the distraught mother concludes that Becky may have to reassign herself to the local public school and take a break from heavy academics. Gone with the "pony club, gardening club," and other privileged perks. But even though the 12 year old suffered a nervous breakdown from the intense stress, her insistent mother continues, "her gifted program means she has it all, shouts the distraught mother. "Without it, what will I tell the family?"

The Price of Perfection

"Having it all means different things to different people, but we've taken perfection too far," declares Paul M. Fleiss MD, Ph.D., a pediatrician in private practice in Los Angeles, and the father of six children. "What's really going on here? Be honest: Is it what they really want or are they just an extension of yourself?" Teens trying harder than ever to achieve goals their parents only dreamed of is wrecking havoc on their emotional and physical health. After a 3 month in-patient sojourn for anorexia nervosa, Rhonda, an overwrought Los Angeles teen who at the time of her release weighed 88 lbs. complains, "My parents still won't leave me alone. I have to be perfect all the time. They're always all over me to have the best grades, best test scores, everything Numero Uno. I've never been able to have a childhood, and I want some freedom!" Specialists agree that children like Rhonda are not alone. Wiep DeVries, R.N. a registered nurse and president of the Los Angeles Alliance for Childhood says, "we have high expectation for our kids, but we don't give them enough time to really build their minds, bodies, and spirits!"

Get a Childhood

Since 1990, clinical depression in teens has reached near stratospheric proportions, with more than three million prescriptions for Prozac dispensed to adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19, and suicide rates at an astronomical all time high. Insiders note that adolescent outpatient centers are rife with stories of teens maiming and mutilating themselves, with cutting clubs becoming the new teen phenomenon. "It's the latest mental health scare," says Irene D'sasson, a social worker in Burlington, Vt., and the mother of three ambitious teenagers. In fact, the problem is so rampant there aren't enough practitioners to treat this growing problem. Others who have experienced the problem agree. "I know I've taught them to be aggressive, but they won't be able to compete if they aren't," says Tanjie Torrinnio, a tennis instructor from Visalia, Calif., a small agriculture town in central California. "My 17 year old daughter is head cheerleader, head waitress at her weekend job, and class valedictorian. She used to maim herself repeatedly, so we put her on Prozac." This was five years ago, and the child is still depressed. Psychologists can certainly understand that. "Many parents mean well when they say they ‘only want the best' for their kids," and that they're trying to keep them on the right track," laments Bonnie Burstein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and professor of psychology. "But being that as it is, if you're doing everything you can to prepare kids for standardized tests to get them into "gifted" programs and "best" school possible, the message the kids get is: I'll love you if you do me proud."

Once the domain of the elite, the Trophy label is now a powerful status symbol for middle class and suburban families who rely on the identification for their own inner sense of security and society approval. "The classification is really for the family, not the child," says Dr. Fleiss. "The problem is that many parents who push their kids to attain perfection refuse to realize how emotionally damaging it is to their children," he says. "What the parents are doing is trying to live vicariously through them." And it doesn't stop there.

Joanne Whalen, president of Watch the Children, a non profit foundation to stop child abuse, says she counsels parents "all the time" as to their expectations of their kids. "They feel their children's success is a direct reflection of themselves," she sighs. Such competition is palpable when parents congregate. Conversation now centers on the achievement of the child, not who they are as a person. "We've misidentified values," muses Joanne. Overheard at a dinner party in downtown New Hampshire, a clinical psychologist details an account of a couple with twins. "All they could talk about was how their sons were achieving in organic chemistry and that they were on their way to medical school," says the shrink. "I wondered: did the kids have anything to do with this decision?" But hammering away at our children's academic prowess is nothing new: Since 1970, test scores have skyrocketed in public and private schools, making our kids work harder than ever. It isn't unusual for children as young as six years old to bring home mountains of homework and have it done in one evening. "My daughter wants to be an oncologist," proudly states Betsy Brassen, a nurse's aid in Jupiter, Fla. "And I support her decision wholeheartedly. It was my parents who pushed me into doing the girl thing - being a caretaker!"

Such driven trophy kids are highly sought after by big name academic institutions. Colleges like Yale, Stanford, and Cornell Law School boasts a 20 percent increase in applications, the highest in recent years. For every applicant who is accepted, "at least 500 are rejected, usually due to lower grade averages," says a source who asked to remain anonymous. "We don't just take on a quota anymore. Now it's not a matter of how a student gets in: it's if they get out." But consider the likelihood of failure: for every pupil accepted, "there are thousands who are rejected," says the source. "We provide the rejected applicants with referrals to therapists," the administrator sighs sadly. "It isn't easy." College mental health offices are proliferating, with a common complaint: parental pressure to achieve and advance.

A Parent's Role
  • If your child comes home with less than beautiful test scores, "Accept it. Don't personalize it as FAILURE," says Beverly Stevens, a child therapist in Norwalk, Calif., and the author of the upcoming Your Child and You. " Because it isn't. It's about how to relate to your child. Reassure them you'll love them no matter what, just because they're who they are!"
  • Keep your perspective. "There's always next time," says Betsy.
  • Find a tutor if you believe your child may be experiencing legitimate problems keeping up. "There are many learning centers throughout the United States. Find one who can help your child achieve her best."
  • Remind yourself of who you are in your child's life. "As a parent, it's easy to get caught in the "Mistaken Identity" trap, says Dr. Fleiss. "It's your child, not you, so keep the pressure off,"
  • Enlist some professional help. For yourself, that is. "If you're having a problem accepting you child for who she is, get help before you ruin your child's self esteem," asserts Beverly.

Breaking the Cycle

Overdoing boundaries is easy. What isn't easy is learning to accept and reconnect with your child, "Just for who he is. Accept your children as flawed but wonderful individuals," advises Dr. Fleiss. "Talk about your children in positive ways, not convoluted, contorted creations you must believe about them." And above all, "Be there for them. You're supposed to be your child's best friend, not the opposite."

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