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How to help students in high-achieving schools handle stress

(CNN Image)

It's a paradox for parents: You want your child to go to a high school that offers lots of opportunities, like advanced placement or college-level classes, and a wide variety of extra-curricular activities.

But researchers are finding that these high-achieving schools are producing students that run the risk of burning out. 

For some students in school districts that serve affluent, white-collar families the educational opportunities are endless.

High school senior Emma Johnston told Ivanhoe she takes AP Calculus, AP Physics II, and AP Government.

Add a part-time job, sports, and community service to a heavy course load and bedtime never happens before midnight.

"But if I have a test the next day or I'm not super confident on the material, it could be 2 or 3 in the morning," senior Grace Koppelman said.

Nina Kumar is CEO of Authentic Connections, a group that studies the disconnect at high-achieving school districts where students have high standardized test scores, and admissions to some of the nation's top universities.

"Students at these schools often suffer from rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, rule-breaking, things like cheating stealing, at rates higher than other students nationally," said Kumar. 

Kumar said at some schools, the rates of anxiety are six times higher than the national average.

So what should parents watch for?

"When you have debilitating anxiety, when you have a kid who doesn't want to go to school, that's too much," Kumar told Ivanhoe.

Parents want their children to compete at high levels to succeed. So what can they do?

Kumar said parents should keep a balanced view of their kid's accomplishments.

Don't focus on external goals, like getting into a prestigious college, or a future high-paying career.

T​​​​​​alk about the benefits of a class or activity. Is it fun? Does it bring the child joy? Does it connect him with others? 

Kumar and other social scientists say strong parent-child relationships and a low level of parental criticism are also predictors of how well teens will adjust.

The researchers also say high school is a time when parents should continue to monitor their kids and be clear that there will be repercussions for drug and alcohol use.