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The 1 Question a Harvard Parenting Expert Asks Her Kids Every Day After School

Jessica Stillman

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Anxiety is at record highs among teens and young people. What’s driving this spike in mental health struggles? Experts have pointed the finger at everything from phones to politics to helicopter parenting. But while the exact causes of the worrying increase in anxiety are still being debated, one thing is clear: Parents’ over-the-top stress about their kids’ future isn’t helping.

In a world where those with a college degree not only significantly outearn those without one, but even outlive them by a startling eight-and-half years on average, it’s entirely natural that parents would be anxious about their kids’ academic achievements. But research shows that the more we stress about our kids’ grades, the more miserable they grow.

“I have for years thought that one of the main causes of the increase in adolescent depression was an increase in school pressure,” Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist who studies teens, told the Atlantic. “When I talk to kids and we talk about sources of stress, they mention school pressure more than likes on Instagram.”​

So how can success-focused parents modulate their interest in their kids’ performance so that they hold them to high standards but don’t drive them towards mental health struggles? Journalist, Harvard grad, and parenting researcher Jennifer Breheny Wallace has a suggestion — just change what you ask your kid when they walk through the door after school every day.

“Lead with lunch.”

Breheny Wallace is the author of the new book Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It, which is based on a survey of 6,500 parents she conducted along with Harvard researchers. She recently spoke to CNBC about what she learned from the project, and offered one simple change parents can make to help protect their children’s mental health.

Like many parents, she told CNBC, as soon as her kids came in the door, she used to pepper them with questions about school. How did that quiz go? What homework do you have? Are you ready for that big math exam at the end of the week? Now, she “leads with lunch” instead.

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Jessica Stillman

Top Inc.com columnist/ Editor/ Ghostwriter. Book lover. Travel fiend. Nap enthusiast. https://jessicastillman.com/