Addressing the rat race: Professionals, educators discuss stresses of being a Loudoun student

Times-Mirror/Buzz Covington

Loudoun County is regularly listed as one of the "wealthiest" and "happiest" places in America. But with the wealth and success of neighbors and peers comes the pressure to be perfect.

That burden to buy into Loudoun's perfectionism is trickling down to students and having a negative impact on mental health, according to Heather Applegate, Loudoun County Public Schools' supervisor of diagnostic and prevention services.

"With the rat race that is living in this bubble of Loudoun County, there's this irony," said Applegate Oct. 12 during a Loudoun Education Alliance of Parents meeting. "We may be the 'happiest' and the most 'wealthy,' but we have the highest suicide rate among our teenagers."

Applegate, along with several other professionals and parents, spoke at the meeting about the mental health challenges Loudoun students and parents face.

"We have to remember the people who move here and live here tend to be overachievers in general," said Applegate. "You have promoted yourself into the top 1 percent in terms of over achievement. You can look around in your peer group and feel like a failure, when in fact, if you lived anywhere else in the country, you'd be a superstar."

Applegate urged parents to spend time remembering that and reiterating it to their children.

Rachel Bailey, a parenting specialist and certified positive discipline parent educator, said there is a solution to the "rat race" phenomenon: being "real."

"We're all struggling with this, but no one wants to talk about it," she said. "My goal, especially in Loudoun County, is for us all to be honest and realize maybe we don't need to be driven by these ideals Loudoun County is driven by."

Bailey said she created a Facebook group called "Redefining Perfect Parenting" as a space where parents can be honest and share their failures.

The parenting specialist said she focuses her work on teaching parents how to improve their children's self-esteem and resilience early on as a means to prevent crises later in life. Letting go of perfectionism is part of building self-esteem, she said.

"By focusing on confidence, self-esteem and resilience, the behavior improves," she said.

Children with healthy self-esteem and positive relationships don't try to fill a void in them with negative things like drug abuse or self-harm, she said.

"Self-esteem comes from how we treat our children, especially when they mess up," she said. "We get so angry when they do the wrong thing. Often our anger makes us treat them as if what they did was stupid or shameful."

When children do mess up, parents must respect their perspectives, while not condoning the behavior, said Bailey. Parents have to give their kids the tools they need to do the right thing next time, she added.

"We give them tools for struggle and opportunities for struggle," she said. "We need to give them proof they can fail and they will still be OK."

By teaching children how to handle discomfort instead of trying to prevent them from experiencing it, they will know how to handle stress in the future, said Bailey.

Cary McCloud, a parent at the meeting, said it's difficult to take the focus off of perfectionism and be present with her kids when teachers give large amounts of homework.

"I'd like to see more of an emphasis for kids to be able to be present in the grade they're in," she said. "This speaks to emotional security. If they feel like they are always having to prepare for something how can they be secure in the moment?"

Alisa Rogaliner, the principal of Buffalo Trail Elementary School, told McCloud teachers are now being encouraged to lose that mentality. An emphasis on working on children's emotional development, instead of only academics, is starting to be adopted by teachers and administrators, she said.

"If we as elementary educators don't provide the level of engagement and coping skills they will face, we're setting students up for some challenges they really don't need," she said.

Eric Williams, LCPS superintendent, told parents his team is working to draft a strategic plan for suicide prevention and overall student safety that will be complete at the end of the year.

"We are adopting a much broader view of student safety," said Williams. "We see school-based mental heath services as a crucial part to that, with an emphasis on emotional and behavioral health, but also addressing suicide prevention, bullying prevention and behavior intervention."

Because the most recent data shows about 20 percent of all children in the U.S. go through a mental health issue, Applegate said LCPS and other school districts have had to adapt to serve those growing needs.

"At the national level, the majority of kids are not receiving the services they need because many mental health providers don't offer them," she said. "That means the de facto mental health provider becomes the schools."

Schools' goals have evolved beyond academics, said Applegate.

"We need to make sure students are ready to learn," she said.

Dave Royhab, director of school counseling at Briar Woods High School, said his field has changed to offer students much more over the years.

On top of planning class schedules and post-secondary education planning, school counselors now must help students with personal development, said Royhab. Counselors must help students cope with the pressures they face including meeting expectations, anxiety about being good enough to get into college, wanting to keep up with their peers, perfectionism and overextending to take on more than they can handle.

School counselors now encourage balance and health by telling students to take the courses that actually interest them and taking on a course load they can actually handle, said Royhab.

With space in colleges shrinking and the number of qualified students growing, parents and children will have to face the reality of not getting into the college of their choice, said Applegate.

"We're going to have to address this rat race phenomenon," she said. "We have to be able to live with kids who couldn't get into [the University of Virginia] or [Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.] We have to accept maybe their personality is not destined for that."

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