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We want daughters to make honor roll, homecoming court and varsity soccer. Is it too much?

Over the last 10 years, I've written several pieces on the pressure on female college students, growing out of conversations with higher ed folks on the rising number of young women grappling with anxiety and depression.

I would then receive emails from readers about their own daughters’ struggles. Some of these young women had to leave college because of their anxieties.

Young women today face not only pressure to earn high grades, but to shine in sports, wear a size 4 and enjoy an active social life. (Instagram is instant judgment on how you look in that new bathing suit.)

The problem gained national attention last year when University of Pennsylvania freshman and track star Madison Holleran – a remarkable young woman who accomplished all of those things and more -- jumped to her death in downtown Philadelphia.

I read two good pieces over the weekend about the pressures on young women. One is a shocking story out of Canada where the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, unable to meet her parents’ expectations, fabricated a record of academic success and the documents to support it, including report cards, college acceptances and scholarship letters.

When Jennifer Pan’s deceptions finally unraveled and her parents tightened their leash, the young woman hired hit men to kill them. You can read Pan’s amazing saga in Toronto Life. (What’s equally compelling are the comments the story is drawing in Toronto Life and on blogs that have picked up the story. Many children of driven Asian parents identify with the pressure Pan felt to live up to her parents’ vision.)

Here is an excerpt of the story, which was written by a former high school classmate of Pan’s:

Jennifer’s parents assumed their daughter was an A student; in truth, she earned mostly Bs—respectable for most kids but unacceptable in her strict household. So Jennifer continued to doctor her report cards throughout high school. She received early acceptance to Ryerson, but then failed calculus in her final year and wasn’t able to graduate. The university withdrew its offer. Desperate to keep her parents from digging into her high school records, she lied and said she’d be starting at Ryerson in the fall. She said her plan was to do two years of science, then transfer over to U of T’s pharmacology program, which was her father’s hope. Hann was delighted and bought her a laptop. Jennifer collected used biology and physics textbooks and bought school supplies. In September, she pretended to attend frosh week. When it came to tuition, she doctored papers stating she was receiving an OSAP loan and convinced her dad she’d won a $3,000 scholarship.

The second piece I recommend is from The New York Times and discusses campus suicides. The Times takes us back to the University of Pennsylvania to a classmate of Madison Holleran’s.

The young woman, Kathryn DeWitt, had also contemplated suicide, writing in a blog after Holleran’s death: “What the hell, girl?! I was supposed to be the one who went first! You had so much to live for!”

The Times reports:

Ms. Holleran was the third of six Penn students to commit suicide in a 13-month stretch, and the school is far from the only one to experience a so-called suicide cluster. This school year, Tulane lost four students and Appalachian State at least three — the disappearance in September of a freshman, Anna M. Smith, led to an 11-day search before she was found in the North Carolina woods, hanging from a tree. Cornell faced six suicides in the 2009-10 academic year. In 2003-4, five New York University students leapt to their deaths.

Nationally, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007: from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 11.1, in 2013 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). But a survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

In the Times article, the reporter says colleges are finding young women feel the need to pretend all is well. They wear  a "game face" that masks their internal struggles and doubts.

The Times cites the findings of a Duke review: "In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be 'effortlessly perfect': smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles."

High school and college counselors talk about the inability of middle-class and upper middle-class kids to cope with setbacks, even small ones, citing two reasons: Their parents don't let them fail or even stumble so they lack resiliency. At the same time, teens treat a B as major setback because they know their parents expect A's.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a young woman about parental expectations. While her parents always told her to "just do your best in school," the young woman said she knew they felt her best was an A.

I am conflicted about the consequences of high parental expectations. On one hand, the immigrant children who graduate first in their class or attain some other amazing accomplishment tell me the same thing: Their parents motivated them to strive and succeed. They worked so hard because of their parents. They did not want to let them down.

On the other hand, many young women contend their parents wanted too much -- they wanted their daughters to make honor roll, homecoming court and varsity soccer. And they wanted them to be happy and smiling while they did it.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.