Nationally recognized researcher Dr. Suniya Luthar studies how children who grow up in affluent communities are impacted by their environment. After a 2016 presentation to Wilton parents, Luthar conducted a survey in November 2017 of over 1,200 Wilton High School students, and faced parents once again last week–but this time, with more specific information about the children of Wilton.

What Wilton parents heard about their kids’ much higher-than-average anxiety levels and feelings of pressure and stress may cause parents to be anxious as well. Luthar’s presentation also examined how Wilton compared, on average, to other high achieving schools–not just on aspects of personal adjustment but also on risks and protective factors that will affect their well-being.

Of the risk and protective factors that Luthar’s team assessed, they tried to distill down to the top 2-4 areas that the community should focus on for intervention, based on their assessment.

The professionals and organizations that work with Wilton youth hope that the survey results might actually help lead the town and families in a direction toward future interventions that will maximize youth well-being in our community. Based on the findings, what future directions should be pursued to make a difference that is based in research?

“Be reassured that we are working toward getting, not solutions, but certainly good directions for what we can do to make a difference, that are based in research, that are not based on impressions,” Luthar told the audience.

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The good news is that just by taking an honest look, Wilton is one step ahead of the game, something that Luthar recognized.

“This is a community that is very forward thinking and open to hearing about things. A lot of schools are very afraid to do this kind of thing. I applaud you sincerely for this. And I look forward to working collaboratively to foster the well-being of children and families in this town.”

The program was sponsored by the Wilton Public Schools, Wilton Youth Council, Wilton Youth Services, and the Wilton High School PTSA (at no cost to Wilton High School). In particular, the Wilton High School administration and superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith were eager to support the project.

“The district wants to understand how to best support the health and well-being of our students, so they worked closely with us to make the survey possible,” says Genevieve Eason, the Wilton Youth Council vice president.

Luthar’s findings covered areas such as personal values; empathy and kindness; depression and anxiety; substance use; and relationships with family and friends.

Background

In November 2017, over 1,200 WHS students participated Luthar’s extensive survey (about an 80-85% participation rate, depending on the measure). Among the topics examined were:

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  • student adjustment outcomes which included depression, anxiety and somatic symptoms (internalizing symptoms), and rule breaking and aggression (externalizing symptoms);
  • use of alcohol and other drugs;
  • positive attributes such as empathy, compassion, and altruism (prosocial behavior).

Luthar uses instruments and measures that are scientifically rigorous and used by scientists in peer-reviewed research publications.

On March 5, 2018, thanks to a grant that the Wilton Youth Council received from the Wilton Woman’s Club and funding from the WHS PTSA, Luthar presented her findings to parents and concerned members of the community.

Student Outcomes

What Luthar saw in Wilton matches what she sees in similar communities. “In high achieving schools with good standardized tests, high SATs, lots of extracurriculars… in every single school we see the same thing. There are elevations in one or more significant areas of adjustment. This is not unique to you,” she told parents.

Substance Use

Luthar’s findings showed that the rates of substance use in Wilton are elevated compared to national norms but similar to other high achieving schools.

  • Almost no Wilton students reported smoking cigarettes in the last year.
  • Around 50% reported using alcohol during that time, and approximately 35% reported having been drunk.
  • About 25% reported using marijuana.
  • Nearly 25% of 9th and 10th graders and 45% of 11th and 12th graders reported using an e-cigarette or JUUL in the last month.  This is substantially elevated compared to norms. 

Specifically about JUULing, Luthar said, “Kids might think they are harmless, but we need to help them understand that we do not know what it is in them yet.”

Anxiety, Depression, Rule Breaking and Aggression

Luthar’s team assessed internalizing symptoms and externalizing symptoms.

Internalizing symptoms are inward directed symptoms–anxiety and depression as well as somatic symptoms like unexplained headaches or stomachaches. Externalizing symptoms are outward directed behaviors–rule-breaking, aggressive behaviors, etc. Researchers are able to measure not just average levels, but also the level at which symptoms become clinically significant.

  • About 30% of Wilton students have “above average” levels of internalizing symptoms (clinically significant levels), compared to a national norm of 7%.
  • Almost 20% have “much above average” levels, compared to a national norm of 2%. The most pronounced problem is anxious-depressed; next are withdrawn-depressed and somatic symptoms.
  • Levels of externalizing symptoms are also elevated, although to a lesser extent.

Luthar did say that the levels of these symptoms that she found in Wilton students are “worrisome.” However, she assured the audience that this is common in high achieving schools.

“You are not unique… some kind of symptoms are elevated everywhere, the question is which kind, and how much, and what we can do about it. But please do not think of yourselves as unique on this front.”

Hooking Up

A lot of people are concerned about hooking up.  The good news here is that most Wilton students do not view hooking up favorably; about 80% girls and 70% boys do not view it positively.

Positive Attributes

Luthar also looked at more positive attributes–things like empathy and prosocial behaviors (helping others). With regard to empathy, prosocial reputations (altruism), and intrinsic life goals (commitment to personal growth, relationships, and community vs. image, fame and wealth), students’ responses here are similar to other high achieving schools she has studied.

What factors influence children’s adjustment outcomes?

Luthar’s main point about what can influence Wilton children’s adjustment levels the most is that, “Kids’ relationships with primary adults in their lives is always going to have more predictive power on their adjustment levels than any number of extracurricular activities or anything else.”

Relationships with Parents

Parents are among the most important influences on their child’s development. In assessing risks and protective factors, Luthar examined different aspects of how children see their relationships with both parents.

Wilton students’ responses were similar to students from other high achieving schools, with regard to parent attachment–feelings of trust, communication, alienation, perceived criticism and expectations.

  • When attachment to parents is high for Wilton students, internalizing (anxious, depressed, somatic) and externalizing (rule-breaking, aggression) symptoms are low.
  • Wilton students who feel alienated from their parents have higher levels of symptoms.

“The bottom line is, when our kids have a low sense of alienation from us, and feel close to and trusting of us, their symptom levels are low.”

Human behavior is such that in any relationship, associations are stronger for negative things, by as much as a factor of three, than for positive ones. Luthar said what that means is that, “Harshness always hurts more than kindness helps, so we want to avoid harshness.”

For boys, there’s an even added benefit to having a stronger relationship with their parents. It’s linked not only with low symptoms but also with high positive prosocial reputation–altruism–and somewhat with empathy.

Luthar says communities like Wilton have some unique challenges, compared to other subcultures. One such challenge is parents’ perceived laxness, and what kids believe will happen when they break the rules. So Luthar examined how Wilton parents responded to “bad behaviors,” like rudeness, bullying, delinquency, cheating, academic laziness and substance use. In high achieving schools, kids often believe that repercussions for substance use will be less than for some other behaviors.

Parents need to understand that their anticipated repercussions do matter, especially when it comes to discouraging substance use and encouraging positive behaviors and values. Wilton students’ actions and values are influenced by their perception of their parents’ values and how they believe their parents will respond to their behavior.

How does this play out? When it comes to alcohol and other drugs, sometime parents say, “everybody does it.” In fact, not everybody does. Luthar has found that kids do respond to parents’ repercussions. Her advice:  Do not be draconian, because that can backfire. But within the context of a loving relationship, parents must be vigilant. Rules about substance use should be discussed clearly between parents and children, and mutually agreed upon consequences must be enforced.

She points out that other longitudinal research shows that not only is parent laxness associated with high school students’ use of alcohol and other drugs, but it is associated with psychiatric diagnoses of addiction many years later. In fact, graduates of high achieving schools have an addiction rate at age 28 that’s twice as high as national norms.

That, says Luthar, should make parents listen. “I don’t say all this to scare you. But to say that if you pick up on drug and alcohol use, or depression and anxiety, I implore you to take it seriously.”

Relationships with Peers

Luthar also examined social media and peer relationships, and found that Wilton students responded similarly to similar schools.

But, as with parent relationships, “bad is stronger than good” for peer relationships too. In general, there’s a strong link between peer victimization, bullying and sexual harassment and many of the adjustment problems Luthar described above.

Social media comparisons are especially concerning. Like adults, students compare themselves to others on social media. Kids who tend to feel that others’ lives are better than theirs are most prone to depression and anxiety, and this association is especially strong for girls.

For parents of daughters, it is important to understand that the expectations of girls today across so many domains are exceptionally high. They are expected to be successful in academics and extracurriculars, and also be sweet, kind, and attractive. “Girls are getting crushed under this pressure,” says Luthar. This is true for sons as well, but parents of daughters need to be especially vigilant for perfectionism.

[Luthar recommends the book Enough as She Is by Rachel Simmons as a resource.]

School Climate

In the last couple of years, Luthar has begun focusing intensively on dimensions of school climate, because it’s an area that is  generally modifiable by school administrators.

“Intervening at the school level is a very expedient way to get at a lot of issues,” she says.

The approach involves examining about a dozen major dimensions of school climate and identifying what proportion of kids feel positively about each one, and what proportion feel negatively. More importantly, sophisticated analyses help to disentangle the importance of each for kids’ adjustment in this particular community. The question here is, when considering 10-12 aspects of school climate, which ones have the most unique significance, and therefore should be prioritized in interventions in this school?

Based on associations with symptoms, the areas of greatest concern in Wilton are:

  • the school’s perceived intolerance of bullying
  • alienation from teachers
  • students’ belief that there is an adult at school who cares about them
  • parent/community involvement.
  • Teacher academic support is also significant for boys.

For the dimension “Caring Adult at School,” 51% of girls and 60% of boys had favorable responses (e.g. they believe that if they were absent, an adult at school would miss them). Responses were negative for 49% of girls and 40% of boys.

Luthar emphasized that it is important not to engage in “teacher-bashing.” Teachers have an exceptional workload and the burnout rate is high, much more so in public schools than in smaller independent schools. The purpose here is not to cast aspersions, but to report what the kids are saying, to determine where there is room for improvement.

Parent and community involvement is also an area of concern. In Wilton, students who perceive that collaboration is low between the school and the parents are the most troubled. Luthar compared the to conflict between two parents in the household–when kids feel that the adults are not “on the same team,” and they feel caught in the middle. “These are the kids who are feeling the most pressure and unhappiness,” Luthar said.

This is an important area for intervention both on the part of the parents and of the school. Luthar suggested that the community should consider how the parents and administrators can work together with kindness and respect to try to understand why the kids are feeling so much tension on this front.

How should Wilton parents approach interventions?

Interventions must be multi-pronged and collaborative, focusing on parents, schools and peer groups. With this in mind, Luthar also shared her findings separately with high school faculty before her presentation for parents. She also spoke personally with a group of Wilton High School students, and the day after the presentation, met with senior administrators from the district and the high school to discuss useful directions for the future.

“Students’ beliefs about parents and schools each have unique associations with adjustment, so it’s not just one or the other. It’s not just parents or just schools. Everything we do as grown-ups matters to our kids,” she said.

Having honest conversations, without blaming, but with compassion and kindness, communities can address the issues that are identified for intervention and see improved results.

Messages for Parents

Luthar gave key takeaway messages for parents, centered around five themes. She included sample survey comments to illustrate them:

  • Foster good, open communication: “I tell my mother about my problems and troubles.”
  • Avoid what may be seen as criticism (especially with girls): “I never feel like I can meet my mother’s expectations.”
  • Be vigilant for distress among youth:  Check in frequently and sincerely, even when you are brushed off. Luthar said even if things look okay on the surface, that may be a facade. “If kids are doing well in terms of academics and extracurriculars, parents think, ‘He couldn’t be depressed, or she couldn’t be drinking that much or cutting herself.’ This happens behind that very successful exterior sometimes.”
  • Strive for appropriate, consistent limit-setting:  When kids think there will be repercussions for negative behaviors like substance use, rudeness, bullying, rule-breaking, and cheating, substance use is low and prosocial behaviors are high.
  • Be a good role model:  Family values of kindness, decency, and integrity are particularly important in hyper-competitive subcultures.

Well-Being of the Caretaker

Parents, Luthar said, must focus on their own well-being. The single most potent influence in fostering resilience in children is the well-being of the caretaker. If parents do not care for themselves, they cannot “run on empty” as they try to provide ongoing care for others.

“Eighty years of research on resilience comes up with this one take-home message:  Resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships. And unconditional acceptance–“I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core”–is critical for kids. And guess what. It’s critical for us.”

The same is true of the other adults in children’s lives:  teachers, counselors and other adults at school are also at risk for burnout and need support.

One service Luthar offers are small group counseling, something she has named “Authentic Connections.” Authentic Connections are small groups that can be focused on moms, teachers, other professionals, or students.

Achievement Culture

Luthar said that parents should be concerned about excessive focus on achievements.

“If your sense of self-worth is dependent on the splendor of your accomplishments, that’s a very slippery slope.”

Not only is this true for parents, but for kids as well. Kids need to see that parents themselves feel valued and loved for the people who they are, rather than for their “status,” careers, or material possessions.

This has repercussions with the college search process. Students will say that they want to take the intense pressure off themselves, but that parents are often too focused doing whatever is needed to get into a small number of “top” colleges.

“This panic about college–we adults need to look at that and say, ‘Is it worth it?’” Luthar notes.

But pressure doesn’t only come from parents. When Luthar met with WHS students, they also admitted that they can pressure each other. For example, after a test they ask each other about grades and they compare themselves constantly.

Luthar suggests that as a community, Wilton needs to find a way to take the focus off this competitive, achievement-at-all-costs approach in every aspect of life.

“Let us aim high, let us even aim very high, but there is a point at which we come together and say, ‘Stop.’”

Civility

Luthar recommended that Wilton create a “community civility committee” to address the fracture between parents and the school.

There’s something else Luthar says Wilton should be very aware of–the kids are watching and listening to how adults are behaving on social media–in particular Facebook and the Wilton CT 412 page. She says the grown ups need to be better role models.

“This is about the fifth time that I’ve heard about 412. I have no idea what it is, but I know that it is not good.”