Phantom Stress: Why Teens have to be the Best…at Being the Worst?

College Girls in the Park

Photo Credit: CollegeDegrees360

Scenario One
Student A: Oh man this test is going to be so hard!
Student B: I know I studied for like five hours last night and it probably will still be hard.
Student A: Oh that’s nothing, I studied for six hours yesterday and like three the day before!
Student C: Guys, I have been studying for this since last weekend, don’t even go there!

Scenario Two
Student A: Oh man this test is going to be so hard!
Student B: I know but whatever, I didn’t have time to study. I could only study for like an hour last night!
Student A: Oh that’s nothing, I had practice so I could only study this morning before school.
Student C: Guys, I haven’t even cracked a book, I have just skimmed my notes at recess.

Two scenarios, I hear them both all the time. In the first one, the students want to be the ‘best’ studier, or argue who has studied the ‘most.’ In the second scenario, the students want to be the ‘worst’ prepared. Both of these scenarios end badly, in the first those students (and students usually listening in the halls or classroom) feel under-prepared and anxious about the test—not to mention competitive with friends and classmates. In the second, other students might feel over-prepared and ‘dumb’ if they studied and still did badly.

Both of these scenarios demonstrate a concept that I like to describe as teen magnification and phantom stress. Teen magnification is something that we all did as teens, and sometimes still do, but can be much more harmful as teenagers. Magnification is when kids and teenagers will take something and make it seem much more important, permanent or extreme than it actually is.

I have to explain this to many families because they exclaim that they are behind everyone else or that they study way more than other people and still get the same grades. This is when an adult needs to explain the magnification process, and that other students might be exaggerating. Also, as a teenager, there is this weird need to be the best at whatever you are talking about—even if it means being the best at being the worst. Being somewhere in the middle is uncool, just like having a test be ‘horrible, awful, the worst I have ever taken’ is much more frequently heard than, ‘it was okay.’

This is the second part of the magnification process, not only taking something and blowing it up, but also making it an extreme and permanent. I like to call it superlatizing life. I remember doing it with my friends over the most ridiculous things, “I got like NO sleep last night.” “I haven’t shaved my legs in like 2 months!”

Phantom stress is when a kid who might not be worried about a test, or who is somewhere in the middle, feels bad about not staking a best or worse and pretends to have a problem, so as to avoid being left somewhere in the boring grey area. This means that the majority of classmates are lying or exaggerating about how much they studied/slept/jogged/ate and everyone has blown up misconceptions of each other.

I explain this concept for parents because it is important to talk to your kids about it, and it is important to realize that when your child gets home from school and complains that he has ‘NO friends.” “flunked his test.” Or is “the worst player on his team.” Give him a few minutes to calm down and realize that he might be superlatizing.

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