Keynote Preview: Q&A with Michael Tompkins, PhD

A Conversation with Michael Tompkins, PhD

We at Parenting U are looking forward to your upcoming Keynote Address: Overscheduled, Overworked, and Overwhelmed: Strategies to Take Care of Your Kid and Yourself. In today’s culture, and in your practice, would you say that you are seeing more stress and overwhelm now amongst younger adolescents than in the past?

Many schools in the Bay Area are demanding more from kids — and parents are demanding more from schools to prepare their kids. Studies suggest that the prevalence of anxiety disorders in youth is increasing. There are likely multiple factors, but certainly the prolonged academic and social stress is a risk factor for developing an anxiety disorders, as well as depressive disorders.

Even the calmest and most centered parent may have difficulty resisting the pull when they listen to their adult friends worrying about the futures of their kids, or even their kids’ friends themselves worrying about getting into a “good” college and then getting a “good” job.

What is normal anxiety vs. anxiety in a 7th or 8th grader that a parent should be especially concerned about?

Watch for the 4 D’s. The first D stands for Disproportionate. This means that what you think and what you do are a bit over the top. Feeling anxious from time-to-time prior to exams is normal anxiety. It’s even helpful anxiety because it motivates kids to study. Having a panic attack prior to big exams and pop quizzes is over the top. If your child is crying every night because of the homework load, that level of anxiety is not typical for most 7th and 8th graders.

The second D stands for Distressing. This means that the worry is deeply bothering your student. All kids worry however, most kids can easily shrug off worry and move on to more fun and important things. If your child is distressed by the extent and intensity of the worry, this is not normal worry.

The third D stands for Disruptive. That means that the worry and anxiety is making it really hard for the student to get work done. The kid may have trouble concentrating on schoolwork, because their minds are filled with the latest catastrophe. The student might procrastinate. They may miss school because of stomach aches or headaches, and cry and tantrum in the morning on school days.

The fourth D stands for Duration. This means that the other D’s (disproportionate, distressing, disruptive) have been affecting the child longer that just a few days or weeks.

What are the most common concerns you are hearing from parents in your practice regarding stress and young teens?

I hear three main concerns from parents: First, they see that their kid is burned out before he or she even enters college. Once admitted to college, youth are looking at four more years of the same stress, same late nights, and same pressure as they experienced in middle and high school; and, four years is a long time when you are 18 years old. (Parents wonder why their kids are not enthusiastic about college!)

Second, parents are surprised, even startled, when their child fails to launch. We consider if burnout plays a role in this, or perhaps youth who work hard their entire lives for the “big payoff” are disappointed when they discover that they have a good job, but not the great career they expected.

Lastly, parents are concerned and frustrated by their kid’s tendency to procrastinate. There can be several drivers of procrastination. Certainly stress and anxiety play a role; but, burn out does too. Kids who are burned out lose the will to work. They’re demoralized and de-motivated.

Can you offer one quick tip for parents who want to suggest to their tweens ways to relax and decompress?


Savoring means to enjoy a pleasant taste or smell, such as savoring the taste and smell of a warm chocolate chip cookie. You can savor memories too, particularly memories of feeling happy or comfortable, such as the time you won a soccer game or even the taste of a slice of warm apple pie for breakfast. Savoring a memory is another great activity to try while waiting for sleep to come.

Research has shown that not only does savoring give you something to think about while waiting for sleep to come but it also creates pleasant feelings that combat the stress and worry you may have about when and how well you will sleep.

Savoring a memory works best when you try to remember everything about it—where you were and when it happened, who you were with, and how you felt.

There are three steps to Savoring:

  1. First, list three good times you had recently (e.g., favorite activities, favorite places you’ve visited, good times you’ve shared with friends or family, successes in your life).
  2. Now, pick one of the good times from the list above and picture in your mind. Then, write about the elements of the story, flesh out the details.
  3. Now that you’ve created a story about your good time and good feelings, read through it again. Finally, close your eyes and savor your good time by replaying your story in your mind.