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Colorado teens feel pressure of perfection post-pandemic isolation

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Ariane Herrera Cardenas has always placed high expectations on herself, even in middle school, and the stakes have only increased as she prepares to graduate from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College in about two weeks.

In the fall, the 18-year-old will become the first in her family to go to college and the burden to succeed is weighing on her. As a senior Ariane decided she needed to save money for college so she started working part-time at Home Depot.

“The decisions I have to make right now are important for me to set an example for my siblings,” she said.

She is not alone in her worries about the future. Colorado teens have faced heightened pressure to succeed academically and in extracurricular activities, such as sports, for more than a decade. Now, they’re coming of age as the United States emerges from the worst pandemic in a century and are feeling that pressure even more than before, according to teenagers and mental health experts.

Teens told The Denver Post that anything less than perfection in school or extracurriculars can feel like a failure that will affect them into adulthood.

“I have friends that cry over it,” Jolette Oseguera Martinez, a junior at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School. “They cry because of their grades and they don’t think they’re going to succeed.”

The pandemic has added to the stress teenagers feel as for more than two years they have faced persistent trauma, whether it’s through losing a loved one to COVID-19 or financial, food, or housing insecurity, Jenna Glover, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado .

They’ve missed major milestones, like prom, that typically make up the American high school experience.

“Kids really still are not doing well and are having residual effects from the amount of stress they are experiencing over the last two years,” Glover said.

While teenagers welcomed the return to in-person classes in the fall, the transition hasn’t always been easy.

They have shorter attention spans than they used to but are facing higher academic workloads as teachers try to catch them up. Teens developed different study habits as remote-learning moved quizzes and tests to computers instead of using paper and pens and they were given more time to complete assignments.

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