A Parent Reflects on Book TAlk
Summer Book Club
What Made Maddy Run:
The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen
A Talk in the Park’s August meeting was centered around ESPN columnist Kate Fagan’s book What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Athlete.
I hadn’t yet read the book when I entered the community center that night, but I would leave not only eager to do so, but also very interested to learn more about the pressures students and athletes are under in a world where anxiety and depression rates have soared and the role of social media comes into question.
Athletic and academic pressures start earlier than ever. Everyone in attendance could agree on that. A young mom in the audience shared that she is present because she is already feeling the pressure for her kindergarten-aged child to perform. Listening to her I am at first grateful I was still so blissfully ignorant at that point in my children’s lives. Seconds later I am reminded of the time I was told I needed to get my son on the highest-level sports team available to him - as soon as possible – if he had any hope of playing sports for the high school. He was 8.
Our panel (consisting of a high school counselor, psychotherapist, and former D1 college swimmer) tell us that perfectionism starts young, and especially in people-pleasing girls. The ease and frequency of social media use to portray a perfect identity perpetuates this falsehood. Worse, the impact this has on others may result in never-ending comparisons, inaccurate self-talk, anxiety and depression.
Licensed Psychotherapist Erica Martin shares, “Most of my middle and high school clients verbalize mixed feelings about social media. On one hand, it keeps them connected. On the other hand, it also allows them to be privy to all of the times they are being left out. It is the proverbial double-edged sword.” She goes on to say, “It is important as a therapist that I understand that this is their world. We work a lot on self-identity and how to avoid falling prey to the pressure of ‘being perfect’ and overachieving.”
“Regardless of its merits or perils, social media takes up a significant amount of brain space for many kids and, let’s face it, adults too,” says high school counselor Samantha Straub. “It’s a huge distractor. The lure of the next notification, combined with the comparison-culture that social media seems to breed, seems to be causing some kids angst.”
So why do our kids think that they mustn’t ever fail? Is it social media? Their parents? Their peers? Why do they not give themselves permission to get help? A parent at the meeting expresses frustration that the idea of Maddy going on medication (in the book) is never mentioned. Another parent shares that athletes don’t like to go on medication because it might alter their performance. In this moment I am paralyzed by the idea of how hopeless one must feel to think they have to choose between their mental health and physical performance. Yet Maddy didn’t even want to run anymore, so how did she get to the point of suicide?
Why are more people not talking about suicide, and depression, and anxiety? It’s okay to talk about it, professionals including our panel say as much. If someone is depressed, they have likely already thought about suicide so will need to talk about it. It’s important that we ask the hard questions:
In this way social media might even be seen as a positive. It can be a “wonderful platform to check in on a friend, be an ally to those in need, or to promote important causes,” according to Samantha Straub. “Social media is not going anywhere, so I think it’s important to recognize and praise moments when kids use social media for the good of others or their community. One mom shares with me after the meeting that even though the subject matter was incredibly heavy, the entire discussion left her hopeful. “There are resources, and we are fostering a supportive community receptive to having these difficult, personal, conversations, whereas I don’t think that was necessarily true a few years earlier.”
(1) The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost by Donna Freitas
(2) Girls Just Want to Have Likes: How to Raise Confident Girls in the Face of Social Media by Laurie Wolk
(3) Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour
(4) Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour
(5) Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives by Rachel Simmons
*Some of the recommended books were based on the fact that Maddy was a girl.