If you’ve achieved this milestone, your children may be more stressed in college

There’s perhaps no more prevalent college stereotype than that of the stressed university student chugging coffee while anxiously pulling an all-nighter. While not every college student is quite so prone to stress, there’s no denying that starting at a university or college can be a tumultuous, stressful time for incoming freshmen. After all, for the vast majority of these students, it’s the first time they’ll ever be away from home for so long.

Now, a new study from Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the University of Bern has concluded that children born to parents with university degrees themselves often exhibit far more stress when entering college than other incoming freshmen. 

Why is this happening? Researchers speculate that kids born to parents who graduated from college feel extra pressure to live up to the “social status” of their parents. These students are afraid they will bring shame to their families, and consequently lower their parents’ status in the community if they happen to flunk out or take a break from school.

The study’s authors came to their conclusions by analyzing hair samples collected from first-year female college students. When we’re stressed out, our bodies release more of the hormone cortisol. That excess cortisol often makes its way to growing hair and resides there, especially during prolonged periods of stress and worry. So, hair analysis is an accepted method in the scientific community of measuring a person’s recent stress levels.

In all, 71 college students were gathered to take part in this research. 

“The only inclusion criteria were that they started their first semester and that they had sufficiently long hair,” explains Nina Minkley from the Behavioural Biology and Didactics of Biology research group at RUB in a university release. “In the end, this meant that we recruited almost only women, and we decided not to include the few eligible men to avoid falsifying the results.” 

Each student gave researchers three strands of hair, all of which were cut off near the scalp. Generally speaking, hair grows about one centimeter (.39 inches) per month. So, the latest centimeter and a half of hair that had grown over the previous six weeks (since the start of the semester) was focused on. Also, each participant filled out a series of surveys asking about their parents’ backgrounds and professions, as well as the student’s self-assessed recent stress levels.

An analysis of those hair samples revealed that freshmen students born to at least one parent with a university degree deal with much higher levels of physiological stress during their first semester than their peers who come from “non-academic” households. 

Interestingly, however, while students with academic parents showed higher levels of cortisol in their hair, self-reported feelings of stress among students didn’t show the same pattern. Pretty much all the participants, regardless of their parents’ education, reported about the same levels of perceived stress. 

What does all this mean? It’s hard to say, but these results suggest that children born to parents with college degrees are placing a whole lot more pressure on themselves to excel academically, even if they aren’t fully aware of it. Additionally, only females were included in this study, so more research on this matter is warranted.

On the other end of the spectrum, adolescents who are the first from their family to attend college are probably less stressed because they essentially have “nothing to lose.” Just the fact that they’re attending college in the first place is an accomplishment.

“Children of non-academics, on the other hand, can only win and are therefore probably less stressed,” Minkley concludes.

Much is made in popular media, stories, and films about the sins of parents coming back to haunt their children. These findings just go to show that even a parent’s success can act as a hindrance for their kids. When the bar is raised so high, adolescents can feel excessive pressure to live up to what mom and dad have already accomplished.

The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.