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Teens & the Duck Syndrome

The “Duck Syndrome” is a term coined by Stanford University and seems to be running rampant at many colleges (and from my research) in many high schools as well.

What is the Duck Syndrome? Well, think of a duck gliding along the water. She looks very serene, calm and pleasant. Then, if you look under the water, she is paddling frantically.

That is the Duck Syndrome — too many students on the outside appear calm, cool, and collected while on the inside they are completely stressed out. It’s a “fake it till you make it” mentality. For many, they want to be the great student, the great athlete, and well-liked by peers.

But what price do they pay?

Proving you can do it all has transformed into an ugly state of unattainable expectations and extremes, which are unhealthy for teens at any age. I’ve seen this further progress into eating disorders for the perfect body and drug addictions to manage the high pace and stress. This is a recipe for disaster.

I believe high school is where this syndrome starts to percolate. Many of the teens who suffer from the Duck Syndrome in college were “big fish in a small pond” at their high schools. Most want to maintain that persona, and to be popular these days means that you can do it all. I see high school students staying up until ridiculously late hours doing homework, always wanting the A, playing on one if not two sports teams, and expecting to go out every weekend to party.

All this can lead to anxiety, depression, and unhealthy habits. When they get to college, which could have 12,000 to 20,000 students, being a big fish is not so easy anymore. The stakes get higher. During college, the classes (typically) are more difficult, with more homework, papers and tests. If students see their peers staying out late and still getting good grades, they feel the peer pressure to attain the same and compete with the best students in popularity and perfection.

All the while, they fail to realize that they probably all are victims of the same syndrome and that the cycle never ends.

We need to teach our teens that setting limits for themselves never means failure. It means a healthy and happy life with realistic and attainable goals. Parents are the best role models for teens to see this in action — because paddling frantically is literally for the birds.

Teens & the Duck Syndrome

Dr. Carol Langlois

Dr. Carol Langlois is a former University Associate Provost and Dean, trained therapist, researcher and writer. Her book, Girl Talk: Boys, Bullies and Body Image is a compilation of interviews with teens girls on the topic of self-esteem which also offers an effective and practical system designed to RAISE (Resilience, Attitude, Independence, Self-Respect and Empowerment) teen self-esteem. Check out the book trailer for Girl Talk: Boys, Bullies and Body Image. In addition, an adaptation of her book has been put on stage by Suze Allen and 3Girls Theatre Company of San Francisco. You can find Dr. Langlois on Facebook and Twitter.

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APA Reference
Langlois, D. (2018). Teens & the Duck Syndrome. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Sep 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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