Controversy about the educational system has focused on the grade school years through high school. The concern on the one hand is the idea that the achievement levels as measured do not match either what is required for success in the modern world or those reached by other countries. On the other side is the concern that children are subjected to too much academic pressure and are suffering from the resultant stress.

Word from the college world seems to support the second thesis. A report from The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, based on findings from 140 colleges and universities, describes more than 100,000 college students seeking mental health treatment. The primary presenting concern of students is anxiety, with depression second. Additional findings note that among seven types of mental health distress in college students, academic distress is the peak associated form of distress for almost half of all college students’ primary presenting concerns.

Colleges are concerned about these findings because the demand for services is increasing while there is also an increase in the severity and complexity of presenting concerns by students. But there is room for concern on the part of educators and parents generally since apparently students arrive at college already stressed.

In discussions about this problem somehow the cause gets attributed to parents. “Helicopter parenting” has become a catch all as the source of all contemporary problems with children. Much has been written about parental oversight, the degree to which parents stay in touch with children particularly in this age of cell-phones which make for instant contact. The charge is that children remain dependent on their parents and do not develop self reliance and the capacity for decision making.

These criticisms are offered as though parent behavior is disconnected from the larger society. The fact is that parents are responding – as are children – to the pressure from every side for academic achievement as essential for success in the contemporary economy. At the same time, the educational opportunities have not expanded. Instead, competition exists for admission to good schools that will provide the necessary tools that are said to be needed for children’s future.

Another criticism is children’s lack of resilience; that children are unable to tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. They may give up too readily on things that are hard and are unable to bounce back when things don’t go well for them. These are complaints I often hear from parents who are upset by such behavior.

This may be the result of ideas about child-rearing fostered by a misunderstanding of child development research and theories about mental health. The thought that frustration and negative feelings are damaging to children took hold in various ways. Parents are invested in children feeling happy – the focus on happiness also a product of our culture.

As parents have fewer children these days, they are deeply invested in the ones they do have. They don’t want their children to have to feel “bad,” or to struggle. But the fact is that overcoming obstacles and achieving goals often involves struggle. Just living in the real world with other people requires compromise and giving up things you may want.

Resilience is the ability to deal with such realities and move forward despite disappointment and frustration. As parents, helping our children develop resilience means our own ability to tolerate their upsets and disappointments, knowing that we can’t always make it better and that it is better for our children that we can’t.

Living through things that are hard early on develops the necessary muscles for the future.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.