Is the stress we put on our children to succeed taking a toll on their well-being?

As a society, we put a lot of pressure on young children to succeed from a very early age. Getting good grades, non-stop standardized testing, the pressure to be involved in extracurricular activities etc. is a lot to expect from developing minds. There are many paths to achieve happiness and fulfillment but, a lot of times, that equates to money, status and material possessions in our society. How do we create a balance as parents?

Read on to learn what our team of expert clinicians have to say about how to handle the pressure to achieve.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Kasey Cain, Resident in Counseling:

Multiple times a year I am asked to present at schools and parent resource centers on ways to support children with symptoms of anxiety. My most recent presentation focuses on the overscheduled, stressed out child (and parent). Additionally, in the school system, we are nearing the end of academic advising season, where students select courses for next year. When meeting with school staff, I hear “I want each student to set goals and have high standards for themselves, but they need to find a balance. Taking all AP courses while also participating in activities and responsibilities at home isn’t healthy.” The data supports their concern. 60% of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades and over 70% of teenagers say they see mental-health issues as a major problem among their peers. (Pew Research Center)

The pressure to succeed begins prior to these high school years. Parents of children as young as 5 have called my office asking if there are prep classes for their child to get into a local magnet school for high school. As a mother of 2, I understand wanting your child to succeed and being afforded every opportunity available. I want my children to know I believe they can do it all but I also want them to know they don’t have to do it all.

In all the presentations that I give, I ask participants, “What is your goal for your child?” The majority of the answers are “I want my child to be happy.” or “I want him/her to be independent and a good person.” The pressure to achieve comes from a good place, but maybe it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and figure out the best way to find balance for ourselves, our families, and our children. If you aren’t sure how, I’m happy to help!

Amanda Beyland, LCSW: 

Between school, extracurricular activities, social stress, and home life, kids feel pressure from all directions. While it is normal to set goals and expectations for kids, it is important to differentiate between the expectation and the pressure to achieve. Setting expectations helps children know that they can succeed and feel confident in their ability to reach goals. We have all heard the saying “let kids be kids” and it’s important to make sure kids know they can be successful outside of good grades, first place, or the perfect performance.

When there is too much pressure set on achieving, kids feel that weight, which can result in increased anxiety, low self-esteem, and developing a variety of unhealthy habits, eventually leading to burn out. Support your kids by providing them with praise, allowing them to make mistakes (and learn from them), and not comparing them to others. When we recognize that a child has worked hard it allows the focus to shift from the outcome to their effort or the process.

Dr. Dominique Adkins, ED.D, LPC, NCC, ACS 

The pressure to achieve coupled with the negative and egocentric thinking patterns of teens can be challenging for teens. Many teens do not have the skills needed to cope with strong emotions and the daily pressures of adolescence. It is important to educate and remind teens that their thoughts and reactions are within their power.

Empowering teens to take time away each day from the pressures of school is valuable. Encourage teens to take planned mindful moments away from the pressures of the world. These mindful breaks allow teens to recharge. Once recharged they are more effective in managing the pressures to achieve.

Karin Purugganan, Resident in Counseling:

As I was coaching my 7 year-old’s soccer team this week, I started feeling overwhelmingly like I just wanted to win, and the ref was missing some calls. I pretty quickly realized that I need to start my adult league STAT! Frequently when I get the urge to win for my kid, I can tell that I need an outlet. So many times our children learn unconscious behaviors from us. Listen to yourself the next time you are watching a game, or commenting on someone’s achievement. How often do we compliment the opposing team? How often do we comment on the growth over a season or a team’s transformation.

There is so much more to life than just winning. Teaching our children to be gracious in losses and wins is a great way to foster empathy. Learning from losses can foster a growth mindset necessary for overcoming challenges and adversity. It also makes activities more enjoyable for the whole family. Expand your praise of your children to include their effort, not just the outcome. Ask them who they thought on the other team was amazing, and what they could learn from them. Modeling this behavior will help to mitigate the overwhelming pressure to achieve now and as your child gets older.

Rebecca Staines, LPC:

The pressure to achieve, especially in the Northern Virginia area, can be overwhelming. We are set right outside of DC and have a plethora of colleges and universities nearby. With so many academics and hard-working professionals in such a concentrated area, it is no wonder our children feel the same pressure to achieve. As adults we consciously and unconsciously model behavior and expectations to our kids. Sometimes we may not even realize the full impact our busy schedules can have on the developing minds of young ones.

While it is important to instill a work ethic in our kids, it is also equally, if not more, important to demonstrate balance as well. Parents and adults need to show kids that it is essential to have a time to invest in themselves and their friends and family. As counselors we define this as self-care, and it can look different for each person. I always encourage kids to come up with 5 ways they like to unwind and get to a calm place. Some common ideas include listening to music, drawing, keeping a journal, going for a walk, talking to a friend, or playing with a pet. Whatever your remedy, make sure it works for you!

Vanessa Mackall Lal, Resident in Counseling:

Let’s face it, the pressure to succeed can be one of those pesky and overbearing feelings that can have both positive and negative outcomes. A lot of individuals find themselves having a bit of a love hate relationship with this very common form of anxiety. On one hand, it can push us to perform at our very best and, in some cases, can help us reach our full potential in many areas of our life.

On the other hand, the pressure to succeed can also lead to experiences of debilitating anxiety, perfectionism, and an overwhelming sense of self doubt. Teaching  kids that it is OKAY to make mistakes as they learn new and exciting things about the world, themselves, and others can help them develop a positive sense of self while they are reaching new levels of success.

Consistent encouragement (especially after a mistake is made) can help turn the pressure to succeed into a motivating element, as opposed to a source of harmful anxiety.

Until next time, Be Wise!

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