Our teens are embedded in a culture driven by competition and perfectionism, where success is defined by status, performance and appearance. These values are transmitted to our children nonverbally through our emotional state and through what we notice, are impressed with, and praise or discourage in them.
When we are on the fast track, we lose ourselves and forget the values closest to our hearts. In moments of perspective, we realize that having the courage to stand up for kids who are less popular is more impressive than scoring in the 90th percentile on the SATs. But that’s not what we reward.
Pushing teens to be the best is well-intentioned. We worry that they will be left behind in a competitive world. But the notion that being the best and having the most brings happiness is an illusion (Crocker & Carnevale, 2013). And future success is not determined by good grades, Ivy League acceptances, or inflated self-esteem (Tough, 2012).
Capacities Associated with Success
In fact, success is correlated with psychological capacities including: optimism, curiosity, a sense of oneself as capable (different from self-esteem, which is about self-worth), and the ability to manage negative emotions and weather obstacles (Tough, 2012). These capacities develop in the context of secure attachments with parents, which occurs when we give teens space by being present, responsive and interested – rather than reactive, controlling or preoccupied. Consistently, research confirms that teens’ subjective experience of their relationship with parents as close and supportive protects and insulates them more than anything.
Why Pressuring Kids to Perform Backfires
Ironically, parents’ hypervigilance about teens’ grades and future success backfires psychologically and academically. When parents are overly invested in performance, kids are less likely to develop their own, more sustainable, motivation. Further, making the stakes too high engenders fear, leading teens to avert possible failure at all costs. This level of stress propels homework avoidance, compromises executive functions, inhibits curiosity and new challenges, and increases lying.
Some teens are able to be compliant under pressure, but compliance replaces problem solving, judgment and autonomous thinking – capacities needed for self-reliance, fortitude and success. Without the space to find their own way, teens fail to develop an inner-directed sense of self to anchor them (Levine, 2006). Alternatively, encouraging teens to think and advocate for themselves, make their own choices, and experience natural consequences of their decisions fosters the development of identity, values, responsibility, and competence.
Excessive worry about teens’ success can also lead parents to be overinvolved and intrusive in areas where teens should make their own choices. Failing to be vigilant, set effective limits and help in areas where they are vulnerable leads to compromised judgment and impulse control (Levine, 2006).
Psychological Effects of Perfectionism and Performance Pressure
The darker side of our culture of performance and perfectionism, and its manifestations in families, is well documented. It is associated with depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, lying, eating disorders, recklessness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-reproach, cutting, and suicide (Levine, 2006).