Most students who maintain high levels of academic achievement are not born gifted, but are cultivated by parents with high hopes for an outwardly successsful son or daughter. Overacheiving parents want their young to have a happy and comfortable adult life. Usually the parents have set ideas about how that will be achieved so they set out to control the lives of their young, providing little opportunity for distraction from parental goals that may result n the child’s choosing to follow a path that is contrary to the map that is already laid out.
Most overacheving parents place a child in activities and educational programs that involve a great deal of competition, believing that the constant comparisons to others will be a tool for motivation. The parents set high standards and push the child to reach them. If the child actually meets a standard, the parents then raise their expectaions again and push harder. Contrary to popular belief, competition is not good for most people, but is especially damaging to teenagers. Setting high standards creates a no win situation leading to depression, anorexia, bulimia, and suicide.
Problems caused by parental pressure to be the best, to try harder, and to never settle for a “B” when you can earn an “A” rarely surface in elementary school, outside of those parents who are sure their child is gifted and insist on testing. The student’s disposition might not change much because the pressure to achieve has yet to be compounded with every report card for several years. As the years add up, the stress takes its toll. Parents, thinking they are doing the right thing, increase the pressure for high achievement while the demands of middle school, and then high school, grow exponentially. This is a recipe for disaster.
The student will often study into the wee hours of the night, fret about not getting all A’s and struggled to fulfill an insane schedule of extracurricular activites meant to boost innate talents with an eye toward a good college with a scholarsihip. With the majority of their social time spent in activities that reinforce academics there is little chance for the develpment of social skill necessary to have a truly balanced life. In their need to please, a student will do what it takes to maintain the favor of their parents even when the student begins to feel their mental state deteriorating.
When the student mentions that they don’t feel well, or something doesn’t “feel right”, but they don’t think they are physically ill, don’t ignore them This may be the first sign that the stress has already reached a breaking point. Many parents respond by hiring new tutor, and a psychologist to make sure their son or daughter stays on track. These attempts at compartmentalizing growing difficulties mask the need to reprioritize goals and expectations based on the student’s needs, not the hopes of the parents.
Slowing down, taking stock, and letting go of demands based on the parental hopes means realizing that no matter what college their offspring goes to, no matter what their grade point average is, there is more than one way to be successful and happy. When that budding genious needs to stop being his or her best, let them do so.
Quality of Life
The most difficult step in any process is the first step. Admitting the student’s limitations and accepting their need to be “just average” is a huge obstacle for those parents who augment their self esteem through the acheivements of their young. This is not the time to bemoan the loss of opportunity and a good life. It is the time to redefine the good life in light of the necessary changes.
During the earlier years, the need to excel has hindered social development, not only through lack of time but also through lack of positive experiences with an accepting peer group whose time is spent in csaual interaction and not academics. The gentle introduction of group activities, that do not require team work, is critical.
Why avoid teams activities? They are competitive, each member of the team has to ba aware of how their personal performance effects the outcome for others. This is not a change from the approaches that have led to the mental and emotional crises at hand, it just changes the scenery. There is an acute need to find inner peace in companionship without adding stimulus. The new experience of enjoying the company of others needs to be based on personal interests, not common goals.
Interests that Focus on Pleasure
Encourage the pursuit of interests with no apparent goals or consequences. It is difficult to move away from gaining pleasure through besting your fellows, to activites for the sake of the pleasure they bring. Developing hobbies is a necessary teaching tool for both the parents and the child. Social groups based on these common interests do not thrive on competition, but on the sharing of common and productive pleasure. Projects that involve everything from beadwork to sculpture allow the mind to rest while skills are still being learned. Self esteem is built on internal evauuation and satisfaction, not being the best, and parents have a chance to appreciate a different way of approaching success.
Inner Peace, Inner Strength
Students who cannot continue with a program of intense academic achievment must learn learn to tune out the desires, expectations, and achievements of others. Not to the extent that they become antisocial but enough to establish limits that they can articulate and hold firm to. This fact disturbs parents most of all, but those messages that create the child who is eager to please and ready to serve others are his or her Achillie’s Heel. If those vulnerabiliteis are not removed, the student has no defense against peer pressure and those who would exploit them even further than the parents may have already.
Most alternative spiritual paths offer the means to establish a clear relationship with the inner self because they are they tend to be human centered, not deity centered. One doesn’t have to renounce their belief in the god of Abraham to use meditation, yoga, visualization, and other tools found in both eastern and western pagan practices. Within groups that gather for yoga or similar activities, your student can find help from others who also use these venues as stress management tools.
Once these adjustments to life’s new approach have started, encourage the student to keep a journal or diary. If you are a parent, do not fall prey to the idea that reading the entries is something any concerned parent would do. That will only serve to slow the changes that you must make within yourself, so that you can treat the student according to their needs and not your wishes. Instead, share your concerns and cifficulties with them. If your family is going through this transition, your student is probably old enough to have some of this information conveyed in a matter of fact manner, illustrating your understanding and acceptance of their limits.
The path to outward success will inevitably destroy your student if the signs of stress are not responded to with changes that ameliorate the intensity of its pursuit. Let go of those preconceved notions that have led to this crises. Stop being the overachiving parent. Don’t let your child get left behind.