SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, coaches Kim Giles and Nicole Cunningham explain the signs to watch for in an at-risk teen and how parents can check themselves for over-the-top expectations.
I admit I have high standards and expect my kids to excel and get really good grades, but I would feel like a bad parent if I didn’t. My husband and I are both over achievers who have post-graduate degrees, and we have been successful in business. Of course we want the same kind of life for our kids. A friend recently asked me if I think I put too much pressure on them and I guess I’m not sure. I think maybe there is a fine line between too much pressure and not enough, at least in my opinion. I also expect my kids to be pretty independent and responsible, but this friend made me feel like she thinks I’m there for my kids enough. I would be open to an outside opinion on what’s too much pressure, I really want to be a good parent and raise them right. Your articles have been helpful in the past so I thought I would ask.
The thing you must be aware of is more and more kids from affluent families, who have supportive parents, are suffering from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and substance abuse, and these kids are the most at risk for suicide.
An article in The Atlantic magazine about the suicide rate in Palo Alto, California, showed how often kids from wealthy families end up stressed, miserable and suicidal. The author, Hanna Rosin, said the major factor for these kids is pressure from parents that leaves them tired, discouraged and feeling alone.
There is an interesting book called "The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids," which might interest you. Author Madeline Levine says there is a toxic combination that happens when there is too much pressure to succeed and not enough connection with their parents. Those two together create the risk.
She says parents are too often over-involved in some things while being under-involved in others. For example, they care a lot about grades but don't take time to listen and connect.
Here are some warning signs that your child may be at risk:
- Feeling tired all the time
- Trouble sleeping
- Never at home
- Eating disorders or changes in diet
- Lack of motivation
- Drugs, alcohol abuse
- Hanging out with under-achieving friends
Now add those signs to these signs that you might be a parent who puts too much pressure on your children:
- You are a high-stress person, a perfectionist or extremely picky.
- You are highly organized and need things clean and in the right places at all times or you feel unsafe and stressed out.
- You are overly attached to specific outcomes like them making the varsity team as a junior, or winning a scholarship to a specific school.
- You get overly upset or have emotional reactions to bad grades, lost games or bad performances.
- You take every situation too seriously. The high school game, one bad grade, not making the team, these are not life or death situations. If they feel life or death to you, your expectations may be too high.
- You fight with your spouse about your expectations and standards, and no one can make you happy.
- Your feedback is more critical than positive.
- You insist on being involved in every decision and micromanage every activity.
- You over-schedule kids with too many activities.
- You compare this child’s performance, grades, abilities or achievements with another child’s.
If you see some of both of these lists in your family, you need to rethink your behavior and/or upskill and learn some better ways to parent. There are many free resources for parents on my website, and we offer free weekly classes for parents/adults and teens too.
You must be realistic about the world you live in today; 5,400 teens take their life every year, and untreated or unrecognized depression is the No. 1 cause.
Seventy percent of teens today suffer from at least one episode of depression before adulthood. Academic stress, family financial struggles, romantic problems, peer pressure, divorce and traumatic life events are usually the catalyst, but a lack of good mental and emotional coping skills then turns into depression or anxiety.
Psychotherapist Karen Ruskin, Ph.D, says parents need to be supportive, not pushy. She says "the key is to be your child's biggest fan and nurturer” and make sure their mental and emotional health are your main concern. Many parents struggle to teach kids how to process emotions, because they don’t know how. You can’t teach what you don’t know.
Parents must upskill themselves first and become more mentally and emotionally resilient. Then, make it a high priority to teach children how to handle life and maintain confidence and self-esteem.
Here are a couple of other important things you must do:
1. Allow failures
This means not overreacting from fear when they happen, and making sure a child knows their value as a person is not tied to their performance, grades, sporting events or anything else. Teach kids their intrinsic value is the same as every other person on the planet and nothing can change it. They cannot be less than anyone else and they can’t be better either.
When failure happen say, “Well the good news is that doesn’t change your value at all. How do you feel about it? Is there anything to be learned for next time? Is there anything I could do to help?” When you have failures, you must also model a healthy way of handling them.
2. Teach life is a classroom, not a test
This goes along with No. 1 — make sure they see every experience as an interesting lesson that showed up to help them grow, but doesn’t affect their value at all.
3. Teach and model good self care
It is your job to make sure you feel good and are creating a life you want to live in. Parents who model this behavior give kids permission to make life enjoyable and recognize when they are emotionally drained and what they need to do to get back up, Make sure you don’t call yourself stupid, live in constant stress and panic, and are unhappy most of the time. These behaviors teach kids all the wrong lessons. If you need help getting your own life and thinking on track, get some.
4. Teach kids to follow their own inner truth about what is right for them
Teach them to make their own decisions by letting them. They sometimes need guidance and to learn how to stick to things that are hard, but teach them that they alone are entitled to choose what activities, sports and hobbies are right for them and honor their feelings.
5. Spend quality time asking questions and listening
This is probably the most important thing you can do. Make sure they feel heard and understood and that you honor and respect their right to their own ideas and opinions. Respect and caring is a two-way street, and you must give it if you want it back.
You must remember the most important thing your child needs to make it in the world isn’t an ivy league education or perfect grades, it’s a good sense of self-worth.
Children who see themselves as capable, strong, smart and valuable rise to the top as adults wherever they go. Make sure instilling confidence and teaching healthy ways to process emotions is your first priority.
Give them lots of opportunities to solve their own problems (with you just asking smart questions to guide them), make decisions and experience the consequences from their choices. Saving them from loss or disappointment won’t prepare them for the real world. Be OK with some failures now, while they cost less.
If you need help to calm down your own perfectionism fears and high expectations, reach out to a good counselor or coach who specializes in overcoming fear. A little professional guidance can change things fast.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president of www.claritypointcoaching.com, and she and Nicole Cunningham offer free classes for parents, adults and teens who need help.