A+ Pressure – Parents, Kids and Grades

By Tracy McConaghie, LCSW, RPT/S

Many of the adolescents in my practice are experiencing tremendous pressure to keep their grades to a near-perfect level.  The sources of this pressure are both internal (their own thoughts and fears) and external (messages they receive from teachers and parents).

It is not surprising that they feel this way. Colleges have become more competitive and, as a culture, we are focusing more on performance and less on effort, process and balance.

Parents tend to apply this kind of pressure because they are worried about whether or not their child will be successful and also if they are a good enough parent.  It is as if our children have become walking report cards – grading us as parents.  We all want to prove our children are doing well and therefore we are doing well as parents.

Parents are well intended.  They love their children and want them to do well, but this can  cause children to suffer with anxiety and fear that, if they don’t make all A’s, they won’t succeed in life.  The reality is, you can make A’s and B’s and C’s,  go to college and have a happy, successful life. Over-focusing on performance and perfection takes  away from what learning can be.

The Pitfalls of Pressure

The young people I see who are under too much pressure typically fall into two categories:

Some are trying so hard to achieve and comply that their lives are unbalanced and full of stress. They judge themselves based on performance instead of on effort and who they really are as a person. That can carry on through adulthood and that can create depression, anxiety and shame. They may also stop taking chances because they are terrified of making mistakes and being perceived as a failure.

The other possibility, depending on the temperament of the child, is that they develop a pattern of rebellion or underachieving because they feel they can not measure up.

Releasing the Pressure

It is very helpful for parents to shift their focus from performance to process.

Instead of asking a child what their grade was on a project, consider asking them what they are most proud of in their project.  In addition, focus questions on what the child is learning or enjoying the most rather than focusing only on performance.  The idea is to shift from “Are you doing well enough?’” to “What are you getting out of it?”

On report card day, it is wise to ask children to reflect on their grades rather than jumping right to the parent’s assessment.  For example, “‘How are you feeling about this report card? I’m interested to hear your thoughts on it.” When asked genuinely, children who are not doing well almost always express that they wish their grades were better.

Once you have established how your child feels and what they want, you can brainstorm with them for some solutions.  Are they having a hard time organizing? Are their priorities off track? Would they benefit from a tutor or new study routine?

Lose the Rewards

The trend of giving money or presents for grades is intended to motivate children to do better but it actually contributes to the very problem that I am writing about. Rewards prevent kids from connecting to the value of learning. It is far more more meaningful to say, “How do you feel about these grades? What are you most proud of? You are learning more and growing every day. That is a beautiful thing to watch.” That creates inspiration and an attachment to learning. Presents and money create pressure to try to get things from your parents and an attachment to material things.

Success without Pressure

Children of parents who are engaged and support without demanding high performance are more likely to be free of the shackles of perfectionism and enjoy their work. They are more self-confident and are willing to try harder because they are less fearful of making mistakes. Best of all, they develop skills for taking mistakes and mishaps in stride and learning from them instead of feeling shame.

Teaching children to work hard and try their best is important, but this should happen without undue pressure for perfection and without giving up the primary messages about learning, growing, and accepting mistakes.