ANDyes, blurry and looking at his class notes, he was frozen. Fleeting thoughts of not wanting to live passed through his mind.
Patrick couldn’t stop obsessing about the test in a week. He was an excellent student during high school, but the pressure of college triggered his panic.which he described to me later, during a therapy session.
In my practice, this is a situation I have seen many times. Young people appear to be able to handle performance pressure until they reach a certain level. In high school, Patrick’s parents wanted him to see a therapist because he often felt anxious. We worked together for six months before he graduated and left the state. Although he felt less anxiety because of therapy, it all came back when he attended university.
I got a call from his mother. It seemed like she was more concerned about Patrick’s ability to concentrate to get good grades than her emotional well-being. In most cases, parents pressure their children to succeed academically because they understand that education equals opportunity, and they want their children to have a better life. I don’t doubt the mother cares about her son’s mental health, but her emphasis on achievement tells a larger story.
Unfortunately, this young man’s story is quite common. In the last decade, increased attention has been paid to the link between a focus on academic performance and mental health symptoms in young people. Academic stress has been directly connected to rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation in between today’s youth, and grades are an important source of this type of stress.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center revealed that Most U.S. teens view anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers, It is Academics are at the forefront of the pressures young people face.
The majority of teens (61%) say they personally feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, and another 27% say they feel some pressure to do so. Compared to getting good grades, about half say they feel a lot of pressure to look good (29%) and to fit in socially (28%). About one in five say they face a lot of pressure to get involved in extracurricular activities and be good at sports (21% each), while smaller shares say they feel a lot of pressure to help their family financially (13%), to participate in religious activities (8%), being sexually active (8%), drinking alcohol (6%) or using drugs (4%).
Boys and girls, as well as teens across income groups, generally feel similar levels of pressure in each of these areas, but girls are more likely than boys to say they feel a lot of pressure to look good (35% vs. 23%) . And teens in low- and middle-income groups are more likely than those in higher-income households to say they feel at least some pressure to help their family financially (42% and 38%, respectively, vs. 28% ).
In his recent book,Erasing the Finish Line: The New Model for Success Beyond Grades and College AdmissionAna Homayoun questions the way we think about education, and invites us to reexamine our ideas about success, as well as the important skills that are needed to navigate and thrive in today’s world.
Homayoun writes: For years, we have been led to believe that great grades, high test scores, and college acceptance are critical to a successful life. However, our focus on these achievements leaves students anxious, demoralized, and unprepared.
The problem behind the symptom
There are several factors that contribute to the decline in mental health of today’s young people. However, the pressure and overemphasis that many parents place on achievement fuels and intensifies a larger social problem that is unfortunately overlooked.
Although today’s youth face increasing pressures and social influences to succeed and compete,Culture teaches them to measure their self-worth and identity based on what they do rather than their intrinsic qualities such as resourcefulness, sense of humor, sincerity, and intelligence. There’s nothing wrong with striving to improve, but it becomes problematic when it’s linked to self-esteem. The irony is that the very qualities that contributed to your success also perpetuate your emotional suffering.
This pervasive cultural mindset encourages young people to be outwardly oriented, putting a lot of pressure on themselves to be their best. Today’s young people feel tremendous pressure to go above and beyond and feel deficient when they don’t measure up to relentless standards. As they also have little tolerance for their own shortcomings, failure becomes synonym with being a failure as a person.
On a November 2011 article, University of Rochester psychologist Andrew Elliot has pointed out how gifted people have an underlying fear of failure or a self-esteem dependent on competence. He discovered that rather than setting and striving for goals based on the pure desire to achieve them, the underlying motivation is often to avoid failure.”
Seeking external validation, they try to feel adequate and accepted through performing well, conforming to social norms, and reading what others want in order to shape themselves to meet expectations.
Their strong need to be seen as Competent people hide the sad truth that they may appear well-adjusted and successful on the outside, but inside they suffer silently. Internal struggles often increase later in life when thrown into a competitive college or workplace environment, which includes eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
So what can be done to counter this disturbing trend?
The tendency is for parents to repeat the same parenting styles that shaped their own upbringing. In addition to avoiding pressure on children to excel and earn excellent grades, parents can counter, rather than reinforce, peer pressure and social messages that perpetuate this toxic external orientation.
They can start by finding ways to convey to their children that they are valued, loved, and valuable, regardless of their achievements and successes. Returning to that concerned mother I spoke of at the beginning of this article, I am interested in knowing to what extent she is able to recognize and validate her child’s inner person (her intrinsic qualities).
Many children and teenagers grow up without ever being seen for who they really are. Parents often tell me that they consider their children’s intrinsic qualities to be important, but when I dig deeper, these qualities only matter when tied to an outcome and are not the primary markers of their self-worth. For example, how many creative and artistic people do you know who can only recognize their creativity if they have a painting hanging in a gallery?
Since having an external focus causes young people to define their worth according to their accomplishments and how others perceive them, parents can encourage them to become arbiters of their worth. If their value is based on who they are and not what they do, then they won’t need to achieve or please to feel adequate.
Children can learn to turn inward for answers, which does not mean rejecting outside influences or becoming hyper-self-reliant. They can recognize the little voice inside that knows what’s best. Because they don’t know how to access their inner wisdom, they allow external forces to define their true value.
Parents can help children cultivate inner guidance by teaching them to trust and tune in to their intuitions and emotions. Through stories and skillful questions, they can help them look inward to discover the truest part of their experience, rather than relying solely on the outside world.
An additional complication
Another factor that reinforces excellence as the centerpiece of a child’s self-concept is when they form an identity based on emotional survival while growing up. Children learn to act in certain ways towards peers, teachers and family, which increases their chances of being recognized, praised and valued.
They also find that certain behaviors can help minimize feelings of worthlessness, shame, or decrease the likelihood of punishment, criticism, or rejection. For example, if there are a lot of arguments and conflicts in the family, being accommodating or being a perfect helper can lessen the tension. This can be a winning strategy when they are young, but it often creates problems as they reach adulthood. In these situations, psychotherapy can be very useful.
Patrick looked like the perfect picture of success on the outside, but on the inside he felt inadequate. Excelling at school earned him acceptance and helped shake off the feeling that he wasn’t enough. As he grew older, the pressure to be exceptional continued and became a hallmark of his identity. Throughout his life he strived to be the best to maintain his self-image and esteem.
When I asked him to tell me what he believed made him a worthy human being, but to leave out anything that had to do with achievement or the good he does for others. Patrick was completely perplexed by my question and couldn’t think of anything.
Over time, Patrick became much less anxious as he gradually realized that his worth was based on who he is rather than what he does. As a society, we need to start focusing more on psychological solutions and questioning taken-for-granted dysfunctional cultural norms as we face the enormous task of declining mental health in young people. Doctors have not deeply analyzed this dysfunctional cultural norm and its impact on the psyche.
The task is not simply to increase self-esteem, but to understand the main ways in which young people define themselves and measure their self-worth. Helping a child relate their worth to their inner qualities is significantly improved when parents, therapists and educators believe in it. About themselves.
Mad in America hosts blogs from a diverse group of writers. These posts are intended to serve as a public forum for broad discussion about psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are those of the writers themselves.
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