Many of us feel pressure to perform: at work, when we’re pushing to win that next client or ace that project; at home, when it seems like every single task involves a million other little tasks that need to be done first; in our community, whether we’re working to impress friends at a posh dinner party or busting it during our favorite volunteer gig.
Even if it’s fun and what we love to do, the stress of wanting to succeed still can get to us.
And guess what: That same pressure we feel? Our kids feel it too—at school, during extracurricular activities and at home.
“Early grade school up to third grade isn’t that anxiety provoking for kids in terms of workload or other activities, but getting into later grade school, it’s typical for kids to feel anxiety due to higher expectations,” explained Dr. Dale Peeples, a child psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia. Children might feel pressure to live up to and to please their parents, while teens may be driven by their own motivation to succeed.
Still, we know that setting high goals helps kids in the long run by teaching them the value of working toward something. But when are these high expectations too high?
“Watch out for signs,” said Peeples. “In kids, anxiety is often expressed physically, with headaches, back tension, stomach troubles. And if kids are edgy or irritable, snapping at any little thing or if they have big changes in sleep patterns, those are all warning signs.”
It’s About Time
Most experts agree that it’s important for kids to be well-rounded—to get an education, to be involved in sports and physical activity, and to pursue art, dance or music. But there has to be a balance.
If your child is heavily involved, say, in dance and gymnastics along with playing an instrument—finding enough hours in a day to do all of that, along with regular schoolwork, can be a challenge, said Peeples.
“The number one priority should be school,” he said. “Then the second priority should be sleep.”
On average, children need about 10 hours of sleep. So if your son or daughter is regularly at sports or other practices until 8 or 9 p.m., then works on homework and goes to bed at 10 or 11 p.m., then wakes up at 6 a.m. to start all over again—he or she is probably on a sleep deficit.
“Maybe your child really does love to do it all,” said Peeples. “But if you’re noticing burnout or that he or she isn’t getting enough sleep and is more moody and irritable due to trying to meet all of these expectations and the stress that comes along with it, it might be time to have a conversation about balance.”
Your child might welcome an opportunity to admit feeling overwhelmed. Or, your child may not want to give up any activity. But talking about it gives you both a chance to work out a solution together.
Pushing Too Hard
Then there’s the other scenario—when kids are pushed into an activity to please a parent or because it will “look good on your college application.”
“That may not be the healthiest thing to do,” said Peeples.
But, it is a good idea to expose kids to a wide variety of activities when they’re younger. A good strategy is to have them try it for a season or for a semester. Then, listen to their feedback. Do they enjoy it? Are they proud of their work? “You do have a number of kids who might be anxious trying something new or who weren’t best at it right away,” said Peeples. “It’s important for them not to give up too early, which is why parents should encourage them to give it a good try at least for a season. Then, when the season’s up, they can try exploring something else.”
Typically children will pick one or two activities they love and will continue focusing on. Just be sure to keep the conversation going to ensure they’re still enjoying it and having that sense of accomplishment. If they’re not, consider backing off. Yes, even if you had dreams of them becoming the next Tom Brady or a world-class ballerina.
Still, the greatest pressure to perform might happen at school. As a general rule of thumb, children in kindergarten to second grade typically won’t have much homework. But you should expect a child in 3rd to 6th grades to spend at least an hour of additional studying after school, and that time will increase as a child enters high school.
Online parent portals make it easy for parents to check on daily homework and how kids are performing, so that parents can step in to help if children appear to be struggling in one area—versus waiting nine weeks for a report card.
But that also can turn into high pressure on kids to make those A grades. “I do try to encourage parents to look at effort opposed to just looking at outcomes, whether that’s school or other activities,” said Peeples. “You might have a kid putting in 110 percent of effort, but who has a specific learning disability or is weak in an area. But if they’re trying, you need to recognize that to encourage them to keep working.”
Winning at Life
After all, in the real world, so much is out of our control.
We run into bad bosses, smarter co-workers, unlucky circumstances. “Even if we do our best, we’re not always going to win the championship,” said Peeples. “In the same way, we all have strengths and weaknesses. So it’s very important for parents to praise putting in the effort and to encourage kids to keep reaching for their goals—and to stay positive even if they don’t reach them quite yet.”