“Outer-Oriented” Success Is Driving Anxiety And Depression In Kids
Reframing Success Can Help
School is starting. My kids are excited about friends, sports and music, and even some favorite classes. But there is something else going on, too. They are anxious…about fitting in, about math, about homework, about getting into college even if it is years away—and about not measuring up…
They aren’t the only ones. Anxiety in kids and teens about not “measuring up” has been spiking. According to the Washington Post, there has been a dramatic 33% increase in teen beliefs that they must be “perfect to win approval from others.” And social media exacerbates this pressure to seem flawless to in academics, sports and looks.
The article continues to say that mental health professionals associate this “other-oriented” perfectionism with anxiety and depression.
Markers of this kind of outer approval can include:
- Getting “likes” on social media.
- The grades on your report card.
- What college you get into.
- Clothing brands.
- Making varsity or scoring goals or points.
- Being popular.
- Having a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Being “better” than other people at a skill or sport.
Of course, there is a relationship between what a kid does and what outward outcomes a kid gets. For example, all other things being equal, the kid who studies more will get better grades and the kid who practices more will play guitar better.
But at the end of the day our kids—just like us—can’t have perfect control over these outcomes, whether due to internal constraints like how fast we can run, or external constraints like how skilled the other people going out for the band or taking the SAT are or our parent’s clothing budget—or even the statistical fact that no matter how hard the students in the bottom 50% of the class try, and no matter how much they improve, at the end of the year half the students will still finish in the bottom half of the class!
And defining success on what is not under our control is a recipe for unhappiness and anxiety.
WHAT DID YOU WANT FOR YOUR NEWBORN?
This is too bad, because when our beautiful kids were born, most of us had an entirely different list of what we hoped for them. When 3,500 mothers of newborns across 13 countries from four continents were surveyed on their hopes for their children, “likes” on Instagram did not make the list! Although there were some regional variations, mothers around the world wished for their babies to grow up qualities like:
- Respect for parents and elders
- Good personal hygiene
- Tenacity and perseverance
As our kids get older, our list changes–but not that much! According to a PEW poll of over 3,000 school age US parents, we want our kids to be:
- Hard working
- Helpful to others.
- Well mannered.
Your list might be different—and your kid’s list might be different yet again—but I love that our deepest hopes for our kids are about what is inside them!
Let’s go back to a kid struggling with math, who works twice as hard as the kid who finds math easy, but still finishes in the bottom half of the class. In an outcome oriented success measure, they are a failure. But if you believe that a high quality of life relates to being responsible and hardworking, they may be even more successful than the kid who got the 100%.
One of the great things about having three kids is that I get to see first hand that my kids have different affinities and challenges. I have one kid who seems born for academics, another who is a natural at connecting with others, and a third who loves to sketch and dream.
For one, making a dozen new friends in the first week of school goes without saying. For another, having the courage to say “hi” to one person in the hall is a great victory. For one, a perfect score on a test is normal. For another, studying math for 30 minutes without crying in frustration is making progress.
Given such different personalities and skills, it really doesn’t make sense to worry too much about grades, colleges, or the numbers of friends, does it?
And that is what is so great about going back to those hopes and dreams we had for our kids when they were wet and tiny newborns; that they would be responsible, connected, hard working, and kind.
Now those are standards worth getting excited about!
LIFE IS RIGHT NOW, EVEN FOR KIDS
We all want to prepare our kids to thrive and survive in an uncertain world. So we say “work hard now, so you can get into the AP class later” or “study hard now, so you can do well on the SAT later” and “do your homework tonight so you can get good grades later.”And this is good advice–work NOW so you can be successful LATER!
But the problem is that our kids don’t start living later, when they get to high school, or college, or when they get a job. They are in the middle of life right now.
Why should they need to wait to be successful?
They can be successful right now—by re-framing success.
FIVE MINUTES TO RE-FRAME SUCCESS
Ask your kid what kind of person they would like to be. (Reading this article with them would be one good way to start that conversation.) Invite them to share the qualities they would like to exemplify–and ask them how they can demonstrate those qualities.
Encourage them to make those values their yardstick.
A standard that is internal, not external, and one that is under their control, not out of their control. A standard which will probably be way better at helping them receive outer trappings of success than actually focusing directly on those outer trappings, but which matters far more than those outer trappings possibly could. And a standard that better prepares them for the uncertainty of life than any class or grade could possibly do.
And then forget about getting ready for life—because life is right now!
Even if you are in 3rd grade!
Or if, like me, you’re a middle aged parent of three!
Don’t waste your time always searching for those wasted years
Face up, make your stand
And realize you’re living in the golden years
–Wasted Years, Iron Maiden
On To Greatness, In Parenting, Music and Life,
Founder, NYC Guitar School
Original Lyrics for “Wasted Years” by Iron Maiden:
Washington Post: “Perfectionism among teens is rampant (and we’re not helping)”
TIME magazine Pew poll: “And the Quality Most Parents Want to Teach Their Children Is …”
NY Post poll of 2000 parents: “These are the top life lessons parents hope to teach their kids”
Fisher Price Poll: “Moms’ Hopes &Wishes Study: Global Summary”
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