Pressure To Perform: How Pursuit Of Excellence Is Killing Our Kids

Posted on November 30th, 2015


According to the Lucille Packard Children’s Foundation, suicide is the third leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 10-24 nationwide. Although the most publicized local accounts have been from the Palo Alto School District (three this year, nine since 2009), the Silicon Valley culture of high academic and athletic performance puts a tremendous amount of pressure and expectations on all of our young people. We know from myriad studies that teenage brains are still developing, with full frontal lobe maturity not occurring until the age of 24 in some cases… yet our youth are expected to perform not only at an adult level, but at an excellent adult level in all areas of their lives.

Teens who are successful academically are often encouraged to take multiple AP classes. It’s not enough to get As in high school – in order to be a “viable” college candidate, they are told they need to be getting As in college level classes while they are still in high school. Teens who are athletically gifted are expected to play on competitive sports teams rather than recreational, or even high school teams. They are told they need to be traveling to national tournaments in order to be seen by college recruiters. Oh, and by the way, college coaches are really looking for multi-sport athletes. If you dig computers and Legos, you should be competing on a nationally ranked robotics team. If you are a musician, you should have multiple subscribers to your SoundCloud. If you are funny, you should have your own monetized YouTube channel with thousands of subscribers. If you have a heart for others, you should be spending your free time volunteering in a third-world country or inventing a new clean water or energy source. Whatever gifts our children have, they are encouraged to push themselves to excellence, at all times, in all areas.

The Double Bind

In the world of psychology, we have a communication term called “The Double Bind”. This occurs when a person receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one cancels out the other. This rigid pursuit of excellence creates a double bind for all of us – parents, teachers and students alike. As parents and educators, we are told to set high expectations for our children, give them the resources (tutors, SAT prep classes, coaches, trainers, camps) they need to succeed, while at the same time we are told that it is our job to keep them physically, mentally and emotionally safe. How can we both push our children to take advantage of the resources to be their best, while at the same time protecting them from depression, anxiety, and other mental illness that results from this perfectionistic drive to outperform their peers?

Young people are told they must both strive for excellence in all they do, and lead a balanced and healthy life without the existence of anxiety or depression. Those who buy into the pursuit of excellence may find themselves in a highly competitive peer group in which they may feel that they are surrounded by “frenemies”, constantly fighting the knowledge that there is always someone who can perform just a little better. They are often wracked with anxiety, and see every grade or sports game as the determiner of their future success and happiness. Young people who opt out of this race often end up joining a counter-culture that rejects these standards of performance, and may experience isolation, depression, and emotional shutdown. Both groups may exhibit unhealthy coping skills such as self-injurious behavior and increased drug and alcohol use. The sad thing is that we are all complicit in these double bind communications. We are all – parents, educators and young people – sharing these messages with each other.

The Solution

So how do we change this unhealthy culture? First and foremost, we all have to stop buying into it. We need to recognize, both for ourselves and for our children, that their (our) worth is not based on our performance in anything. Our worth is based on who we choose to be: the unique essence of who we are. Our diverse and beautiful combination of characteristics, strengths and weaknesses that make us human, that give us the ability to connect with one another, and that allow us to survive collectively as a species. Without this diversity, we would die out. A society entirely comprised of CEOs would starve to death within weeks! The world needs each and every one of us to be exactly who we are. No one else can be a better version of each of us.

So how do we do this? We can start by teaching our young people to focus on the process rather than the product. Instead of asking your child about grades, ask if they like their teacher, or if the subject matter is interesting, or if they are learning anything new. Instead of asking if they won their game, ask if they had fun playing, or if they worked well with their teammates, or if they felt that they improved their play. Ask them to play their music for you, to show you their art, and to sit with you and do absolutely nothing productive for a little while. Next, we can help them to see that there is a college, trade school, a career, and a happy and productive future for each and every one of them. Help them discover what they enjoy doing, be it vocation or avocation. Finally, we practice what we preach. We show our priorities and values by the ways in which we live our own lives. We release ourselves from the expectation to be the perfect parent, or the most productive professional, or the highest earner, and instead we focus on doing the best we can while balancing our various roles and responsibilities. We celebrate success, and we thank our failures for teaching us something new.

Our community is blessed with an extraordinary amount of intelligence, talent, perseverance and drive. Along with this comes a disproportional amount of pressure, anxiety, depression and emotional isolation. We must move away from critiquing performance, and instead focus on enjoying the time we have with our children.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.