Parents: Pushing Teens Too Hard?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Encourage Self-Reliance, New Interests -- Then Back Off

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Parenting -- it's the most competitive adult sport in today's world.

Parents are coaching kids in every detail of their lives -- academics, athletics, arts -- so the best colleges will take them, so they'll have the best chance for success. The result for many teens, experts say, is burnout, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

"I really think it's a major contributing factor in drug use, early sex, binge drinking -- kids feel pressured, they feel tremendous stress," says Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, author of The Over-scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap.

What's Going On Here?

Hyper-parenting -- a word that Rosenfeld coined - is increasingly becoming the accepted way to raise successful children. Some parents hire tutors for kids already getting A's, just to keep them on track. Some hire private soccer coaches for 9-year-old boys, just to give them an extra edge on the team. "There's no effort too extreme, no sacrifice too great," Rosenfeld says, especially "if it will help your child get admission to the leading colleges."

"Parents see that the workforce is growing increasingly competitive," he says. "Society has become more bifurcated -- there are the 'haves' and the 'have nots', and not much in between. Parents are anxious about kids staying on the gravy train. They want to be good parents. They think this is the way to do it."

The Positive Side of Pushing

Such diligence is not mean-spirited and sometimes pays off, helping an ambitious child reach his or her goals.

Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and chief psychologist at the Grady Health System in Atlanta, says she was a "pushed child."

"It was good for me," she tells WebMD. "There are lots of advantages to pushing teens. It gives them an opportunity to really excel in life. But I was the kind of kid who was temperamentally suited to being pushed -- it's probably why I'm a workaholic now. Every good thing has its downside."

The Risks of Pushing Too Hard

However, Kaslow agrees that many kids are not suited to being pushed, and too many parents ignore the cues their kids are sending. The results are starting to show up in college campus mental health centers.

One study at Kansas State University looked at 13,257 students seeking counseling between 1988 and 2001. Researchers found that the rate of depression among students doubled in that time, while the number of suicidal students tripled. Until 1994, the most common problems were what one might expect: relationship woes, according to the report in the February 2003 issue of the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Hyper-parenting, says Rosenfeld, can damage a kid's self-esteem, detour the development of self-reliance, and make kids anxious. Kids feel under constant scrutiny, and begin to feel inadequate in their "unpolished" state.

These experts say many parents should take a step back, and assess whether their children are driven, or whether they themselves are caught up in the competition.

"This is not about meeting your needs, it's about your child's needs," says Kaslow. "If you have a child who drives herself (or himself), then it's OK to push them. But forcing kids to do things they hate isn't going to work."

Finding Middle Ground

Stepping back from the competition is not easy, Rosenfeld acknowledges. Parents feel social pressures to push kids. "If you don't overdo it, you're treated as a vastly neglectful parent. Just try telling another parent you're not going to let your kid play elite hockey because it means you all have to get up at 4 a.m."

So remind yourself that the qualities that have made America so successful -- creativity and innovation -- go unrewarded in a society where everyone crams for straight A's. "We've got a one-size-fits-all mentality. My kid must be president of the school class, etc., or there's no hope for his future," says Rosenfeld. But American history has proven that mentality wrong.

What should you do?

Kaslow suggest parents encourage their kids to try new activities and sign them up for six weeks of lessons. But if the child isn't enthusiastic after six weeks, back off. Let them focus on the few activities they like.

Advises Rosenfeld: "In my experience, what makes for a good life is doing one thing well and liking it. Satisfaction with life comes from the quality of our relationships, not what we have achieved. You see the evidence all the time -- the 'truly successful' CEO who didn't get invited to his daughter's wedding. It's all about how you define success."

Published Aug. 11, 2003.

SOURCES: Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, author, The Over-scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap. Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Emory University; chief psychologist, Grady Health System, Atlanta.

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