Loving, well-intentioned parents from all over the world are inadvertently applying unhealthy pressure — the kind that undermines young people’s creativity, motivation, emotional well-being, social development, and intellectual curiosity. Simply put, the push to perform is backfiring. That is the central paradox of parental pressure. Slowly and silently, harmful pressure on young people has become a crisis. And the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. As vaccines become more available and families emerge from quarantine, kids will likely feel even more unhealthy parental pressure to catch up — making your complementary role as a surrogate caregiver more important than ever.
Parents as Allies
Notice that I said, “loving, well-intentioned parents.” Rare are the parents who intentionally harm or hold back their child, yet the application of unhealthy pressure appears increasingly common. Of course, not all parents slide into this trap, but all camps and youth leaders can provide a palliative counterpoint — a countercultural force that offsets the harmful pressure many young people experience. Notice, too, that I said, “your complementary role,” not “your substitute role.” Most parents work incredibly hard — without pay and with little thanks — to provide for their children. Camp staff do not vie with parents for dominance, nor do they fight to take their place. Parents do great things for kids, and we should respect their dedication and good intentions by collaborating with them. My intention is not to bash parents, but to strengthen parent-child relationships and enhance the complementary role that you, as camp staff, can play in positive youth development.
All parents make personal choices about what is best for their children. From selecting toys geared toward boosting infants’ IQ to deciding what smartphone plan is most likely to promote parent-child bonding, moms and dads can easily become obsessed with enhancing their child’s development. Fascinating social, ethnic, cultural, educational, political, and spiritual influences are also at play. Not surprisingly, hundreds of books and academic journal articles prescribe what parenting style is best for children — many of which end up saying pretty much the same thing: Parents are applying too much pressure.
Now why would parents do more and more of something that hurts their child’s performance and mental health? Many anthropologists (as well as many psychologists, like me) see parents as “rational actors who use their shared knowledge of the world to adapt and make complex decisions in their local community” (Whiting & Whiting, 1975) and who “develop goals and care strategies (i.e., cultural models) that maximize the likelihood that children will attain culturally valued skills and characteristics” (Yamamoto & Holloway, 2010).
It turns out that applying pressure is a parental instinct. However, focusing on how much pressure is the right amount may be the wrong approach. Perhaps instead the focus should be on how the pressure is applied.
Books and blogs often take the following approach to solving the child-rearing problems parents perceive: “Your kid has problems? Then teach them to cope with their feelings and change their behaviors.” A far less authoritarian approach is to say: “Many of kids’ problems are relational, which means that both kids and parents can contribute to the solution.”
As a youth leader, you, too, can contribute to the solution.
The Effects of Harmful Pressure
In 2019, the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues exposed 33 parents who had paid more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, head of The Edge College & Career Network. Singer had used some of the millions to falsely inflate students’ standardized test scores, fabricate some of their achievements, and bribe college officials to arrange to have the children of the 33 co-conspirators admitted to top colleges and universities in the United States (Smith, 2019). Few parents go to such lengths, but the fact that some do attests to the pressure many parents, in many parts of the world, feel today. This pressure — to give their children an advantage in an increasingly competitive and populated world — has truly become the social-emotional pandemic of our time.
The American Psychological Association (APA)’s news magazine, The Monitor, recently featured an article on the increased student self-referrals to college and university health centers for anxiety and depression. The story summarized research that validated what clinicians in secondary and post-secondary schools have been saying for decades: Student mental health is getting worse at alarming rates (Novotney, 2014).
In an earlier press release, the APA summarized findings from a Harris Poll survey of 1,018 adolescents and 1,950 adults in the US. The two groups were roughly equivalent in what they perceived to be a healthy level of stress: 3.9 out of 10 for teens and 3.6 out of 10 for adults. However, the teens’ self-reported stress levels during the school year — 5.8 out of 10 — far exceeded what they perceived to be healthy levels. During the summer, levels were lower — 4.6 out of 10 — but still unhealthy. According to the study, “Many teens also report feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) as a result of stress. More than one-third of teens report fatigue or feeling tired (36 percent) and nearly one-quarter of teens (23 percent) report skipping a meal due to stress” (APA, 2013). Follow-up studies in the APA’s Stress in America series have found that political discord, racial injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all increased self-reported levels of stress.
Stress has many sources and can take many forms, but the evidence suggests that none matches the emotional intensity of parental pressure. A study from Penn State University showed that out of 421 students (227 females and 194 males), 19.4 percent had contemplated suicide because of the enormous pressure from their parents to produce exceptional grades (Miller-Day, 2003). Ironically, research conducted by the Pew Research Center suggested that the majority of American adults (56 percent) felt parents put too little pressure on students (Wike & Horowitz, 2008). Just 15 percent felt that parents put too much pressure on students. However, adults in China, India, and Japan reported the inverse perceptions: 63 percent, 61 percent, and 59 percent of adults surveyed in those countries felt that parents put too much pressure on students. Clearly, more cross-cultural research is needed before we fully understand these differences, as well as the gap between kids’ and parents’ perceptions of pressure.
Healthy and Harmful Pressure
So what exactly are the differences between harmful and healthy pressure? And what are some things camp staff can do to provide healthy pressure? Perhaps exposing young people to an alternate view of success can serve as a partial antidote to any harmful pressure they experience the rest of the year.
Healthy pressure is created when adults:
- Uphold high standards
- Provide reliable warmth
- Set a good example
- Offer encouragement
- Grant freedoms to take healthy risks
- Coax lessons from mistakes
If this list sounds familiar to you, it’s because these are pillars of positive youth development, no doubt at the center of your professional development as a youth leader.
By contrast, harmful pressure is created when adults:
- Define success narrowly
- Offer unrealistic high standards
- Make their love conditional on achievement
- Rarely see failure as an opportunity to learn
- Frame the stakes as do-or-die
This brand of pressure becomes an interpersonal toxin that diminishes young people’s performance, destabilizes their emotions, and damages the parent-child relationship.
Sam is an 11-year-old who does gymnastics. Sam’s parents frequently talk about upcoming regional competitions. They emphasize how top placement in regionals will earn Sam a spot in nationals, how winning nationals in Sam’s age group would include a scholarship to gymnastics camp, how continuing to win events will lead to recruitment by a Division 1 university, and how a diploma from a top school is the key to a high-paying job. Once when Sam asked, “What if I don’t make it to nationals?” Sam’s parents replied, “We’ve all invested too much in your gymnastics career for you not to end up on the podium.”
Whatever partial truths might be woven through the parents’ string of statements, they bear the hallmarks of harmful pressure: 1) Success is narrowly defined; and 2) Outcomes are framed as high-stakes, do-or-die scenarios. Sam’s parents may believe that their approach is motivating, but it’s actually increasing Sam’s anxiety and the chances of Sam’s choking during competition. Harmful pressure of this sort also increases the likelihood of Sam’s feeling that life is pretty much over if other gymnasts earn higher scores.
Pat is also an 11-year-old who does gymnastics, but Pat’s parents take a different approach, emphasizing effort over outcome and encouraging Pat to strive for a personal best over being the best. Like Sam’s parents, Pat’s parents talk about regional and national competitions, but they frame the events as opportunities, rather than rarified and unique keys to a kind of singular success, such as earning a six-figure salary. When Pat underperforms — in practice or competition — they don’t punish him with silence or by impugning his character. Instead, they initiate conversations with Pat about what the experience was like, and they show genuine interest in Pat’s perceptions of how practice, teamwork, mindset, and other variables contributed to the outcome. When the sting of disappointment has faded a bit, Pat’s parents also invite Pat to strategize for the next competition, all the while praising Pat’s diligence, learning, steady (albeit uneven) improvement, positive attitude, and team leadership. Pat feels parental pressure of a healthy sort. Unlike Sam, Pat never feels as if parental love or self-worth are on the line.
Healthy Pressure at Camp
It may seem as if Sam’s parents and Pat’s parents have little in common, but one commonality is obvious: Both sets of parents love their child. Both sets of parents are driven by an instinct to nurture their child on the path to success. Yet there is a lot we don’t know about these two kids’ parents. You’ll generally know even less about your campers’ histories and their parents’ style. No matter. You can still contribute to every child’s healthy development by pushing them in positive ways. Without knowing how individual campers have been parented, here are five of the most powerful ways you can express healthy pressure:
- Praise effort rather than outcome. Whether it’s a field sport, a swim lesson, or the way a camper stacks the lunch dishes, name the behavior you like and offer some heartfelt praise. Feeling intrinsic pressure to always (OK, almost always) try your best is associated with far better performance and longer commitment to the activity than extrinsic pressure from parents, coaches, or teachers.
- Always cheer the opposing team at the end of a game. This puts sportsmanship above winning and communicates a healthy message to all participants about the true value of games. Discourage gloating, booing, and externalizing blame, such as yelling at referees. Regardless of the outcome, everyone involved should feel grateful for the opportunity to play. COVID-19 has certainly shown many people what interactive activities they took for granted. Expressing that gratitude shouldn’t be a big ask after more than a year of quarantine and — for most kids — no summer camp.
- Name character strengths that appeal to you about other individuals — be they campers, fellow staff, or celebrities. Too often, money, fame, followers, and other quantifiable variables are used to indicate a person’s “net worth.” Instead, point out what you like about other people’s unselfishness, creativity, sense of humor, leadership, integrity, and so forth. You don’t need to lecture your campers about materialism or other vices; just let them hear you say what you truly find virtuous.
- When campers brag about wins, achievements, and superlatives, give them credit and then quickly focus the conversation on their experience and what it took for them to perform so well. Get your campers to talk about how they coped with the various emotions they felt along the way, whom they counted on for support, and why they chose that particular activity. Ask what new goals they have set for themselves, and how they plan to achieve those goals.
- When campers are excessively self-critical, make a mental note of what triggered their negative self-talk. (There’s a good chance they are repeating something a parent, sibling, teacher, coach, or other influential person has told them.) Provide some genuine empathy, such as, “You sound really down on yourself,” and wait for the intensity of their loathing to subside. In a calmer moment, express your concern about how they talk to themselves about losses, failures, and times when things don’t work out quite as expected. Ask what might be true and what might be exaggerated in their self-talk. Ask whether they are seeing the outcome and themselves in stark or extreme terms and whether there’s a more balanced and accurate way to judge their own performance.
Ultimately, your goal with regard to pressure should be to plant a seed in every camper’s head that they have inherent worth, regardless of their GPA, family income, or first-place finishes. Cheer their effort, not the outcome, and take special note of improvements they make while at camp. The emphasis you put on how they treat others, rather than how they dominate others, will have profoundly positive effects on their mental health and resilience long into adulthood.
For More Information
To learn more about parental pressure on children and how it can be applied in a constructive and beneficial way, refer to The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure: A Positive Approach to Pushing Your Child to Be Their Best Self, by Christopher Thurber, PhD, and Hendrie Weisinger, PhD.
Christopher Thurber, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Phillips Exeter Academy. He created Prep4Camp.com, the only evidence-based homesickness prevention program, and co-authored the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook with Dr. Jon Malinowski. His forthcoming book, The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure hits bookstores in July. Learn more about the work that Chris does with schools and camps on DrChrisThurber.com.
- American Psychological Association. (2013). Survey Shows Teen Stress Rivals That of Adults. Retrieved from apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/02/teen-stress
- Miller-Day, M. (2003). Parental pressures a major factor for female college students considering suicide. Penn State News. Retrieved from news.psu.edu/story/220821/2003/03/14/parental-pressures-major-factor-female-students-considering-suicide
- Novotney, A. (2014). Students under pressure. The Monitor, 45(8).
- Smith, L., Special Agent FBI (March 12, 2019). “College admissions bribery scheme affidavit” (PDF). The Washington Post. Retrieved from washingtonpost.com/context/college-admissions-bribery-scheme-affidavit/c2ba5e52-6a22-42ed-a0c9-05c83ee5f83d/
- Whiting, B. B., & Whiting, J. W. M. (1975). Children of six cultures: A psycho-cultural analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Wike, R. & Horowitz, J. M. (2008). Parental pressure on students. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from pewresearch.org/global/2006/08/24/parental-pressure-on-students/
- Yamamoto, Y., & Holloway, S. D. (2010). Parental expectations and children's academic performance in sociocultural context. Educational Psychology Review, 22(3), 189–214.