There’s nothing wrong with wanting to bring out the best in your child. But when parents put too much pressure on their kids to perform or expect perfection, it can come at a serious cost. According to experts in child psychology and pediatrics, children who feel pressured to perform may suffer from:

  • Increased mental health issues such as anxiety and depression
  • Higher suicide risk 
  • Difficulties with self-esteem
  • Sleep deprivation

Other problems may include:

  • A greater chance of cheating when the focus and pressure are on achievement rather than learning
  • A refusal to participate in sports or other activities if they feel as though they’re not likely to shine or be the best 

The line between too much pressure and genuine support can be blurry for both parents and children. Kids who are high achievers and aim for excellence can feel anxious or depressed, and kids who are average students or athletes may feel the pressure to be better and do more. It takes a few steps to learn how to dial back the pressure and move to a supportive parent-child relationship.

Have an honest talk about performance

If you’re concerned that your child is showing signs of feeling pressured to perform in school or sports, ask how they are feeling and really listen to what they say. Then explain what may be causing you to put on the pressure. It’s OK for a parent to set realistic expectations based on what the child is currently capable of or where they are in their current learning. You could also share the ways your own family handled expectations and setbacks. Opening up with real-life examples can change your child's perception that you only care about their performance. Imagine how relieved your child will be when you communicate support, respect and openness.

Think about what motivates your child

Do you really know your child? That may seem like a silly question, but knowing what makes your child tick is key to understanding their feelings of pressure. Think about your child’s interests. Make a list of their strengths. Are they sociable or more introverted? Would they respond more to being on a sports team or taking a class in coding? Understanding who your child is can help you avoid pushing activities that they won’t enjoy or that won’t bring out their best.

Think about what’s motivating you

Do you really know what’s causing you to push your child in certain directions? Examine what’s motivating you: Do you have your child’s best interests at heart, or is it more about how you’ll benefit? It’s not easy to dig deep into what’s driving you to push your child, but it’s worth it.

Are your views about your child’s achievements connected to the ways your family handled achievement when you were a child? Are you hoping your kids will live out your dreams or make up for your own shortcomings? The answers may surprise you — and even inspire you to change for your child’s sake.  

Ease fears and anxieties about doing something new

Maybe it’s not so much that your child feels pressured to perform. It could be a fear of trying something new. For instance, if your child is nervous about joining a sports team, take steps to meet the coach, check out practice locations, talk to members of the team, and watch a movie or broadcast game showing the sport your child is considering.

Help your child see that they can meet the challenge, but also let them know you’re open to reevaluating the activity after a certain amount of time to see what they do or don't like about it. Knowing you’re open to discussion about an activity may help the child become more open to sticking with it. 

Reward effort

A reward system can help motivate kids. If they’re anxious or depressed because they feel pressured to perform, setting up a reward system may help. The goal is to get them motivated by a reward first, until the success itself becomes the reason they keep going.

Set up small, weekly rewards and then a single, larger reward for them to work toward. Not only will they get excited by the incentives, but they’ll also feel gratified that you’re helping them succeed instead of pushing them to perform.

Be a good sport … about sports

For many parents, sports are a way to live through their child’s achievements. The danger is that it can put a lot of stress on kids and make them fear doing anything that doesn’t lead to a first-place trophy.

These are young athletes without the vantage point of adulthood. Being placed in intense win-or-lose situations can make them feel their worth is tied to their performance in a sporting event, and they might not know they’re valued no matter the activity or the outcome.

Share the ups and downs

Make sure your child knows that life comes with ups and downs. Some days won’t click, and their performance at school may suffer or they may not score the winning basket. Other days they will shine with accomplishment. As long as your child knows that every day won’t have the same outcome but your love and support will never fail, they won't feel like a failure on the down days.

You can lay a good foundation of support and build a sturdy house of self-esteem for your child. Parents who are positive instead of pushy can help their kids thrive and avoid living with the pressure to perform at all costs.

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