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Academic Pressure

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Wednesday, August 27th, 2008 | CWK Producer

“You have to keep things in perspective. Academics are only a part of your life.”

– Zachary, 14

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“Well, I’m getting all A’s, so that’s good,” he says.

He has won awards for academic achievement, including one for having the highest grade-point average.  But what happens if someday Zachary doesn’t perform well in school?

“Part of me is always worried about that,” says his mother, Jen Yu.  “Some day, when he hits that roadblock, is he gonna be able to accept it, or is it gonna be something, you know, that really bothers him a lot?”

While that may not be a problem for Zachary yet, more and more kids are experiencing anxiety about being perfect in school.

According to the latest State of our Nation’s Youth report, 79 percent of teens say the pressure to get good grades is a problem.  That’s up from 62 percent in 2001.

45 percent polled say that pressure is “major”, up from 19 percent.

Experts say, for many teens, even when they do well, they still think they could do better.

“The problem is that they will always be anxious. They will always fail. Even when they have a 4-point average they will always fail in their own eyes and they can’t ever relax,” explains Dr. Allen Carter, a psychologist.

He says parents should help kids understand being perfect isn’t realistic and help them create balance in their lives- beyond academics.

Zachary’s parents encourage him to learn music, play games and simply relax.

“You have to keep things in perspective,” Zachary says.  “Academics are only a part of your life, and they should only stay a part of it and not become your whole life.”

What We Need To Know

Even children who earn high marks at school may be suffering emotional distress and anxiety due to the high expectations they have set for themselves, according to a study from Smith College.  In a study of 36 children in third through fifth grades, researchers found that children who rated high on perfectionism exhibited significantly more anxiety and dissatisfaction with their performance on computer tasks than their low-perfectionism peers, even when both groups performed equally well.  In fact, the perfectionist kids predicted they would perform less well than the low-perfectionism kids.  Lead researcher Patricia DiBartolo says the problem is not that kids are setting high standards; rather, they become too distressed and are not able to accept the mistakes they make in the course of learning.

“Perfectionistic kids get caught in a vicious cycle.  When approaching a task or project, they feel less able to succeed, get anxious and then evaluate their performance more negatively than their non-perfectionistic peers,” DiBartolo said.

How big of a problem is perfectionism in childhood?  According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, perfectionism is recognized as a “common correlate” of social anxiety disorder.  Nationally, 1% (nearly 400,000) of children between the ages of 10 and 18 suffer from a clinical level of social anxiety disorder.  Counselors at the University of Dundee associate the following negative feelings, thoughts and beliefs with perfectionism:

  • Fear of failure:  Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.
  • Fear of making mistakes:  Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure.  In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Fear of disapproval:  If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted.  Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection and disapproval.
  • All-or-none thinking:  Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect.  Perfectionists have difficulty seeing situations in perspective.  For example, a straight A student who receives a B might believe, “I am a total failure.”
  • Overemphasis on “shoulds”:  Perfectionists’ lives are often structured by an endless list of “shoulds” that serve as rigid rules for how their lives must be led.  With such an overemphasis on shoulds, perfectionists rarely take into account their own wants and desires.
  • Believing that others are easily successful:  Perfectionists tend to perceive others as achieving success with a minimum of effort, few errors, emotional stress and maximum self-confidence.  At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts as unending and forever inadequate.

As a parent, how can you determine if your child has problems with perfectionism?  Experts at the University of Texas cite the following guidelines comparing a perfectionist to a healthy striver:

Perfectionist

Healthy Striver

  • Sets standards beyond reach and reason
  • Is never satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Becomes dysfunctionally depressed when experiences failure and disappointment
  • Is preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval, which can deplete energy levels
  • Sees mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becomes overly defensive when criticized
  • Sets high standards but just beyond reach
  • Enjoys process as well as outcome
  • Bounces back from failure and disappointment quickly and with energy
  • Keeps normal anxiety and fear of failure and disapproval within bounds, using them to create energy
  • Sees mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Reacts positively to helpful criticism

The first step in changing your child’s perfectionistic attitudes to healthy striving is to help him or her realize that perfectionism is undesirable.  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests teaching your child the following strategies to change the behaviors and thoughts that fuel his or her perfectionism:  

  • Set realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs and what you have accomplished in the past.  This step will enable you to achieve and also will lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.
  • Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner.  As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level of accomplishment.
  • Experiment with your standards for success.  Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100%, try for 90%, 80% or even 60% success.  This step will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity not just on the end result.  Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the task.  Recognize that value exists in the process of pursuing a goal.
  • Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, “Have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?”
  • Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, “Of what am I afraid? What is the worst thing that could happen?”
  • Recognize that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes.  When you make a mistake ask, “What can I learn from this experience?”  More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.

Resources

  • American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
  • The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans
  • Smith College
  • University of Dundee
  • University of Texas
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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