Updated 10 March 2014

Perform, or else

How do you draw the line between healthy encouragement and support of your child and excessive pressure?


We all know at least one. The parent who pays his child huge amounts if he performs well at school and who withholds praise and encouragement if the child doesn't meet expectations.

Or the parent who promises the child an expensive gift or special privileges if he wins a prize.

Parents' obsession with their child's performance can be seen in all sectors. Media reports have highlighted the extremes parents and coaches go to for the sake of school rugby. Some parents are so desperate for their children to be heroes, that they would allow their child to play in spite of serious injury, or inject them with animal hormones or other banned substances.

Children thrive when their parents support and encourage them to do well, and notice and praise their efforts. But encouragement and pride can become excessive and put too much pressure on a child.

Why do parents do it?
"For some parents, pushing their children is about an anxiety regarding their child finding their way in an increasingly competitive world, and not being able to trust the child to find their way with support rather than control. For others it can be about their own failures, and dreams they never realised. These get transferred onto the child so that the child’s success becomes the parent's success - especially if they believe themselves to have failed," says Dr Neil McGibbon, Health24's teen expert.

"The dangers for children are many. These can include alienation from peers, because they never spend time with them and resentment towards the parents. This can severely damage the relationship between parent and child. From a psychological perspective, the child may come to believe that they are never good enough, because they are always being pushed to do more. This can result in full scale rebellion, not doing what is asked, acting out and becoming totally oppositional to parents' requests. Alternatively, the child can develop depression and anxiety disorders, and in some cases the pressure can contribute to a psychotic breakdown in the late teens and early twenties."

According to McGibbon, there have sadly been numerous cases of young people committing suicide, either because they feel they will never be good enough in general, or in direct response to events where the child feels they have failed. This can include believing they have just failed their exams, or they are very disappointed with exam results, or they have just lost an important sports tournament.

"As young people develop, they need a healthy balance in their lives of work and play. Above all, parents need to question their motives for pushing their child in a particular direction, and to consider whether a healthy balance exists in their child's life, alongside healthy containing parental boundaries."

Healthy encouragement vs. obsession
This can be a fine line when the child is younger, says McGibbon. But as they develop, you would expect the child to question or even object to requests. If they continue to accept parents' instructions without question, there is a high chance that the child feels intimidated or even bullied by their parent/s.

"Healthy encouragement involves sometimes motivating a child, and reminding them of their talents, and sometimes giving them a gentle nudge, such as when they don’t feel like going to sports practice. It is not a good idea to scream at them about being the best vs. being a failure at a time like this. Successful motivation triggers the motivational elements within the child, rather than external pressures being the driving force."

Ultimately, the greatest task of a parent is to raise a happy and secure child. Children should know that their parents love and appreciate them, no matter whether or not they excel at something. - Ilse Pauw, Health24

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