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Can Parental Pressure Actually Help Kids?

Q&A WITH CHRISTOPHER THURBER AND HANK WEISINGER, AUTHORS OF THE UNLIKELY ART OF PARENTAL PRESSURE

  1. We hear a lot about the dangers of parents pressuring their kids —creating kids who are anxious and depressed.  But in your new book, THE UNLIKELY ART OF PARENTAL PRESSURE, you say that pressure itself actually isn’t bad — it’s an issue of how pressure is applied.  What do you mean?  How can parents differentiate between healthy and unhealthy pressure?

 

Applying pressure is a parental instinct.   We apply pressure because we care, but we hinder progress and create problems because of how we apply it.

Upholding high standards, providing reliable warmth, setting a good example, offering encouragement, granting freedoms to take healthy risks, and coaxing lessons from mistakes are among the most powerful ways to promote positive youth development. By contrast, defining success narrowly and framing the stakes as do-or-die will quickly transform healthy pressure into an interpersonal toxin that diminishes performance, destabilizes emotions, and damages the parent-child relationship.  Here are some guidelines to differentiate between the two kinds of pressure:

Healthy pressure:

  1. Is child-centered and realistic, not a function of the parent’s aspirations. (When parents seek to meet their own needs via the accomplishments of their child, they are creating harmful parental pressure.  It is not the child’s job to make parents proud.)
  2. Includes: the six Ss of effective praise; criticism that is focused on improvement; and devoid of perfectionism. (By contrast, harmful pressure includes vapid praise; criticism focused on flaws; and an emphasis on perfection.)
  3. Communicates unconditional love. (When kids perceive that value and their parents’ love as contingent on their performance, that’s harmful pressure.)

Harmful pressure can cause young people to sidestep cultural conventions and ethical behavior in the name of achievement. Harmful parental pressure is often behind lying, cheating, stimulant abuse, competitive fallouts, anxious perfectionism, and a sense of urgency.

  1. Why is it a natural impulse for parents and caregivers to pressure their kids? 

It’s natural for parents to pressure their kids because they love them. They want the best for them. Millennia ago, parental pressure would have had evolutionary utility in so far as it helped children survive long enough to reproduce. Today, parental pressure is a cross-cultural psychological force that comes in both harmful and healthy varieties.

  1. Parents often have an idea of what “success” means when it comes to their children.  What’s the risk when parents try to impose their definition of success on their kids?  How can parents change their thinking about success?  

For too long, well-intentioned parents have unwittingly undermined their children’s functioning by defining their idea of success in narrow, do-or-die terms. Instilling this high-stakes mindset is just the start of harmful parental pressure. When combined with other forms of harmful pressure, parents’ limited, high-stakes definitions of success can drive young people to the point of panic, despair, hopelessness, and even suicide.

That said, it’s important to remember that nurturing is what we parents do best, which is why we are the most powerful antidote to harmful pressure. In discussions with our children, we can intentionally describe success as multifaceted, while simultaneously upholding high standards. We can love our children unconditionally while helping them learn from failure. And we can struggle against toxic cultural tides to raise happy, healthy children

  1. You advise replacing “outcomes-based” exceptions with “effort-based” expectations.  What do you mean?

Clearly stated expectations help children succeed in life, but as with other forms of pressure, their harm or effectiveness depends on how parents state their expectations. Stating the requirement to win is different from stating the potential to win. Outcomes-based expectations usually backfire, whereas effort-based expectations usually help.  In the healthy pressure world, parents embrace failure as integral to learning and praise efforts more than outcomes.

  1. You emphasize the importance of warmthin parenting.  Why is warmth so important?  How does this connect to empathy?

Cuddling an infant shelters it from the cold; it also communicates the most powerful message any human ever gets from a parent: Welcome to the world! I am here for you. I will protect you. I love you for who you are, simply because you are my child. Parental warmth is therefore a combination of accepting the child for who they are, expressing love for the child through appropriate touch, self-sacrifice, and talk, and attending to the child’s needs with compassion.   The difference between warm and cold parenting is not in the emotions that we feel but in the affect we display—how we express our feelings.

Empathy is a powerful way to express warmth, calm a feisty temper, share delight or dismay, and—above all—connect with your child. Empathy is also the most misunderstood and underutilized tool in most parents’ social-emotional toolbox.  When you express genuine empathy, you make a powerful connection with your child without solving the problem that generated the feeling in the first place. Trying to problem-solve in an emotionally intense moment is generally futile. However, even if you wait for strong feelings to subside on their own, your child is unlikely to collaborate in any problem-solving if they believe you do not grasp their experience. (Or, as kids put it, “You just don’t get it!”) Empathy is the admission ticket to your child’s soul. They will not let you in until they feel understood.

  1. In THE UNLIKELY ART OF PARENTAL PRESSURE you write about “effective praise.”  Why is some praise more effective than others?  What are the six S’s of effective praise?

 

  • The phrase effective praise might sound redundant. All praise feels good and increases desirable behaviors, right? Wrong. Some forms of praise fall flat and do little to shape future behavior. Ineffective praise is typically broad, outcomes-focused, or both. Classic examples are “Good job” or “Way to go.”
  • Effective praise, by comparison, has some or all the Six Ss:, Soon, Spontaneous, Sincere, Specific, Striving, and Stand-alone.
  • Soon: You offer the praise soon after you witness or learn about the good behavior, rather than later, as an afterthought.
  • Spontaneous: No one needs to prompt you to offer the praise, including your child asking, “What do you think?” Praise lacks potency if the actor has to fish for it.
  • Sincere: You genuinely feel that your child has put forth praise- worthy effort or accomplished something that, for them, deserves credit. Your sincerity will shine through in your tone, word choice, and body language. Don’t feel it? Don’t say it.
  • Specific: You cite details in your praise that prove you were paying close attention. Your attentiveness feels good to your child, and the specifics, especially regarding the methods they used, help your child replicate the praiseworthy action.
  • Striving: Your praise focuses on your child’s effort, rather than the outcome. This builds grit and decreases harmful pressure by shifting focus away from the outcome.
  • Stand-alone: Your praise is not a prelude to “but,” such as “You played a great match, but really choked in the last set” or “You followed the recipe carefully, but the bottom of every cookie is burned” are examples of two-part statements where both parts could be true. Unfortunately, the critical but phrase in the second half of the sentence erases the praise in the first half. You will have time to discuss mistakes and improvements later, but if you want your praise to mean something now, let it stand alone and sink in.

 

7.  Throughout your book, you offer sample conversations between parents and kids to demonstrate exactly what healthy and unhealthy pressure sounds like.  Can you give us a brief example?

Here are some examples of conversations that show the difference between speaking like a Pressure Parent or a Support Parent:

 

IMPORTANCE

Pressure Parent

“Yes, you need to rewrite this thank-you note! Look—your printing is messy, it’s way too short, and you haven’t personalized it at all. This is your one and only chance to distinguish yourself from the other kids who interviewed for this job.”

Support Parent

“When I get a thank-you note, it feels more meaningful when the handwriting is neat and the person mentions something specific that they are grateful for. You could make a more positive impression if you took the time to rewrite this.”

OPPORTUNITY

Pressure Parent

“There are just a few universities with international reputations. Unless you get into one of them, no one will care where you went to school or what you did there. It won’t help you get a job. Success is all about reputation and pedigree.”

Support Parent

“Ivy League schools have international reputations for a reason, but there are other great schools out there. In the end, what you accomplish at school is far more important than its reputation. Success is about attitude and innovation.”

URGENCY

Pressure Parent

“Get in the car right now! We’re going to be late! Why is it that no one in this family is ever on time for anything? I’ve told you a thousand times to prepare your backpack the night before. But do you ever listen? Never!”

Support Parent

“We should have left already. Let’s work together quickly to gather everything we need before we go. And next time you have a lesson on Saturday morning, I’ll remind you to prepare your backpack on Friday night. I know you can do better.”

The Unlikely Art of Parent Pressure can be purchased on amazon.

About the Authors

Chris Thurber, PhD, co-author of THE UNLIKELY ART OF PARENTAL PRESSURE, is a board-certified clinical psychologist, educator, author, and father with a BA from Harvard and a PhD in child and adolescent psychology from UCLA.  He serves as a clinician and instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Hendrie Weisinger, PhD, co-author of THE UNLIKELY ART OF PARENTAL PRESSURE, is a world-renowned psychologist and pioneer in the field of pressure management, as well as the author of a number of bestselling books.  He has consulted with and developed programs for dozens of Fortune 500 companies and government agencies.

 

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