Two Tips to Raise Successful Kids with Anxiety

“When parents say ‘work to your potential,’ kids hear, ‘you need to be successful.’” These are the words of Professor Joseph Davis, a professor of sociology, at the University of Virginia. Phrases surrounding potential and success have been told to people young and old for generations, but are they elusive ideals? 

Selling the idea of success is a story that never grows old. Everyone thinks or believes they want to be successful. A quick Google search will yield hundreds of results of bloggers giving you lists of the 25 best books about success or the top 10 things to do to be successful. In order to be successful, one must work to his fullest potential. Professor Davis reminds us, however, that there is no blood test for potential so how do you know when you’re living up to your potential? That’s the question to consider especially since, like their adult counterparts, youths are also constantly measuring their level of success. 

Anxiety in School

Liam O’Connor of The Daily Princetonian explained that a student’s success at Princeton University will be relative to the background from where he came. By way of example, he proffered that “a middle-class rural student from the Rocky Mountains will have a tough time getting into the Ivy Club, where students from big cities and private school graduates rule” and “a student from a typical public high school in engineering isn’t going to win a Rhodes scholarship or become a valedictorian. Her many classmates from magnet schools will frequently beat the grading curves and set faculty’s expectation for how their classes should perform.” The title of the article is fitting – Why You Don’t Feel Successful at Princeton

Causes of Anxiety 

This title and, to some extent the article, are prototypic examples of what Professor Davis explained as the latest phenomenon giving rise to youth anxiety. While other professionals have looked to social media, cellphones, or televisions, Professor Davis explains that anxiety cannot be simplified that way. Instead, he postures that youth anxiety has increased because of the expectations placed on them by their parents by use of the common phrase “be successful.” The parents are well-intentioned. They mean no harm and only want the best, of course, but their best comes with no definition of what that means. As a result, youths are left to determine the definition of success, which usually comes in the form of peer guidance. This point is driven home with the article ‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Successful Over Being Happy. In that article, Arthur C. Brooks compares success to addiction since praise stimulates dopamine levels, and dopamine is also elevated when addicts receive some sort of a high from either alcohol or narcotics. In fact, Arthur C. Brooks (and Professor Davis) acknowledged that “social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success…”

Two Ways to Help Your Child Deal with Anxiety 

Allow Your Child to Explore Who They Want to Be – Without Judgment 

Explore the ideas behind the statement “I want to be a famous YouTuber” as strongly as the statement, “I want to be a doctor.” Self-examination into why you cringe at hearing your child say “I want to be a famous YouTuber” could also be addressed. You may feel embarrassed at the idea that your child is more excited to be on YouTube than save someone’s life in an operating room, but that embarrassment is more about you, the parent, not your child. Your child shouldn’t be stifled into exploring ideas or possibilities that are of more interest to you that, ultimately, may be rooted in your insecurities. Remember, that while some YouTube “celebrities” became famous as a result of pulling pranks on people, some of the most famous people on YouTube grew a 7-figure subscriber base (and revenue generation) through gaming and educational children’s videos. Be open-minded and listen to what your child is interested in doing on YouTube and understand the reason why.

Cultivate Your Child’s Ideas

While it may be hard to entertain anything less than a degree from your alma mater, it’s important to allow your child to explore. With that, you can cultivate those ideas with complementary educational components. For example, going back to the YouTube example, if you have a child interested in gaming, recognize that gaming is filled with STEM-related education, such as coding. Consider allowing your child to continue to be excited about being a famous YouTube gamer while also encouraging him to attend a coding camp or some other technology-related extracurricular in school. This can be a subtle middle ground between allowing him to maintain excitement while also understanding some of the educational components behind gaming.

At the end of the day, recognize success doesn’t have to be an all or nothing endeavor. Success is relative; you are the arbiter of what that looks like, and it should not include a comparison chart. 

To watch my the entire episode about anxiety in teens and the causes of anxiety (spoiler alert: it’s not social media) where I interview Professor Davis about his research regarding kids’ perceptions of success, click here.

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