When Kate Dunkin’s* daughter was five and started a competitive dance program, she was happy for her—she could see that she was having a blast and was glad she had a physical outlet for her energy.
But she could also see some anxiety starting to ramp up. When the teacher began assigning daily exercises as homework, it didn’t help. Dunkin thought the exercises were too complicated to do properly at home, and they skipped them. When the teacher handed out prizes as a reward to all the kids who had done them—and Dunkin’s daughter didn’t get one—she was in tears, and her anxiety got worse.
“Everything became a battle. She started having nightmares, and picking at her skin,” says Dunkin. They talked about anxiety and disappointment, but it didn’t help.
Then, when her daughter had a break from dancing over the holidays, Dunkin saw a huge change in her. “She was so much more relaxed, the skin picking habit really calmed down, she was sleeping better, and we realized that we really need to scale back in the future,” she says. “I could see how truly stressed out she had been, and how much dance was contributing to it.”
Dunkin says she was caught up in the pressure of modern parenting, and making sure her daughter had a ‘thing’ she was proud of. “Part of me thought, she’s a beautiful dancer, I need to give her the best. This will be this thing, where she feels great about herself,” she says, before adding, “She obviously wasn’t feeling great about herself!”
“There has been an exponential shift in terms of our lifestyle. Our culture is now putting an inordinate amount of pressure on children to produce and achieve,” says Michele Kambolis, a child and family therapist in Vancouver and author of Generation Stressed. This type of stress has such an impact on children that the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently added kids in high-achieving schools—those with high standardized test scores, more graduates that go to prestigious schools, and more extracurriculars and academic offerings—to their list of high-risk groups. That means that, like kids living in poverty and those with incarcerated parents, they’re at a higher risk for mental health and behavioural issues like depression, anxiety and substance abuse. That’s right—instead of being protected from failure, these kids may be worse off than those from schools with less pressure ingrained in them.
And it’s not just the schools—parents are reinforcing these expectations at home, something called ‘high pressure parenting’. The National Academies recommends parents “be vigilant in their own homes, starting from early childhood, against being overly invested in the child’s ‘resume-building.’”
Even young kids now feel competitive and many are hyper-aware of how they measure up. Kambolis says she sees kids in her practice who are in grades 1 and 2 who already worried that their friends are more successful than they are, or that they’re not going to get into university.
So how do parents ease off on the high pressure parenting and still encourage their kids to do well ? Here are six ways to start:
Re-think your schedule
Make sure that your kids are getting the basics—sleeping enough (school aged kids need 9 to 11 hours a night) and eating well both help kids manage anxious feelings. Then, look at downtime. School-aged children need an hour or two of free play every day, says Kambolis—and that doesn’t include screen time. Unstructured play actually changes a child’s brain, boosting the development of their prefrontal cortex, which helps with problem solving and emotional regulation.
After Dunkin saw how much better her daughter did with less stress, she overhauled her family’s schedule for good. “It has really changed our life,” she says. “We say no to a lot more classes than we used to. Weekends are for family. I’ve become increasingly protective of my children’s childhood.”
“Parents nowadays are unable to leave kids the space they need to screw around a bit and learn from their mistakes—I call them non-catastrophic painful failures,” says Alex Russell, a clinical psychologist in Toronto who works with both children and adults. If your kid is past the age of learning to share, but chooses not to share with another kid in the playground, for example, and that kid stops playing with them, let that be the end of it. If you come and berate him, or force him to share, Russell says, instead of learning that when he does bad things, bad things happen, he learns that “when I do bad things, mom freaks out. And instead of learning how to manage himself in the world, he learns how to manage Mom.”
Another way of doing this is to slowly give your children more and more autonomy over small decisions—and more chances to fail. A four or five year old can decide if they should eat all of their Halloween candy at once. A kid in grade six can decide how much time they need to spend studying for a test. That helps them develop what’s known as adaptive anxiety—anxiety that helps motivate you to work towards your goals.
Focus on the intangibles
“In the 50s and 60s, the things that we valued most were relationships, connection, our values, our spirituality,” says Kambolis. “Now, our sense of self value is really around how famous we are, our achievement, how much money we have, and how many likes we have on Instagram.” That shift has trickled down to kids, too, who are now praised for their grades, or reaching the next level in extracurriculars. But that can lead to fear that if they stop achieving at that level, we’ll stop valuing them. Instead, talk to your kids about their character: praise hard work, being compassionate, caring about the earth and animals, being kind to friends and being creative. “Those are subtler, but they’re foundational,” says Kambolis.
Avoid sink-or-swim thinking
Little kids have always been scared of trying new things, from swimming lessons to going away to camp. While parents in previous generations tended to force their kids to do things they were fearful of, modern parents have swung the other way, and tend to pull our kids out of stressful situations. But that means they never learn to become comfortable with the feeling of discomfort that comes with trying something new.
Here’s a better way to react. Start by empathizing with their feelings, no matter how silly it may seem to you. Help them by taking a break and talking through how they’re feeling. Then, try out a calming strategy, like deep breathing, together. (Little kids can imagine smelling a flower, then blowing out a candle, to get the hang of it.) Once they’re calm, break down the task they’re worried about into small steps. If your child is scared of swimming lessons, for example, they might watch the lesson one week, sit with their feet in the water the next week.
Consider outside help
If you’re having a hard time navigating the mixed messages of modern parenting or figuring out how to manage your kid’s big feelings, you might want to take a parenting class—many are available to parents through local public health programs for free. “All parents are trying to do the best for their child and they’re doing the best with their tools and resources that they have,” says Wendy O’Connell Smith, a social worker and coordinator of parenting programs at Family Services Ottawa. These classes can give you more options to try. And if your child has been really struggling with unrelenting anxiety for over two weeks—if they’re missing school, ruminating on their worries, or having physical symptoms, like headaches, then it’s probably time to talk to your doctor and see if something bigger is going on. “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder— and the most treatable,” says Kambolis. “And they almost always start during childhood.”
Build your connection
The foundation all happy children have is a strong attachment to their caregivers, says O’Connell Smith. Kids who feel connected to their parents know that home is a safe place where they can de-stress—and that they aren’t alone with their problems. A parent who is well-connected with their kid can help look behind behaviours, identify triggers and help find coping strategies. One way to build that connection is to spend some time together every day without the distraction of screens. “Put down the phone and connect with your child,” she says. “Our children want us to be present, and it’s really important for us to be attached to them, rather than the phone.” You should also take note of your own anxiety levels—especially when your kid is struggling with something. Kids take a lot of cues from their parents, so even if you’re trying to help them, if you seem overwhelmed or frantic yourself, they will feel even more overwhelmed.
Scaling back on your schedule and letting your kids embrace failure might not earn you likes on Instagram—but it’s worth pushing back against our culture that encourages kids to perform at ever-higher levels, and parents to be their behind-the-scenes handlers.
*Name has been changed