Kids live in a high pressure world that has been created, and is constantly reinforced, by educators, media and parents. From the moment of birth onwards, parents and educators place enormous pressure on children, academically, socially, emotionally and on the sports field. They are expected to be great at everything they do. Children often feel a responsibility to live up to these expectations. If they don’t, they often believe they are a disappointment and a failure.
If you are a sensitive kid growing up in today’s high-pressure world, you might want to say something like, “Hey, I feel overwhelmed and anxious; there’s too much pressure. Just back off. I can’t be all you want me to be, in the way you want me to be! I can’t be perfect. I can’t be great at everything. This makes me feel bad. I just need you to be okay with who I am.”
Researchers have identified warning signs of achievement-stress in kids:
- Overactive or distracting behaviors (fidgeting, making unnecessary trips to the bathroom, nervous tics, jumping from task to task, showing difficulty in concentrating, being prone to accidents, and sighing)
- Major change in attitude or temperament (irritability, lack of enthusiasm, carelessness)
- Withdrawal or angry outbursts
- Complaints of fatigue and vague illnesses
- Problems sleeping
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Increase in allergic or asthmatic attacks
- Avoidance of school or testing situation by direct refusal or convenient illness (an unnecessary trip to the nurse)
- Loss of appetite or excessive eating
- Nail biting
- Antisocial or disruptive behaviors
- Sudden dramatic increase or decrease in effort in school
- Drug use or abuse
It worries me that some traditional healthcare practitioner may diagnose and treat the symptoms described above as being signs of ADHD, defiance, mood disorder, anxiety disorder or depression, among other possible diagnoses. Yet these symptoms are often actually just signs of achievement stress. If you deal with the achievement-stress, there is a good chance that the troubling symptoms will go away!
Some ways of addressing achievement stress:
- Check your role as a parent in creating achievement stress. Are you pushing the child too hard because you place exceptionally high value on achievement? If so, adjust your expectations and change the way you communicate with your child about this.
- Check the role of the child’s school in creating achievement stress. Choose your child’s school carefully. Look for a school that believes in – and practices – a balanced approach rather than an achievement-is-all-that-matters approach. For example, you could ensure the child goes to a school with a relaxed classroom environment, a school that encourages the child to be the best they can be, that provides work that is within the child’s “comfort zone” in terms of success and that looks for and supports the child’s natural talents.
Too often the possibility that the child’s symptoms could be achievement stress, is either ignored or not even given consideration. When the pressure and expectation is too much for a child but this is not recognized and addressed in a positive manner, the stress this creates can have serious consequences on the child’s physical, mental and emotional health.
I would recommend that parents first stand back and ask themselves, Is this happening because our child cannot handle the pressure? before running from one doctor to another looking for a diagnosis for these symptoms.