Asking for a Friend: I Can See the Stress from Here

Dear Olive,

My 12-year-old niece is SO stressed about school. She puts tons of pressure on herself, studies incredibly hard, and is upset when her grades are anything less than perfect. (She’ll say things like “If I don’t get A’s in 6th grade then I’m definitely not going to get A’s in high school and then I’m not going to get into a good college and then I’m not going to get a good job…” Mind you, she DOES get A’s in 6th grade.) I’m worried that she’s putting WAY too much emphasis on grades. She’s just a kid! Is there anything I can do about it?

-My Niece is in Knots

Dear Knots,

It is unbearably sad that your niece, on the cusp of a gruesome, bewildering, lovely teenage metamorphosis, already feels so deeply that perfection is the price she owes for getting to be anywhere at all.

It’s also entirely unsurprising.

I know girls like these. Hell, I was a girl like this. Frankly, I’m amazed when some combination of luck and good role models allows children to sidestep this particular spiral and avoid becoming a girl like this.

Of course, it’s not always about schoolwork; maybe it’s about the right taste in music or brand of jeggings or eyebrow shape or shoe size. Often, it’s weight. A dozen insidious messages etch themselves in teenage girl brains every hour, and it takes the work of a lifetime to erase them.

It’s tempting to think that focusing on school is better than focusing on eye shadow or, I don’t know, One Direction? Maybe your niece’s parents think her work ethic is cute, or her teachers think it’s commendable. Maybe they see a future civil rights attorney or neurosurgeon hunched over her biology book at midnight, rather than a stressed-out child. But to rank obsessions of inadequacy by their perceived utility in the world is to miss the point. So much anxiety boils down to one intractable, incessant torture: the certainty that no effort will ever be enough, and that every door, as a result, will remain shut.

There’s such a fine line between motivating dedication in a kid and motivating destructive perfectionism. I’m not a psychologist or a parent; I couldn’t tell you where that line is, at what developmental stage or after what ill-advised comment. I’m not sure a psychologist or parent could, either. But having come out the other side of a similar perfectionism — many years older and many self-help books wiser — I can tell you that I wish I’d spent less time practicing being good at stuff and way more time practicing totally screwing it up.

Maybe you know this theory already. (If we’ve ever been at a party together, there’s a strong chance you’ve overheard me proselytizing about it to anyone who will listen.) The growth mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, roughly means that you believe you can get better at anything. Its inverse, the fixed mindset, is the belief that you and your talents stay the same. Generally, kids who are told they’re talented or smart or naturally good at soccer learn to crave validation over improvement. They breeze through challenges at first and then get stuck when they meet ones that are less breeze and more stiff headwind. They never learn to climb over the boulder in the road; they just believe that they should be able to — and end up hurt and baffled when they can’t. It’s an insidious, invisible trap, teaching reliance instead of resilience. It puts all the value in the laurels instead of the learning.

It’s clear from your description that your niece has conflated her sense of self-worth with her report card; sooner or later, something in that tightly woven fabric is bound to fray. You and your good intentions are unlikely to be able to talk her out of it. But what you can do in the meantime is help her practice relying on something besides her straight A’s.

It may feel daunting to be one voice among what must be many emphasizing the importance of being ideal. And you probably don’t want to step on her parents’ toes — but you can still be a model of relaxed resilience in your role as cool grownup she can trust. Take her to learn archery. Mold lumpy clay pots together. Learn to make cheese or ferment kombucha. Pluck away ineptly at the ukulele. Sing karaoke songs that are way out of your range. Do that wacky tourist nonsense where you wear a giant plastic bubble and run into other people.

You can help your niece feel what it’s like to let go just a little, even for just an hour on a Saturday with a relative who wants nothing more from her than her company. Help her experience being terrible at something and see that the world doesn’t fall apart. Help her notice the other qualities that fill out the outlines of her personality: her guts, her sass, her taste for the least pronounceable dish on the menu. Help her see past her smarts.

And while you’re cleaning up your scraps of wet sticky clay or peeling yourself out of a punctured plastic bubble, tell her about how you flunked organic chemistry the first time or once turned in a final paper a whole year late or got a C and still figured out how to be happy. She’ll probably see right through you, but be honest with her anyway. It’s impossible to convince anyone who thinks they’re not enough that they’re exactly as enough as they need to be — but you can show her what enough can look like, and maybe, glimmer by glimmer, she’ll be able to recognize it in her own reflection eventually, too.

Love,
Olive

 

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