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The Shadow of Success

"I looked down and noticed bloodied cuticles," recalls Sarah Casey. She had just picked up her seventh-grade daughter, McKenna, the oldest of her three kids, from school. “McKenna quickly hid them when I inquired, so I knew there was more to the story than a simple hangnail.”

Without sounding the alarm, Casey (whose family names have been changed to protect their identities) gently tried to get to the bottom of the problem. Some of it centered on middle-school drama, but much of it revolved around the daughter’s perception that she had to be everything to everyone. The young teen was afraid of disappointing her parents (whom she knew expected straight A’s). And she didn’t want to lose her hard-earned spot on the school’s A volleyball team.

The truth? The parents, who met at the prestigious Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, did hope for A’s. And they, like their daughter, wanted her to make the team — not so she could fulfill their dreams, but so she could reach her own.

Casey immediately shared the incident with her husband Jeff, a Dallas-Fort Worth native who runs a successful hedge fund in Southlake. His business partner, who has grown children, encouraged the parents to seek therapy.

Loving parents who genuinely want the best for their child can get caught in the cycle of expectations that go hand in hand with high achievement, as can kids who desire to make their parents proud. Somewhere along the way, kids start hearing that they need to be the best instead of do their best. The accompanying pressure can be damaging, even life-altering.

“Our greatest desire is for her to be happy,” insists Sarah Casey. “We didn’t realize that our drive and ambition had mutated to be some sort megaphone message that she needed to be a certain status for us to love her.”

So, how can kids and parents navigate the family legacy of high achievement? Is it even possible for these kids to thrive as individuals in the shadow of success-driven, goal-oriented parents?

According to Amy Sheinberg, Ph.D., — a licensed psychologist who practices in North Texas — the answer is yes.

“We just need a focus shift,” she explains. “Character plays a critical role. Ultimately, it is what the child values that will determine how they do in life, not what their biology grade was.”

What sets high 
achievers apart?
What is it that high achievers have that the rest of us don’t? According to Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., with the American Psychological Association, two prominent traits set high achievers apart: grit and self-control.

For some high achievement might mean being the first in a family to graduate college, while for others it might mean winning a Nobel Prize. Whatever the accomplishment, the generation living in the shadow of success frequently experiences an implicit (sometimes explicit) sense of pressure to follow, if not exceed, their predecessors’ achievements.

High achievers tend to see success as a personal responsibility and demanding tasks as opportunities. For them, striving is enjoyable and valuable. Hurdles are expected and met with tenacious intent. High achievers are eager to learn new skills and aren’t afraid of failure.

“I think our desires to succeed were part of what attracted us to each other,” Jeff Casey says of his marriage to Sarah. “We loved to dream big, as well as the challenge of making it come true.”

“After being forced, for the sake of our daughter, to consider the power of expectations and associated pressures, we’re much more aware of how we are communicating with and to our kids now,” he allows.

“What we’re realizing,” chimes in Sarah Casey, “is that our kids feel like we want them to follow our path — even attending our alma mater — which we don’t. But, apparently, they assume our desires upon themselves.”

“I’m not sure most people aren’t high achievers at heart,” she adds. “They just might be drafting off someone else’s passion.”

Pressures in 
every direction
“Starting at a young age, kids feel pressure to succeed, succumbing to environment, familial and self-imposed stressors,” says Sheinberg. “Personally, I attended a private school in Dallas, and I don’t remember feeling the same pressures growing up that I see kids facing today.”

Sheinberg points to a hyper-competitive environment, where kids are expected to succeed on multiple fronts, all at the same time. Add to the mix an instant-information culture, where social media reveals never-ending highlight reels and schools post every grade in real time, and we can almost feel the wind being sucked out of kids’ sails. “They’re urged to do more and more without necessarily having the resources to cope with all the added stressors,” says Sheinberg.

“Parents and schools can help children by understanding what development is supposed to look like,” Sheinberg adds. “Not only in terms of physical development, but also emotional and moral development.” Identifying what is normal and what isn’t gives adults a gauge from which they can measure the child’s progression and set realistic expectations. “By tapping into where a child is coming from, adults can encourage them to develop to the next level,” she explains.

This can be challenging for parents who have spent most of their lives focused on their own extraordinary performance.

Pressures reach far beyond career or academia. Athletics are almost always at play in Texas. Melanie Jackson (who requested her name be changed to protect her identity), a local mother of two teenage boys, grew up standing on the sidelines of football fields. Her dad played in the NFL for six years, and one of her brothers was a college All-American. With such heritage comes an air of confidence, but also certain expectations.

“If my kids lived in another family, making varsity on their high school team could be a pinnacle. But around our house, making varsity is an expectation, a simple, nonevent stepping-stone,” offers Jackson. “It’s hard. Especially for one of the boys who clearly was at the back of the line when athleticism was being handed out.”

Contemplating the plight of her sons living in the midst of exceptional physical talent, Jackson concludes, “I guess the challenge is using the good to inspire the individual, even when the achievement is likely to be different.”

The importance of failure
Paul Wolfe, Ph.D., head of The Cambridge School of Dallas, encounters his fair share of students navigating the road of an expectation-filled life. His classrooms, like countless others across Dallas-Fort Worth, are brimming with kids struggling to navigate performance pressures, competition with peers (e.g., what-did-you-get grade checks after every assignment) and looming college worthiness. Some of this pressure might be self-induced. Some of it comes from well-intentioned parents.

“One thing we have seen in the last several years is an increase in students fighting for extra this and extra that, more time, a re-do — worried that if an assignment isn’t perfect and they don’t receive an A, it will have a huge negative consequence,” he reports. “They can lose sight of the process of learning, a process often laden with mistakes.”

He witnesses students obsessing with perfection, many exhibiting stress through body image issues or even self-harm, like McKenna.

Is the pressure from parents? From society? From the kids themselves? Likely, it’s a little bit of everything. “I’ve noticed that the students who are high achieving, but not overly stressed, tend to have parents who balance the important role of mentoring without being overly involved,” reveals Wolfe.

He advises that mentoring, though difficult, is a parent’s primary role, especially as kids grow older. Mentoring involves many things like knowing the child as an individual, employing honesty and patience, and “carefully walking the fine line between hands-off while staying close enough to jump in when/if needed,” says Wolfe.

Just being there is critical, especially during times when grades tend to define a person. Sheinberg weighs in: “There are a lot of pressures kids face, and by being involved, supervising and being available to them, you can address these head on rather than after the fact.”

It comes down to parenting the whole child. Some will naturally be high achievers like their parents. Some might need a little push. “It’s important to recognize the words ‘to the best of their ability.’” says Wolfe. “Because a B might their best.”

It’s something we can never know unless children are allowed to stand, fall and get back up — on their own.

Giving them back 
their identity
“We can’t escape living in an achieving world that draws attention to first place,” says Robin Pou, Dallas father of three, executive coach, attorney, mediator and co-author of Performance Intelligence at Work. “But we don’t have to focus on outcomes over our unique identity and doing our unique best.”

Pou, himself a high achiever, tries to concentrate on the individual, encouraging effort — not results — with his kids. He purposefully reminds them that who they are matters the most. “When I’m coaching a team, say my son’s sixth-grade basketball, I avoid heralding the results — ‘great basket’ — and focus more on the effort — ‘more of that,’” asserts Pou. “Then the kids can grow into their own gifts, skills, strengths and talents rather than be motivated by an action.”

Even though each of his kids is different, he wants them all to be grounded in their ability to pursue their unique purpose. “I tell my kids, especially when facing challenges, ‘You can do this. You do hard things,’” says Pou.

According to Pou, who has faced plenty of hurdles in his career, “It’s in the challenging times that we grow.” And he wants his kids to know that they are people who face obstacles rather than run from them.

“In the moments when excuses and diversionary tactics and rigor tempt us to flee, we have the capacity to choose to keep going and persevere,” declares Pou. “For my kids, something that could seem inconsequential, like my 7-year-old finishing the swim race even though he’s decided to literally stop and give into fear during the middle of the lap, is training ground. Cheering him on to finish, not letting him quit, is really for him. To learn today, so he can do the same in the future.”

“And,” he adds, “we need to stop the comparing.”

That just might be the most difficult task, especially for high-achieving parents whose success is defined by being better than someone else in whatever field or activity is at play.

Comparison, whether to others around us or to expectations, like McKenna might have felt, is a joy killer.

One of the worst problems with comparing our child to someone else’s child is identity theft. This is never more evident than while sitting alongside other parents at a youth sporting event. “Not only are we tearing down our kids in the midst of comparing what they do or don’t have to those around them, we’re for all intents and purposes stealing their unique identity and purpose,” says Pou.

Like the Caseys, Pou points to a shift in focus. “We can encourage accomplishing much, each according to our purpose, rather than focus on the achievements themselves, the latter of which never leads to satisfaction.”

When we turn our attention to our kids’ unique gifts versus predetermined expectations, we affect their ability to thrive.

The secret to thriving 
in the shadow
“I still keep an eye on those cuticles,” admits Sarah Casey. “Not just my daughter’s but also our other kids. And I hope that we’re effectively communicating.”

It can be an interesting task with tweens/teens, but one that Sheinberg says is critical.

“My advice to parents is to stay connected,” urges the therapist.  “Talk to your kids and be the authority they need you to be. Kids listen more than they let on, and even if today they appear to be ignoring what you say, tomorrow it may take hold. Raising children is one of the most difficult jobs out there. Grow with your child, be interested in who they are, and help them to find their way.”

Published March 2015