Be better, not best: Why teenagers should be trained to develop a growth mindset

  • Family
  • Friday, 24 May 2024

As adolescents face the challenges of growing up, we can prepare them to be high achievers rather than perfectionists. — Dreamstime/TNS

EVERY parent wants their child to be successful in life. But young people sometimes set excessively high standards for themselves. If something they do isn’t flawless, they may become overly self-critical. Their pursuit of perfection can become unhealthy and actually interfere with what they want to accomplish.

As adolescents face the challenges of growing up, we can prepare them to be high achievers rather than perfectionists.

You can help your child or teen avoid or overcome the negative effects of perfectionism.

First, help them develop a “growth mindset,” a concept studied extensively by Dr Carol Dweck and colleagues.

Research shows how praise and criticism can lead to a “fixed mindset,” rather than a healthier “growth mindset.” For example, children praised for being smart are more likely to grow to fear being seen as anything else, while those noticed for effort develop a passion for growth.

Young people with a growth mindset believe their intelligence can be developed with effort. When they don’t do something as well as they hoped, they don’t see themselves as failures, but as learners.

In contrast, people with a fixed mindset (including perfectionists) may believe people are either smart or not, and that failure proves you’re not. They may even believe that having to work hard at something suggests a lack of natural intelligence.

People with a growth mindset feel successful when they can do something they couldn’t do before, whereas those with fixed mindsets feel smart when they avoid errors.

To help your child build a growth mindset, praise the effort, rather than the product. For example, instead of saying, “I just expect you to do your best,” say something like:

“All I expect is for you to put in a good effort. I care less about your grades and more about the fact that you are learning,” or

“Some things come easily to me, and with even a little effort, I will always do well. In other subjects, I might work really hard and still not do as well as I wish I could. But all I want from you is to stretch yourself and learn.”

Questions to ask

You can ask your teen questions like:

“Do you think you spent a reasonable amount of time working on the projects (or studying for the test)?”

“Do you feel you learned what you needed to?” or

“Is there something you wish you did differently that you can change the next time?”

This can help teens learn from their own imperfect experiences without internalising negativity. Then, they can make meaningful changes to improve the process (and possibly outcome) in the future.

Help your child work toward the balance in managing the tasks of daily life. Time and energy are limited resources. Extra time spent on a project may mean giving up needed sleep, exercise or time connecting with friends.

Extracurricular activities can enrich learning, but children also need self-driven play and down time to discover their passions and skills. When teens feel overwhelmed, they can’t focus on anything or learn where they need to excel.

Don’t view the need to cut back on extra activities as “quitting,” but instead as “pruning.” When they can prune away what no longer interests them, their strongest interests and greatest talents will flourish.

Use the best antidote to an unhealthy sense of perfectionism: unconditional acceptance. The most essential ingredient in raising resilient children and teens is the connections you form when you love or accept your children unconditionally and hold them to high but reasonable expectations. High expectations should not focus on grades or performance, but rather effort, integrity, generosity, empathy and other core values.

Model humility and self-respect. You can also model self-acceptance by presenting a “human” face to your children. You teach them humility and self-respect when they see you admit and correct a mistake or failing.

On the other hand, beating yourself up for less than perfect achievement or talent sets kids up to accept nothing less from themselves. Acknowledge your own limitations while celebrating your strengths, and your children likely will do the same.

Whether the highest scoring athlete, the top-grossing recording artiste or the most beautiful social media influencer, celebrities receive attention at the top of their game.

Young people receive the message that recognition requires perfection. You can help counteract that message by clarifying and communicating your views of success.

Here are some you can consider: happiness, as well as contentment; commitment to hard work, determination and perseverance; resilience; generosity; compassion and empathy; desire to contribute; capacity to build and maintain meaningful relationships; being able to collaborate and work well with others; respect for diversity; creativity and innovative potential; capacity to accept and learn from constructive criticism; and being accountable for your actions and making amends when needed.

Point out the real heroes all around us – those who choose to teach and heal, as well as those who choose to protect us and serve our communities and nation. Point out acts of kindness they witness among neighbours, friends and family.

When children see realistic heroes and hear positive messages about the actions of real, accessible people, they learn a broader definition of success within which they, too, can feel valued.

Teens notice when parents are stressed and may not want to add to your worries with their concerns. Children and teens whose parents experience trauma, illness or divorce/separation, for example, may try to be “perfect” children.

They may keep their own anxieties and struggles as tightly held secrets by always showing you their best face. Confiding in them about being overwhelmed or adult problems can make this worse.

Assure your teen that although you might be concerned, your greatest pleasure and most important job is to be there for them as their parent. You may say something like, “I know you want to protect me from more worries, and I appreciate how much you care about me. But the one thing I want to do right now more than anything is to be your parent. Please let me do that. I want to always be there for you.” – Dr Kenneth R Ginsburg/ American Academy of Pediatrics/ Tribune News Service

Dr Kenneth R Ginsburg is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Adolescence and author of the AAP books Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings and Congrats – You’re Having a Teen!: Strengthen Your Family and Raise a Good Person. Dr Ginsburg is a paediatrician specialising in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Co-Founder and Director of Programs at the Center for Parent and Teen Communications.

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