We don’t put pressure on our daughter. We never said you must get good grades. We always emphasized that we love her for who she is not what she does.
Yet somehow she has internalized this perfectionism. I don’t know where she gets this harmful idea. She studies till all hours. I frequently go into her room at midnight only to find her asleep with the light on, an open textbook on her chest.
She’s a junior in high school. Where did all this stress and anxiety come from? When she does go out with friends, I don’t know that she even has all that much fun. She often comes home early on weekends so she can do more schoolwork.
I’m concerned for her health. No matter how well she does, she feels it’s not good enough. When she gets a 95 on a difficult exam, she complains that she should have scored 100. When she gets a perfect score, she says the test must have been easy. It feels like she has set up her expectations so that she can’t win.
And don’t even get me started about college admissions. She is convinced that she’ll never be admitted anywhere. Her school counselor tells me that her standardized test scores are well into the 90th percentile, that her coursework and grades are good, that her extracurricular activities are strong. But she doesn’t seem to take any satisfaction in her accomplishments. She seems to have this cloud of negative self-talk. Her self-esteem seems low and getting lower.
We don’t know what to do.
My heart goes out to these good folks. Honestly, I don’t know what to do either. I will make a few observations:
- Moms get blamed for everything. The 16-year-old described above is not the simple result of what mom did or didn’t do. Parents have influence over how their kids turn out, sure. But there are other circles of influence as well including neighborhood, school, community, country, and culture.
- The daughter’s behavior—studying all the time—affects mom, but isn’t about mom. Mom would like for her daughter to relax a little more, enjoy some non-structured family time. But there isn’t one thing or one combination of things that mom did or didn’t do that were the direct causal connection that 100 percent influenced the outcome.
- I would venture to guess that mom is highly educated, that mom’s neighbors are also highly educated, that if the neighbors aren’t highly educated, they are certainly highly successful. I take mom at her word, that she didn’t pressure her daughter to be a stressed-out study machine. But the daughter certainly sees the other big houses on her street and notices that the people who can afford to live in them are efficient and prosperous.
Note that “studying all the time” could be replaced with “smoking pot” or “taking benzodiazepines” or even “self-harming by cutting herself on the leg with a razor blade” without changing any of the other words in the above description.
If a 16-year-old-daughter were doing drugs or cutting, mom would still be criticized as being responsible. Again, I would argue that the daughter’s behavior affects mom but isn’t necessarily about mom. If the daughter’s obsessive behaviors were overwhelmingly harmful instead of only moderately damaging, mom could go to a Family’s Anonymous meeting. Mom could hold hands with other attendees and recite the Serenity Prayer. Mom could read from the placards, “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.”
Whereas if your daughter is only studying herself to unhappiness, there is no support group. Mom can’t even complain. Your daughter is taking four AP classes, getting great grades and you’re grumbling? No one will be sympathetic.
My insight this week may be of modest utility: if moderation is the best course, maybe mom could help her daughter understand that accomplishment is all well and good, but that not everyone with a PhD is content and that not everyone who works in a bakery is necessarily miserable. And that sobriety—staying away from over-studying or eschewing benzodiazepines—is the best path forward.