Dr. Hank Weisinger does not mince his words. Parental pressure. “It has unhealthy effects,” says the clinical psychologist, based in Norwalk, Connecticut. “The research is very consistent.”
Backed by more than 40 years in practice working with parents, children and families, and a broad portfolio of expertise in the fields of emotional intelligence and anger management where he has worked with major corporations and governments around the world, Dr. Weisinger, who is also a father of two and a speaker, calls the pressure exerted on children by their parents — the new global pandemic.
“Unhealthy parental pressure is infecting our youth with the host of mental illness issues, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, low self-esteem, anxiety disorders,” says Dr. Weisinger. “That is not just happening in America, it’s happening in China, Australia, the UK, Germany, Switzerland. These are all countries that have been doing studies on some aspect of parental pressure,” Dr. Weisinger told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk.
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Oh, my pleasure, happy to be here with you.
I wanted to start by saying obviously, the title of your book is just so attention grabbing, and certainly incredibly resonant for the world that we live in. Perhaps a natural starting point may well be to define pressure.
Well, there’s all different types of pressure. And I would say everybody listening, it’s a universal experience, experiences the feeling of pressure, when you are in a situation where the outcome is uncertain. And the result is dependent on your performance. So that could be giving a presentation, it could be taking a test, whether it’s a driver’s test, or a a college, college test. Now, parental pressure is defined as expectations that the child feels are impossible, or exceedingly difficult to accomplish. And the more important those expectations are to the child, which might be phrased, and I don’t want to let my parents down, the more pressure that child will experience. So while we all experience pressure, when we’re in a important situation, the outcome is important. The results are dependent on us. Parental pressure, again, is the child feeling. These expectations are impossible for me to me. And they’re really important.
It’s interesting, because you and your co author have gone so far as to call parental pressure of this kind, a global pandemic of its own. Why do you describe it that way?
Because there are based on studies that have been conducted all over the world on every continent.
It has unhealthy effects. The research is very consistent. That unhealthy parental pressure is infecting our youth with the host of mental illness issues, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, low self-esteem, anxiety disorders, I mean, that is not just happening in America is happening in China, Australia, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, these are all countries that have been doing studies on some aspect of parental pressure. And after a while, it becomes very predictable in terms of just knowing what the results of any study is going to be, as soon as I see the, you know, the phrase parental pressure.
So on that note, as somebody who’s been on the front lines, as a clinical psychologist for over 40 years, what concerns you most about this phenomenon and where it’s headed?
I would say what concerns me most is that, you know, let’s say that a kid is in college or high school, and he’s experiencing a lot of pressure. And all of a sudden he turns is a way of coping, substances or some other disorder. What concerns me most is that the child is quickly identified as the problem. The parent child relationship is an interaction both bring something to the table. So one of the things I want parents to think about is when they exert pressure, what are they bringing to the table? In other words, I’m saying what concerns me most is the parents not taking responsibility for how they put pressure on their child and son and good intentions. You know, every parent listening wants the best for their kids. And on a concrete level, parents many times inadvertently put pressure on their kids by saying things like, This test is really important. See, the more important you make something, the more pressure you experience is counterintuitive, but what the parent would be better off saying is it’s no big deal.
Because that will keep it in perspective for the kid and not increase that pressure. But parents when they say it’s important
Test, their intent is, I just want to remind you that this is important for you to, you know, really study and do your best and so on.
So for many parents listening, that is a huge mindset shift and, you know, a shift in their approach. So what do you suggest for them to roll that back or dial it down or again, shift and pivot the way that they’re approaching that pressure they have to.
And that’s a really a good point, because again, it gets to parents to look at themselves. That was the idea of the book, rather than just focusing on your kid. What can the parent do that can change unhealthy pressure to healthy pressure?
And one of the things that they can do is step back and look at what their own expectations are, are their expectations based on their own aspirations that they’re putting on the kid? Did the parents really want to be doctors, so now they want their son to be a doctor or their daughter to be a doctor? Did the parents really want to be Olympic athletes, so now they push their kids into a sport that the child may or may not have any interested? So I think when parents start to look at their own expectations, where do they come from? How are they formulated? Are they realistic, it would certainly be unrealistic for most parents to think that their kid is going to be the top student in every endeavor that they take, whether it’s on the athletic field, or whether it’s on, you know, on the stage or in a in a in a classroom. So stepping back, looking at yourself, why are you doing this in the first place in terms of exerting pressure? I want parents to think of how do they apply pressure? Do they guilt the kid, you know how much money we spent on giving you lessons to do this, and now you’re not even trying and so on? I mean, those are everyday comments that parents tend to make, and again, to paradoxes, they’re not doing it to hurt their child, they are doing it because they think it helps their child.
So on that note about expectations, if we were to sort of get even more granular about that point, why are expectations being set so high? In other words, what are the contributing factors to the expectations and then ultimately, to the pressure that’s being exerted?
I would say that the major reason is that parents tend to see not all parents, but what I like to call pressure parents, they see the world as a very competitive environment, a doggy dog world. That’s why it’s no longer keeping up with the Joneses, you got to be better than the Joneses. It’s not just going to a good school, it’s going to a better school than other people, because they think that will give their kid an edge. Think of the cheating scandal, the varsity blue scandal. I mean, that really exemplified that many parents are willing to do anything even violate the rules to get the best for their child. And I think a lot of that is because of the competitiveness. And as a result of the competitiveness, these parents are thinking that in order for my son or daughter to be the best, they have to be perfect. So now they develop a sense of perfectionism know that whatever the kid does, it could always be better. It is, quote, never good enough. And they make everything really important. This is the most important test of your life. How many times did I say that? This is the most important test in my life, I’ve probably said that at least 1000 times going through undergraduate and graduate school, I can’t even remember all those, quote, important, important tests. And then, and then because it’s competitive, and you have to be perfect. And there’s only a few opportunities. If there’s not enough to go around for everybody. You got to do it now. And that’s where the urgency starts to come in. Now, if you’re on the receiving end of that, that is a tough way to be living. Every single day. A Chinese student told me that the best part of his day was walking to school at home. He said now it’s the worst. It’s like walking under a dark cloud. Because all he is thinking about is how well he has to do in school.
That’s what is happening. And as I said, global pandemic it is worse in other in other countries.
We are going to talk a bit more about the global pandemic and its impact on parental pressure. But I do want to address the college scandal that you brought up. I wonder given what you do for a living and how long you’ve been doing this new sort of seeing the evolution on different levels. What if anything struck or even surprised you or didn’t surprise you about that college scandal, which, you know, basically started in the States but grabbed international headlines in a hurry?
Well, it didn’t surprise me in terms of what parents would do, you know, is there really any different than somebody writing a check out for millions of dollars to an endowment fund to get their kid into a particular school? That happens every every day? I think what was in that? We seem to accept that. But what was really surprising is the lying and lying to their own kids. And I will tell you, what I think that gets to the heart, too, is these parents did not trust their kids to succeed. They thought they had to give them a boost that they are not capable of doing it on their own. Think if one of your if you were a kid, and you found out your parents did that, how would that make you? How would that make you feel? And what it also told me is that the parents, much more than I thought are really self centered, rather than focusing on their kid, can any parent really rationally think that it’s beneficial to their son or daughter to get them into a school via cheating, having somebody take your test forging documents, so that tells me as a psychologist, these parents are thinking of themselves, I’m not paying $500,000 to somebody to get my son into Harvard, on paying that 500,000. So I can say that my son goes to Harvard. And that is one of the things I want parents to think about are their expectations about their own needs, or they truly about the child’s need. I spoke to a group of parents once on the subject of finding the best fit for college for your for your team. And what I wanted them to realize is that the best school they get into is not necessarily the right school. So one of the things that concerns me is that parents are not concerned with getting their, their kid into the right environment. They think of it as getting it into the best environment. So I can get my kid into a Yale or Harvard, but what for his school’s gonna be too hardcore. Why would any parent want their kid in a school where the demands of the school outmatch the resources that the child has, that’s what creates a sense of feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. And then the parents will say, well take a stress management class, or cat or counseling, that’s what concerns me is that many parents do not have the insight that they are contributing to the pressure that their son or daughter experiences.
I want to talk a little bit about the research that went into your book. And part of the research yielded, you know, eight different evidence based strategies. So let’s talk a bit about the background in terms of what you did, as it relates to the research into this book.
Okay, I started out with the premise. And the premise was that there were some kids who are very successful and have zero mental health issues,
at least not diagnosable once. There are other kids who may or may not be successful, but they have mental health issues.
A differentiating factor between those two groups we found was how the parents exert pressure around three different areas, how they communicate it, how they respond in terms of parental involvement, and also around the concept of acceptance in rejection, conditional acceptance versus unconditional acceptance. Then, we started reading articles, we started to see common themes that were repetitive in every study.
And, and then it became to the point where we quickly saw that if you are if you exhibit certain attributes, as a parent, for example, if you criticize if you when you criticize your your team child in a way that is instructional versus fluid binding, both kids do better if a parent is supportive, when a kid fails versus judgmental and rejecting and called, the child does better. So that’s how we sort of pieced together
Until we had our own theory of parental pressure that was incorporating studies in all these different types of academic journals that other researchers were using. And then our clinical research would be interviewing parents, interviewing students. And what we quickly saw was the clinical interviewing validated the bindings that we had seen. Or we could say that the bindings we bout predicted what we were going to bind in our clinical clinical interviews, we have different ways of how parents exert that pressure. And when it’s unhealthy pressure.
It’s very clear, you know, flow of binding, giving superficial praise, for example, using questions not to help the child articulate their interest, their feelings, but rather to interrogate given the fact once you get on the test, what did the teacher say? Who you talking to? That’s what we saw that that’s what serves the research. And then, you know, we have a chapter for parents on helping your kid perform under pressure. Again, both were all evidence-based strategies. For example, the parent who minimizes the importance of a situation rather than over exaggerates, it will help their child performed more effectively under pressure to the parent who preaches that you will have multiple opportunities versus this is a do or die situation, this is the biggest opportunity you’re ever going to get. Don’t blow the interview, versus the parent who says there’s going to be hundreds of interviews, those kids will do, do better. And these become lessons that the parent can start to build into their daily conversations with their child that over the long run, will create psychological capital, such as confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm. I like to call that the coat of armor, that my goal is for every parent to wake up and say, How can I build my child’s coat of armor competence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm.
That’s such a strong and powerful statement and weight to sort of, you know, encapsulate and remember it. And the examples that you provide, you know, just paints such a strong picture for parents who may be listening or watching this. So I wonder, do you have any other anecdotes or examples of, you know, students family, you have seen?
Let me give you a personal example, because one of the core points of the book that really involves everything about parental pressure, is the expectation that parents have,
that we call a creates a ranking mindset, where the child ends up always comparing themselves to other people. And as we all know, there’s always going to be somebody pretty or handsome or smarter, richer, more popular. So the idea here is instead of teaching your child to beat the other guy, to be competitive in that sense, is to focus on being the best person they can their personal best. For example, when my son was in fifth grade, he shows me a science project on tornadoes, and he did it all by himself on a big white piece of cardboard. And he says to me, all right, dad, would you if you were the teacher, what would you give me on this on this project? And I’m thinking to myself, ah, sweet, because my, when my daughter would say that, who was three years older than him? If I said a B, she’d say, How do I get to B? Plus, if I said, an A minus? How do I get an A? If I said, A, see how do I get a C plus always that attitude of how can I make it better? So I better you know, like, sister like, brother. So I walk around this project studying. I said, Well, Danny, I’ll be very honest with you. If I was your teacher, I’d have to give this a b minus. he pauses for a second. And he says, I can live with that. I never expected that. Now, three weeks later, dad, here’s my paper.
What would you give me in you know, I’m thinking you want to be honest. Now. I now know no matter what grade I say, he’s gonna say, I can live with that. And if I say, Well, I think you could do better. He’s going to say, well, you always say that, whatever I say It’s never good enough. So all I said to him was, well, Danny
Is this your best, because I only want to see it if it’s your best. If it’s not your best, don’t show it to me. And then I put them in the bind, only, you know, if it is your best See, and that is a way how you can use personal best to motivate. Because what he basically said was, no, I think I can do better. I said, Okay, show it to me When, when, when it’s your best. Now the irony is years later. So that was when he was maybe 14. Now he is 31. So he will send me something that he wrote to add it. And I will often say to him, Danny, this is good enough. And he will now say to me, I don’t want it to be good enough, I want it to be really good. So that’s how that played out. You know, 17 years, 17 years later, I will give I will give you another example. I had a patient 18 years old, and a student at UCLA. And he came to therapy because he wanted to tell his parents that he was gay. And his fear, of course, was rejection. So I did some work with him and got him ready. And then he told his parents he was gay in my office,
we had sort of predicted the reactions. But to make the long story short, his mother came down with migraine headaches.
Two days later, I referred her to a friend of mine. And he felt great. And that is an example of how the pressure was reduced when he could become assertive, and feel safe to express his feelings. If parents want to reduce the feelings of unhealthy parental pressure, I would recommend strongly that they make it safe where their child regardless of the age, to feel safe when they are articulating their thoughts and feelings, because most parents will say you shouldn’t feel that way. Or that’s a silly type of thought. But the kid does feel that way. So learning how to respond in the with a sense of empathy is very helpful. And I would recommend one concrete tip to parents that anytime your child doesn’t matter again, if they’re in second grade, I was left out of the soccer game, nobody chose me, or whether they are 16, I blew the test, instead of responding immediately to step back. And think of a time when you experienced something similar in then you will respond more effectively. This is an example of emotional and using your emotional intelligence because what you’re doing is you’re using your thoughts to help you identify particular feelings to you to understand somebody else’s feelings. My son came home again, another personal story from a 10th grade chemistry test. I said, Danny, how’d you do on the test? It’s all it was really bad. I saw questions that I didn’t even understand. And I was about to say I told you, you had a study, you tried to cram and so on. But what good does that do? Well, I said was, you know what? That’s a really scary feeling. And he said, yeah, that’s how I felt, because I thought of myself in ninth grade science when I didn’t know anything or recognize any of the questions and remembering that put me in tune with what he was experienced. And then later on that evening, we could talk about test strategies, you know, in the future, I want parents to remember you can’t change the past. This is the problem with criticism that we criticize a kid for what they did, rather than focus on what they’re doing, or they can do. So when parents criticize one of the things again, on a concrete basis is they want to say things like next time a next time you have a test, it might be that you might be better off by studying a few days in advance rather than the last minute. Next time there’s a ground ball hit to you just spend down and block it rather than the bother Who says I can’t believe you let that ball go through your legs. That doesn’t help.
There are going to be many parents who watch or listen to this interview and say to themselves, oh my goodness, I have done everything that Dr. Weisenger has said you should try to avoid, Don’t ever do it. What would you say to those parents about how to change that narrative for themselves and their children?
I would say first of all, if the parents are recognizing that I want to compliment them on having that awareness and also recognize saying that how they have been communicating dealing with their son or daughter via nonverbal messages might not have been the most effective way. And they realize they can do something about it because tomorrow is a is a new day. And I will tell as a way of making that shift, just to focus on one thing, and that and there are many things they can, but just choose one thing because you can’t do everything over overnight. And I’d say one of the things is to recognize that your conversations are better suited to your child’s when they become a dialogue, rather than a monologue. Most parents used to telling their kids what to do. If the kid responds, don’t argue with me. And they start to exploit the the hierarchy of the parent being above the the child I am the boss becomes the unspoken message, do what I say? I mean, how would you like if somebody said, Oh, it’s nine o’clock, you have to go to bed. If you’re not tired on that, just like little things like that. So when you ask for dialogue, and the way you do that, is by asking things like, Well, how do you feel about this? Or what do you think, or I’d like to hear more of your thoughts. And when your team starts speaking, the parents can use their nonverbal, yeah, because every time you shake your head, it’s encouraging them to self disclose, that parents should start to instead of just talking about the backs and superficial communication, they should start having an exchange that involves thinking and feeling. And I said, Remember I said you have to make it safe, because it’s routine to express his or her feelings to a parent is very risky. They might thinking they might be ridiculed, they might be afraid to, to do that for a number of reasons. So it’s very important for the parents to listen in a non evaluative way. That’s why you shouldn’t feel that way, is a ridiculous thing to say. Because the good does that feel that way. It makes more sense to validate their feelings, and then you can talk about that.
Just an incredible amount of nuggets of wisdom and all kinds of food for thought for parents. Dr. Hank Weisenger. Your book is called the unlikely art of parental pressure a positive approach to pushing your child to be their best self. Thank you so much for your time today.
Thanks. I just want parents again, I like I’m using this as my closing line is that when you make pressure, parental pressure work for you, as a sense of guidance, and encouragement and support in wisdom, then I can say that the force will be with you.
That’s what I want parents to remember.
Thank you so much, Dr. Weisenger.
Thank you for having me.
Dr. Weisinger is the co-author of a book released in July 2021 that delves head-long into this topic — through the lens of research studies, anecdotal evidence and empirical data. The book, which he co-authored with fellow psychologist and educator, Dr. Chris Thurberg, is called, ‘The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure: A Positive Approach to Pushing Your Child to Be Their Best Self’.
“What concerns me most is that the child is quickly identified as the problem,” says Dr. Weisinger. “The parent-child relationship is an interaction [where] both bring something to the table. So one of the things I want parents to think about is when they exert pressure, what are they bringing to the table?”
Dr. Weisinger says how parents present their expectations of their kids when it comes to performance or results is a key factor in changing the narrative from unhealthy to healthy pressure.
He points to the college admissions scandal of 2019 — which originated in the United States and dominated international headlines for weeks — as a key reference point for the growing presence of unhealthy pressure that can be exerted by parents — knowingly or not — on their kids.
“These parents did not trust their kids to succeed,” he says, referring to the college admissions scandal, in which several people were arrested, charged and served jail time. “They thought they had to give them a boost that they are not capable of doing it on their own. Think if one of your if you were a kid, and you found out your parents did that, how would that make you feel?”
During his interview with Where Parents Talk also discussed:
- Healthy versus unhealthy pressure
- The role of empathy
- 8 Evidence-based strategies to support positive pressure
- Parent-centered vs Child-centered
- Expectations versus aspirations
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