I am writing because our family is experiencing a great deal of tension as our younger son waits to hear about college acceptances.
I am writing because our family is experiencing a great deal of tension as our younger son waits to hear about college acceptances. Our son has had his heart on going to an Ivy League school since he was in middle school. Lately, he has been biting his nails, not sleeping well, and is irritable with everyone. I have similar symptoms, especially sleeplessness. Adding to this stress is the fact that our older son has had many emotional and academic difficulties over the years. He had to drop out of college and is now working at a low-paying job.
While my husband and I have tried not to pressure our younger son to achieve, he has also pushed himself to achieve high grades. Having fun does not seem to be a priority for him. He’s part of a group that focuses on academics to the exclusion of a social life. He has always been a very good boy, working hard to please us. I am afraid that he will be disappointed if he does not get into an Ivy League school. Perhaps my husband and I will be as well. We think that getting him into a prestigious college will help us be redeemed as a family. I don’t like feeling this way.
I fear that we are doing something wrong, but I don’t know how to fix it. Do you have any suggestions?
— Pressuring Parent
Dear Pressuring Parent,
The good news is that you are aware that you bear some responsibility for what your son is feeling now. However, you are not fully responsible for his behavior.
There are many reasons that one’s child puts pressure on him or herself to achieve. Certainly your family situation has affected your younger son. Whenever one child in a family struggles, his siblings struggle as well. Often that struggle is not recognized or openly acknowledged by either the children or the parents, but no doubt, it is present.
Your younger son surely wants to please you. He sees the pain that your family has experienced because of his brother’s school failures. In addition, his peer group tries to outdo one another. The competition to succeed in high school and get into a top college has been increasing over the years, causing students and their families to feel more anxiety about their futures than others have experienced in the past. Our difficult economy and bad job market further add to these fears about success. This combination causes many high-achieving children and their parents to worry about the future and try to manage their anxiety by focusing on the one thing they hope to control: getting their child into a prestigious college. The hope is that this will increase the chance for a successful career and helps to sooth the family’s anxiety.
Paradoxically, this intense focus on college acceptance can lead to more anxiety since the hoped-for outcome adds so much pressure to the family dynamics.
By becoming aware of this, you can work with your son to have a more balanced view of his college acceptance. Explain that he has done well, that you and your husband are proud of him no matter what university he goes to, and if the outcome is not what he has hoped for, there are many other fine opportunities for his success. Point out that many extremely successful people in this world not only did not attend a prestigious college, but also did not receive a degree from a college.
One’s university does not guarantee success. Success is measured in many different ways. As a parent you need to accept this and be sure that both of your sons understand this as well. If your emphasis is only on financial success, you are markedly limiting what a fulfilled life is.
Perhaps your family needs to address other values to help your children focus more on life satisfaction rather than achievements. You need to have this conversation with each of your sons. Explain how deeply you and your husband love them, and that their academic or work success has no bearing on your love for them. Your older one is watching to see what his younger brother is accomplishing and surely has his own distress about his struggles. Try to remember and teach them that life is a marathon, not a sprint.
In addition, I recommend that you tell your younger son that you are aware that he has felt pressure to make up for his brother’s difficulties. Assure him that he is a wonderful son and that he has no responsibility to fix any family problem. This is also an opportunity for you to talk with your older son and assure him that he will find fulfillment as well. Clarify that you do not measure love by achievements. This conversation will likely relieve and comfort him.
Now you and your husband have to do some work on yourselves. As you become more comfortable with this college admission struggle – which will soon be over – you can bring more leadership and clarity to the situation and help both sons be at greater peace with whatever the outcome.