Wed, August 9, 2023

Making the Positive Push: How to Transform Harmful Pressure into Healthy Pressure

Loving, well-intentioned parents from all over the world are inadvertently applying unhealthy pressure—the kind that undermines young people’s creativity, motivation, emotional well-being, social development, and intellectual curiosity. Simply put, the push to perform is backfiring. That is the central paradox of parental pressure. Slowly and silently, harmful pressure on young people has become a crisis. And the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic only made things worse. As kids emerged from quarantine, many felt even more unhealthy pressure to catch up, which makes your collaborative role as a primary caregiver more important than ever.

Parents as Champions

Notice that I said, “loving, well-intentioned parents.” Rare are the parents who intentionally harm or hold back their child, yet the application of unhealthy pressure appears increasingly common. Of course, not all parents slide into this trap, but all caregivers can provide a palliative counterpoint—a countercultural force that offsets the harmful pressure many young people experience. Notice, too, that I said, “your collaborative role,” not “your dominant role.” Most parents work incredibly hard—without pay and with little thanks—to provide for their children.

Teachers, coaches, tutors, clergy, summer camp staff, and other youth leaders work hard, too, but do not vie with parents for dominance, nor do they fight to take their place. However, those other caregivers do have a penchant for vilifying parents. In my roles as clinical psychologist and professional educator, I avoid that tendency and remind surrogate caregivers that parents do great things for kids, so we should respect their dedication and good intentions by collaborating, not criticizing. My intention is not to bash anyone who is doing the best they can for a child. Instead, I’m working to strengthen parent-child relationships and enhance the complementary roles that other trusted adults can play in positive youth development.

All parents make personal choices about what is best for their children. From selecting toys geared toward boosting infant IQ to deciding what smartphone plan is most likely to promote parent-child bonding, moms and dads can easily become obsessed with enhancing their child’s development. Fascinating social, ethnic, cultural, educational, political, and spiritual influences are also at play. Not surprisingly, hundreds of books and academic journal articles prescribe what parenting style is best for children—many of which end up saying pretty much the same thing: Parents are applying too much pressure.

Now why would parents do more and more of something that hurts their child’s performance and mental health? Many anthropologists (as well as many psychologists, like me) see parents as “rational actors who use their shared knowledge of the world to adapt and make complex decisions in their local community” and who “develop goals and care strategies (i.e., cultural models) that maximize the likelihood that children will attain culturally valued skills and characteristics.”

It turns out that applying pressure is a parental instinct. However, focusing on how much pressure is the right amount is the wrong approach. Instead, the focus should be on how the pressure is applied.

Books and blogs often take the following approach to solving whatever child-rearing problems parents perceive: “Your kid has problems? Then teach them to cope with their feelings and change their behaviors.” A far less authoritarian approach is to say: “Many of kids’ problems are relational, which means that both kids and parents can contribute to the solution.”

The Effects of Harmful Pressure

In 2019, the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues exposed 33 parents who had paid more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, head of The Edge College & Career Network. Singer had used some of the millions to falsely inflate students’ standardized test scores, fabricate some of their achievements, and bribe college officials to arrange to have the children of the 33 co-conspirators admitted to top colleges and universities in the United States. Few parents go to such lengths, but the fact that some do attests to the pressure many parents, in many parts of the world, feel today. This pressure—to give their children an advantage in an increasingly competitive and populated world—has truly become the social-emotional pandemic of our time.

The American Psychological Association (APA)’s news magazine, The Monitor, recently featured an article on the increased student self-referrals to college and university health centers for anxiety and depression. The story summarized research that validated what clinicians in secondary and post-secondary schools have been saying for decades: Student mental health is getting worse at alarming rates.

In an earlier press release, the APA summarized findings from a Harris Poll survey of 1,018 adolescents and 1,950 adults in the U.S. The two groups were roughly equivalent in what they perceived to be a healthy level of stress: 3.9 out of 10 for teens and 3.6 out of 10 for adults. However, the teens’ self-reported stress levels during the school year—5.8 out of 10—far exceeded what they perceived to be healthy levels. During the summer, levels were lower—4.6 out of 10—but still unhealthy. According to the study, “Many teens also report feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) because of stress. More than one-third of teens report fatigue or feeling tired (36 percent) and nearly one-quarter of teens (23 percent) report skipping a meal due to stress.” Follow-up studies in the APA’s Stress in America series have found that political discord, racial injustice, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all increased self-reported levels of stress.

Stress has many sources and can take many forms, but the evidence suggests that none matches the emotional intensity of parental pressure. A study from Penn State University showed that of 421 students (227 females and 194 males), 19.4 percent had contemplated suicide because of the enormous pressure from their parents to produce exceptional grades. Ironically, research conducted by the Pew Research Center suggested that the majority of American adults (56 percent) felt parents put too little pressure on students. Just 15 percent felt that parents put too much pressure on students. However, adults in China, India, and Japan reported the inverse perceptions: 63 percent, 61 percent, and 59 percent of adults surveyed in those countries felt that parents put too much pressure on students. Clearly, more cross-cultural research is needed before we fully understand these differences, as well as the gap between kids’ and parents’ perceptions of pressure.

Healthy and Harmful Pressure

So, what exactly are the differences between harmful and healthy pressure? And what are some things you can do to provide healthy pressure? Perhaps exposing young people to an alternate view of success can serve as a partial antidote to any harmful pressure they experience from other sources.

Healthy pressure is created when adults:

  • Uphold high standards
  • Provide reliable warmth
  • Set a good example
  • Offer encouragement
  • Grant freedoms to take healthy risks
  • Coax lessons from mistakes

If this list sounds familiar to you, it’s because these are pillars of positive youth development. Whether familiar or unfamiliar, this list should become the centerpiece of your parenting.

By contrast, harmful pressure is created when adults:

  • Define success narrowly
  • Offer unrealistically high standards
  • Make their love conditional on children’s achievement
  • Rarely see failure as an opportunity to learn
  • Frame the stakes of specific outcomes as do-or-die

This brand of pressure becomes an interpersonal toxin that diminishes young people’s performance, destabilizes their emotions, and damages the parent-child relationship.

Meet Sam

Sam is an 11-year-old who does gymnastics. Sam’s parents frequently talk about upcoming regional competitions. They emphasize how top placement in regionals will earn Sam a spot in nationals, how winning nationals in Sam’s age group would include a scholarship to gymnastics camp, how continuing to win events will lead to recruitment by a Division-1 university, and how a diploma from a top school is the key to a high-paying job. Once, when Sam asked, “What if I don’t make it to nationals?” Sam’s parents replied, “We’ve all invested too much in your gymnastics career for you not to end up on the podium.”

Whatever partial truths might be woven through the parents’ string of statements, they bear two hallmarks of harmful pressure: 1) Success is narrowly defined; and 2) Outcomes are framed as high-stakes, do-or-die scenarios. Sam’s parents may believe that their approach is motivating, but it’s actually increasing Sam’s anxiety and the chances of Sam’s choking during competition. Harmful pressure of this sort also increases the likelihood of Sam’s feeling that life is pretty much over if other gymnasts earn higher scores.

Pat is also an 11-year-old who does gymnastics, but Pat’s parents take a different approach, emphasizing effort over outcome and encouraging Pat to strive for a personal best over being the best. Like Sam’s parents, Pat’s parents talk about regional and national competitions, but they frame the events as opportunities, rather than rarified and unique keys to a kind of singular success, such as earning a six-figure salary. When Pat underperforms—in practice or competition—they don’t punish him with silence or by impugning his character. Instead, they initiate conversations with Pat about what the experience was like, and they show genuine interest in Pat’s perceptions of how practice, teamwork, mindset, and other variables contributed to the outcome. When the sting of disappointment has faded a bit, Pat’s parents also invite Pat to strategize for the next competition, while praising Pat’s diligence, learning, steady (albeit uneven) improvement, positive attitude, and team leadership. Pat feels parental pressure of a healthy sort. Unlike Sam, Pat never feels as if parental love or self-worth are on the line.

Healthy Pressure in Action

It may seem as if Sam’s parents and Pat’s parents have little in common, but one commonality is obvious: Both sets of parents love their child. Both sets of parents are driven by an instinct to nurture their child on the path to success. Yet there is a lot we don’t know about these two kids’ parents. And that’s fine. All the trusted adults in Sam’s and Pat’s orbits can contribute to their healthy development by pushing them in positive ways. Here are five, drawn from the pages of The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure.

1. Praise effort rather than outcome. Whether it’s a field sport, swimming lesson, or the fact that your child remembered that small thing you asked them to do on the way home from school, name the behavior you like and offer some heartfelt praise. Feeling intrinsic pressure to always (OK, almost always) try one’s best is associated with far better performance and longer commitment to the activity than extrinsic pressure from parents, coaches, or teachers.

2. Always congratulate the opposing team or player(s) at the end of a game, meet, or match. This puts sportsmanship above winning and communicates a healthy message to all participants about the true value of competition. Discourage gloating, booing, and externalizing blame, such as yelling at referees. (Set a sterling example by not doing any of this yourself, no matter how other parents are behaving.) Regardless of the outcome, everyone involved should feel grateful for the opportunity to play. COVID-19 has certainly shown many people which interactive activities they took for granted. Expressing that gratitude shouldn’t be a big ask after a lengthy quarantine and a paucity of essential complements to the traditional classroom, such as summer camp.

3. Name character strengths that appeal to you about other individuals—be they other kids, fellow parents, world leaders, or celebrities. Too often, money, fame, followers, and other quantifiable variables are used to indicate a person’s “net worth.” Instead, point out what you like about other people’s unselfishness, creativity, sense of humor, leadership, integrity, and so forth. You don’t need to lecture your child about materialism or other vices; just let them hear you say what you truly find virtuous in others.

4. When your child brags about wins, achievements, and superlatives, give them credit and then steer the conversation toward their experience and what it took for them to perform so well. Get your child to talk about how they coped with the various emotions they felt along the way, whom they counted on for support, and why they chose that particular activity. Ask what new goals they have set for themselves and how they plan to achieve those goals.

5. When your child is excessively self-critical, make a mental note of what triggered their negative self-talk. There’s a good chance they are repeating something you, a sibling, a teacher, a coach, or some other influential person has told them. (Sometimes, this negative self-talk is delivered insidiously and nonspecifically over social media.) Whatever the source, focus on describing your child’s feelings. Provide some genuine empathy, such as, “You sound really down on yourself,” and wait a minute for the intensity of their loathing to subside. (At all costs, resist the temptation to jump in with a tidy solution. I promise you: Your child is not ready to problem-solve in a moment of self-depreciation.) Then, in a slightly calmer moment, express your concern about how they talk to themselves about losses, failures, and times when things don’t work out quite as expected. Ask what might be true and what might be exaggerated in their self-talk. Ask whether they are seeing the outcome and themselves in stark, extreme, or black-and-white terms. Let those open-ended questions marinate for a while and listen—without contradicting—to your child’s description of their inner experience. Only when they feel understood will they be ready to consider whether there’s a more balanced, accurate way to judge their own performance.

Ultimately, your goal regarding pressure should be to plant daily seeds in your child’s head that they have inherent worth, regardless of their GPA, socioeconomic status, identity, or ranking. Cheer their efforts, not their outcomes, and take special note of improvements they make. The emphasis you put on how they treat others, rather than how they dominate others, will have profoundly positive effects on their mental health and resilience long into adulthood.

Works Cited

“American Psychological Association Survey Shows Teen Stress Rivals That of Adults.” 2014, Accessed 19 Nov. 2019.

“College Admissions Bribery Scheme Affidavit.” The Washington Post, WP Company,

Novotney, Amy. “Students under Pressure.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Sept. 2014,

“Parental Pressures a Major Factor for Female Students Considering Suicide.” Penn State University, Penn State News, 14 Mar. 2003,

Whiting, Beatrice, et al. Children of Six Cultures: A Psycho-Cultural Analysis. Harvard University Press, 1975.

Wike, Richard, and Juliana Menasce Horowitz. “Parental Pressure on Students.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, Pew Research Center, 24 Aug. 2006,

Yamamoto, Yoko, and Susan D. Holloway. “Parental Expectations and Children’s Academic Performance in Sociocultural Context.” Educational Psychology Review, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010, pp. 189–214.,


Thurber, Chris, and Hendrie Weisinger. The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure: A Positive Approach to Pushing Your Child to Be Their Best Self. Hachette Book Group, 2021.

Chris Thurber, Ph.D. is Associate Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school for students in 9th through 12th grades in Exeter, New Hampshire. Learn more at and follow Phillips Exeter Academy on Twitter @PhillipsExeter.

Chris Thurber is also a co-founder of and a co-author of The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure: A Positive Approach to Pushing Your Child to Be Their Best Self. Learn more about him at

This article first appeared in the 2023 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of the Review free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.

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