Recently I’ve had several meetings with parents of high schoolers. Like most parents of kids this age, they are consumed with concerns about their child’s achievement: How does my kid really measure up? Will he get into a good college? Will the money needed for that education be worth it in the long run? How much more do I need to be doing to be sure that my kid is the best that she can be?
These same parents say, often without seeing any conflict, “I just want my kid to be happy.”
One of the unpleasant accompaniments of this sort of angst is social comparison. Social comparison occurs when we compare our own characteristics to those of others. We can compare up, down, or laterally. Which of those we choose can depend on our motives for the comparison and also impact the results. People may have a typical direction of social comparison that is a preferred way of collecting social evidence about whether or not they measure up. At its worst, social comparison can lead to:
- negative emotions such as sadness, anger, or disgust
- overtaxing and overscheduling kids in an effort to develop them into value-added college applicants
- burning out students and therefore impeding their progress
- teaching unfortunate messages about the expendability of others on one’s way to the top
- preventing much-needed friendships among competing peer parents
- undermining the efforts of teachers to be effective teaching kids whose parents consider achievement their child’s right
So what happens when parents compare their children with other children? Sometimes, it’s good, generating relief and positive information that progress is being made. For example, when attending a school concert, art show or athletic event, parents compare their student to others and are often surprised and proud of what their progeny can produce.
But if you find yourself challenged to see the good in your teenager, you can choose parenting behaviors that will help.
1) Take the long view. Many high-risk children display resilience and develop into normal, happy adults despite expectations to the contrary. By the time they reached middle age (the age most parents of high school students are themselves!) the majority of such “troubled” teenagers in a 40-year study were in stable marriages and jobs, were satisfied with their relationships with their spouses and children, and were responsible citizens in their community.
2) Be honest with yourself. Were you always a perfectly behaved and motivated student? The bumps along your way have contributed to who you are. Ask, “So what’s good about that?”
3) Learn what engages your child. If it is “screens” alone, provide time after homework to use them. A parent I know has a see-through over-door shoe holder where all personal electronics are dropped off until work is completed. (Adults, too, so model the behavior you want–No Blackberries at dinner.) An interest might be a sport, an instrument or a subject area that they love. But maybe it is social contact, humor, drama, earning and spending money, the great outdoors or novel problem-solving. Kids will usually let you know.
4) Other people matter—both adults and kids. In a study that followed a cohort of children for over 40 years, Emmy Werner and colleagues identified a number of protective factors which may have influenced these children’s resilience. These included a close relationship with a caring adult other than parents and involvement in an organized, supervised youth group such as at a community center. (For more on Resilience, see my article Resilience as a Life Skill).
5) Expect high schoolers to do their homework. Various homework research of U.S. 9th to 12th graders over 60 years shows percentile gains of between 10 to 30 points on standardized tests when students consistently do their work. Most teachers give credit for homework, too. Not doing homework can mean the difference between passing and failing.
6) Get help if you can’t be the one to do it. Know when you are winning the battle but losing the war. Most teachers offer after school extra help and schools have students who offer community service hours in the form of free tutoring. If those are not enough, your child might need to be tested to rule out something more serious than lack of engagement. Check with the student services department or your student’s guidance counselor. If they just say more effort is needed, you may need an outside expert who can identify the trees in your forest.
7) Network: You’re all in this together. Here’s where you ask around in your parent network for help: Do they have insider info about teachers who are a good fit for challenging kids? Do they have a tutor who is magic with students? Even if you think you cannot afford the person, call anyway. You might get a referral or other helpful information for the time it takes to call.
8) If you are feeling burned out, you need a break. But don’t look at your neighbor packing for another weekend at the beach and feel sorry for yourself. A study of physicians found that even highly competent people who love a challenge burn out, and it is contagious. It is a negative emotional state, so instead, you may need to dig into the piggy bank of well-being or find small but effective ways that you can make deposits into it. (As an example, I think I spent only three hours this summer doing nothing. I have a photo of that and will savor it when I need a break but can’t take one.)
9) Coparent. Don’t go it alone. Whether you and the student’s other parent live together or not, take turns, and be sure that you are agreeing on the important things you value in bringing up your child. Kids work that seam between parents with great and effective expertise, so don’t get caught blaming each other for a child who is a challenge. (If you are a single parent, see especially numbers 4 and 6, above.) Coparenting difficulties can result in undesirable outcomes such as behavior problems, and less-developed school abilities, including academic and peer skills. (For more on this see my article in the references section.)
10) Got more than one? Resist the temptation to compare your kids to each other. Your kids are already doing this themselves! Help your kids to get along and value each other by not holding up one or the other as a paragon. Why can’t they be more like the other one? Because they are themselves. Recognize what’s good about that.
Bakker, Schaufeli, Sixma & Bosneld. (2001). Burnout contagion among general practitioners. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 20 (1), 82-98.
Dijkistra, P., Gibbons, F. X., Buunk, A. P. (2010) Social comparison theory. Chapter 11 in Maddux, J. E. & Tangney, J. P. (2010). Social Psychological Foundations of Clinical Psychology. New York: Guilford.
Fisher, S. W. (2010) Couples and coparents: Research and intervention inform social policy. PsycCRITIQUES, 2010 Vol 55(14).
Gilbert, Cheung, Grantfield & Irons, (2003). Recall of threat and submissiveness in childhood: Development of a new scale and its relationship with depression, social comparison and shame. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 10(2), 108-115.
Schulz, M.S., Kline Pruett, M., Kerig, P.K., & Parke, R.D.,Eds. (2010). Strengthening Couple Relationships for Optimal Child Development: Lessons from Research and Intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Werner, E.E. & Smith, R.S. (2001). Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Group of teenagers courtesy of Neal Jennings
Ian (teen and tree) courtesy of Patrick Emerson
T.F. South Brass courtesy of Erin! Nekervis
Eiffel Tower Scope courtesy of Adrian Boliston
Read about it later (homework) courtesy of Alena Navarro-Whyte
Savoring Doing Nothing courtesy of Sherri Fisher