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Back-to-School Series: How Hard Should You Push Your Kids to Succeed?

Back-to-School Series: How Hard Should You Push Your Kids to Succeed?

We all want our children to succeed in life. But what does that really mean? And how hard should parents push? Is it possible to encourage your kids without causing undue stress? As local kids head back to school, these questions may be on the minds of many parents who want to support their children’s academic success.

“I know parents have good intentions when they push their child to succeed,” said Dr. Seema Sehgal, a psychiatrist with Washington Township Medical Foundation. “But I think it’s important for parents to realize that stress is real, even for children, and sometimes it’s invisible. We think of children as having a carefree, easy life. But the truth is, they are under a lot of stress today. Stress may look different in a child than it does in an adult, but it is there.”

Though Dr. Sehgal doesn’t see children in her practice, she works with many young adults suffering from anxiety and depression who talk about the enormous stress they felt growing up. There is a lot of pressure on kids today, according to Dr. Sehgal. Many are overscheduled with extracurricular activities and academic stress is rampant, particularly in the Bay Area where education and achievement are a major focus.

“There is a sentiment that if you aren’t taking honors classes, you’re not smart enough,” she explained. “Some students constantly compare themselves to others to the point that they begin to internalize these differences and doubt themselves.” Young people have always compared themselves to their peers, but with social media, it’s much more intense. It leaves many kids and teens feeling like they just don’t measure up, which can cause a lot of stress.

Parents should be aware of the warning signs when it comes to stress.

“Children can become more irritable when they feel stressed,” Dr. Sehgal described. “They might become quieter and isolate themselves. They may have frequent stomachaches or suddenly refuse to go to school. Sudden bed-wetting, nail biting and waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, are all signs of stress.”

No Pressure

Dr. Sehgal’s advice to parents is to become aware of their role in adding to the pressure their children already feel and see them as the unique individuals they are. Academic achievement is only one measure of success. Being a disappointment to their parents is already a potent stressor for most children. Being sensitive to this will relieve your child’s stress. “It’s our own fear that they won’t amount to anything if we don’t push them,” she added. “But parents need to be the calming voice in their children’s lives.”

Stress and anxiety are normal, Dr. Sehgal said. The problem comes when they are out of control. “We need to give our children tools for coping with stress,” she said. “That should be our focus rather than pushing them to succeed.”

It is important to make sure your kids eat a nutritious diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. Those are the baseline for good health, both physical and mental. “Teach your kids how to relax on the weekends; do fun activities as a family,” Dr. Sehgal said. “Let them spend time doing nothing. We keep kids on a busy schedule from a very young age. We interfere with their normal development by keeping them overscheduled. Try to allow them to have time just to be. Limit afterschool activities so they have plenty of time to do their homework.”

She also advises parents to restrict screen time and encourage face-to-face time with real friends. Have a cutoff time at night for phones and computers. Dr. Sehgal doesn’t have a specific age when it’s appropriate for kids to have smart phones or social media accounts because it depends on the child: some are ready before others. But parents should monitor social media accounts. “There is so much cyberbullying today, and that certainly causes additional stress,” Dr. Sehgal added.

Parents need to focus on really talking with their kids and understanding them, rather than lecturing them and telling them what to do. Dr. Sehgal noted that many foreign-born parents were raised in a different culture, which may result in their Americanized children seeming difficult to connect with.

“Many parents are disconnected from their kids today for a number of reasons,” she said. “Really communicating with your children is the absolute most important thing. Listen to them. Know their favorite music. Find out what they like to look at on social media. Spend time with your child. Get to know them as individuals. Be open to new experiences with them. Make sure they know you are in this together, that they can count on you for emotional support.”

For information about WTMF psychiatry and behavioral health services, see the Services page on If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, the 988 crisis lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.